We gave a new twist to a writing exercise at Art Camp in the Sierra. It grew out of a discussion the month before at Wilbur Hot Springs, in the seminar “Writing and Powerful Experience.” The question of what is powerful circled around core issues as the answer, around what’s at the center of one’s personal journey. Facing solitude? Touching some vast creative energy? The sorrow of heart’s desire? An ocean of truth all around us? Sex or love bonding?
Each person , for the first part of the exercise, picked a word, said it aloud, and we wrote it down. An intimate workshop of seven writers, we had seven words. Part two, we each wrote seven sentences, each sentence using one of the words. In our chairs next to Spanish Creek outside Quincy, over our heads the Jeffrey pines swaying in the sunlight, we might have written the purest lyricism.
So far, a familiar exercise. Sharon Doubiago has used this a number of times, and you could probably find it in a variety of writing texts. Part three was to write something, a story, poem, essay, or play, with one of the sentences as the opening.
We are trained to write the best piece we can, so automatically we look for material and style that gains the most approval. But our twist was to find the sentence that’s at the core of our journey. Or one that points to the core. The sentence we chose could be the first sentence of our piece, or the last sentence, or its content could be, or could suggest, our central issue.
Powerful experiences can be all light of course, but I suspect there’s generally another sense, of darkness or difficulty or frustration or foreboding, that is key. By making a core issue our subject, we turned the exercise 180 degrees. We reversed its direction. We aimed for darkness, chaos, trouble, flames, the unknown.
I’ve watched this emphasis produce marvelous pieces, many times, over the years I’ve been leading groups. The writers headed off for lunch, the forest, swimming, camp events, solitude in their tents, and at some point the pieces were written.
It’s not at issue whether we’ll hear good writing the next day, when we share our work. We should rather worry whether we’ll start a forest fire.