my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.

weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…

State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

IWCA recap

I just got back from the International Writing Centers Association conference in Denver.  Besides a gorgeous view of the Rockies, some Mellow Mushroom pizza, and a lot of dedicated time for grading in a quiet, cushy hotel room, I got a whole slew practical strategies and provocative topics of consideration that I can apply to my own institutional context.  This post, in which I highlight a few of those strategies and provocations, is clearly pitched toward my writing center colleagues, but you might find something interesting even if if you’re not entirely sure what a writing center is.

  • I went to a session on dissertation boot camps, a type of event in which doctoral students try to knock out as much writing as they possibly can while in a supportive environment (support = writing consultants/coaches, coffee, and food).  I’ve been hearing and reading about dissertation boot camps for several years now, but this time was different, because I’m now on my way to joining the ranks of the cool kids who have actually hosted them.  This morning I tossed the idea to our very proactive on-staff Ed.D. dissertation consultant, and as of this afternoon we’ve taken the first steps toward scheduling a weekend dissertation-writing event (I’m not sure how I feel about the term “boot camp”) for next spring.
  • I went to several sessions about writing center space, and in one of them, we were all asked to draw a picture of our current space and one of our ideal space.  Although I half-jokingly told a fellow participant that the session had sent me back to feeling depressed about our space–which I had been starting to make peace with–the session actually forced me to think about what we can do with our space, other than whining about it.
  • The last two sessions I went to got me thinking about the “personality” of our writing center–the image it projects to people who walk through the door or encounter our people outside of the actual physical space.  In one session, a director presented the results of an “inclusivity audit” she had performed by asking faculty members from other departments to visit the center and comment on the ways in which it made them feel welcomed, excluded, etc.  One faculty member said that the center appeared too “English-y” (e.g., there were inside-jokey posters about literature and grammar; there were too many books as part of the decor).  My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and say, “Of course there are books in a writing center!,” but if we profess to serve writers from all disciplines, then we may be sending a conflicting message if we project an image of welcoming only one discipline.
  • In the next session I went to, there was a presentation about whether writing center tutors identify themselves as writers.  This is another case in which we might want to say “of course,” but six of the 15 surveyed tutors did not see themselves as writers, which raises a whole lot of questions about how we define “being a writer” and whether the students who visit the writing center feel out of place because they don’t see themselves as writers, either.  Another presentation during this session was about Myers-Briggs types, which is the whole reason I went to the session (I’m a sucker for a good MBTI discussion).  The presenter’s argument was that Idealist types–NFs–are overrepresented in writing center work, while they make up only a small percentage of the U.S. population at large.  I spent most of this session trying to decide whether I actually am an Idealist (this is a perennial identity crisis for me–I usually say I’m ISFJ, but sometimes I skew toward INFJ), but I also thought, again, about the image our center may be projecting.  Are we saying that only dreamy, abstract, creative types (obviously, I’m overgeneralizing) are welcome to come discuss writing with us?  I suggested at the end of the session that all the presenters (there was one more excellent presentation I haven’t even discussed here) should do a mega-study about the writing center’s personality, but really, I want to do my own study on this topic here at my own institution.

Also, I want to get a Mellow Mushroom in Central Virginia.  Can someone start working on that?

 

Knowing your audience

I just wrote a contribution to the Faith Learning Integration Gallery on the website of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the university where I work.  I decided to share it with you, but since I don’t want to violate the principle my essay is about–understanding and showing consideration for one’s audience–I should let you know that the originally intended audience of this piece consisted of Christian faculty members at a Christian university.  If you’re not one of those people, please don’t feel alienated if you’re not included in the “we” that I refer to throughout the essay.  I think you’ll get at least something from it regardless of whether you’re part of that audience.

In both the Center for Writing and Languages and many of the writing courses offered here at Liberty, we place quite a bit of emphasis on the genres of writing.  Not only is academic writing just one correct way to write among many, but there are also many ways to do academic writing—a research paper, a lab report, a discussion board, a conference presentation.  Each genre has its own conventions, and each is appropriate to a particular context and audience.  Trying to apply the conventions of one genre in the wrong context—for example, following the rules of the literary analysis genre while writing a legal brief—can lead to confusion for both writer and audience.

As Christians charged with communicating a message, we need to remember a similar principle.  The gospel is a constant, unchanging message that can take on an infinite variety of forms.  As is the case when choosing a genre of academic writing, knowing one’s audience is crucial when communicating the gospel.  It’s even more crucial, actually, because although there may be some general principles for sharing the gospel with a particular demographic, such as children, God speaks, and uses us to speak, in a unique way to each person.

Speaking God’s words to real, non-abstract people takes emotional intelligence.  It takes empathy.  It takes the ability to analyze a situation and choose the right course of action.  As it turns out, it takes a lot of the same qualities that make a good writer.