Praise for the workshop
Half the people I know seem to haven take classes and workshops with San Francisco’s legendary writer and teacher Adair Lara. She is very savvy and smart and hugely entertaining. I admire her greatly.
Adair Lara was instrumental in putting me on a serious track as a writer. Without her course I would have continued to dabble, wallow, and otherwise produce unpublishable work (although I thought those stories were just dandy). She is a wonderful teacher and mentor.
I was so pumped and energized from our final writing class that I seduced my husband. Perhaps not a big deal for some people, but we are long married with stressful lives, a small house and nosey, hyper aware adolescent children …
Of course I have no idea if your class has this effect on all old married couples, but it works for us … and my husband is very encouraging of my writing!
Rachel Rosie Sorenson
During my first series with Adair, her response to one of my most heartfelt pieces was, “We don’t want to hear that. It’s just pitiful.” To the synopsis of my memoir, she ascribed the word “dull.” And when I really tried to write the truth — I mean the real depths of my truth — she said, “I don’t believe that.” So when she announced her next series, I was the first to sign up.
You know, when you’re asked, “what days in your life would you live over again?” Today’s class was that magical. Do you even know how wonderful you are? Your insights into all the pieces that we heard were fantastic. Every single thing you saw and then led us all into seeing…perfect. Each one nourished the story–you are a marvel. I was happy all the way home, thinking about how your class has enriched my life. Blessings upon your lovely red head!
Barbara Cressman I loved Adair’s memoir classes – so rich with content, conversation, advice and solid direction – however, she was always pressing me to try fiction, which I wasn’t at all sure about. Then when the idea for my novel, Maisie Dobbs, came to me, Adair read the first tentative fifteen or so pages and encouraged me to keep going.
Jacqueline Winspear, author of the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series
I have taken a fair number of classes in writing of various kinds over the years, and you gave the best class I have ever had.
Your class was a turning point for me. I left the room that day with the certainty that “I am a writer.” What a remarkable discovery! And so it continues…
You created a welcoming, encouraging atmosphere, nurturing all of us on our individual paths and at the same time giving us wonderful, insightful content drawn from your observations and experience. We benefited from those years of writing and editing! I have taken a fair number of classes in writing of various kinds over the years, and you gave the best class I have ever had.
My book has been out now for about 3 months.
I’m so indebted to you for making the book what it is now, including the title which I still love!
I attended your workshop at the writer’s conference last weekend and wanted to follow up and let you know how you helped me land a piece in O, the Oprah Magazine.
I’d taken your First Person Writing workshop in Corte Madera several years ago. You asked us to write five quirky (or odd) things about ourselves. I wrote a piece which I titled “My Big Fat Greek Hair” from that assignment. And one afternoon, in a moment of bravado and having had a large Peet’s coffee, I called the articles editor at O. Her outgoing message said something like, “We do not work with freelancers. We do not take unsolicited pitches. Do not leave a message. Do not send a manuscript.” Basically, go away. I left a message anyway giving her the title of my piece. She called back thirty seconds later and asked me to email it to her. While they didn’t take that essay, they took another piece. So I wanted to thank you. It was a great assignment.
Although you dislike the word “literally” I believe you have literally changed my life. You have changed the way I look at situations, at people, at the absurd, at the profound, at the past, at the moment, at memories, at family, and most importantly, at myself.
My experience of you is that you’re able to be kind with people and still hold them to a high standard of good writing. I give feedback a lot in my work as a consultant and coach, and I love seeing it so well done. I also appreciated and learned from your openness about resistance and how to deal with it. It’s not just the strategies that were helpful, but your matter-of-fact approach that has helped me relax with it and track my progress in realistic terms. starting to submit doesn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. It looks like I’ll be starting with my own business ezine rather than personal essays (for now), but the lesson is the same: putting myself out there means leaving the safety of remaining hidden.
I found the in-class exercises useful, especially the ones that pretty much guaranteed immediate success, i.e., “Add three sentences to this sentence, “remove unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.” It’s cool to see writing improve so quickly like that.
On a number of occasions I’ve struggled with something for hours only to have someone in the class see what I needed in a piece almost immediately.
During this class, I have produced over 125 pages of new text. I loved learning the difference between scene and summary. (I was blind but now can see!) It gives me hope and a sense of power to be able to recognize which is which and which works when. I also loved writing (and reading) the lists of love/hate/always–it helps convince me that I have enough colorful details to write a readable book.
The first night of class, you looked me in the eye and told me you’d enjoyed my piece on Italy, that you thought I could sell it. You were so direct and specific that I couldn’t brush it off as your being nice or trying to make polite conversation. It set the tone for the next nine weeks.
Dialogue was something I avoided, but I now am willing to give it a try. That was helped a lot by the assignment on fairy tales. That style is so out of my range, it freed me to explore new ways to approach my work. It also gave a taste of unselfconscious writing. It also made me add more details, since I didn’t have a clear image in my own mind, and had fun figuring out what the made up environment looked like.
“Find a teacher you like and take EVERYTHING they teach.” You would be her. You got me writing. you and class assignments got me sitting down to “the place where writing can occur” almost every day and it’s fucking beautiful and I thank you.
Don’t know if you saw my article on the cover of the Father’s Day Sunday Chron. I am very grateful to you for helping me find my writing voice.
Each week I’ve felt as if every word you said and point you made went straight inside of me. This experience has been intoxicating for me. The energy in our group has been amazing. There are many things I’ll take away from this class, but the most important bit of wisdom is that the more personal the story is, the more universal its appeal. Having writing partners every week, getting feedback line-by-line from them and then from the entire group, and being able to e-mail questions back & forth was very helpful. I think because we were in your home also made it a much safer environment to allow ourselves to be so open and vulnerable with all of our raw materials and emotions. I look forward to our reunion as well as our next class together.
I attended your workshop at the Redwood Writers conference last year, and you and your book really made an impact. To my own surprise, in a year’s time, I have built up a freelance business. My articles and essays have appeared in a handful of the local newspapers and magazines, and I’ve done much writing for local businesses as well. So your words work!
A good class should leave you more addicted to writing than ever. Yours did.
I’ve gained more helpful information in two weeks of your workshop than I did in two years of the Stanford continuing studies certificate program! (although maybe I needed that to be ready for this workshop). I trust your guidance and experience.
Your buoyant, generous, smart, kind, funny self and your incredible ability to get to the core of what we’re looking for, is responsible for my new lease on life. Oh, yes.
The way you question the sticky bits of our work, never a put down, always constructive, makes us safe. Makes ME safe. The parts you questioned on Melody’s piece were food for thought for my own work. The “is that necessary right there?” sentence that you occasionally toss to us gives me pause. Maybe I don’t need that particular paragraph right now–I’ll save it. Perhaps I can use it later (because it’s so adorable and I love it so much.) The work we just did on the scene, as I’ve already told you, was the most important work I’ve done with you.
You give me the feeling that you care about what we do. How about that? I’m trying to remember a teacher that ever made me feel that way before, but no one has ever been in your league, Teach. You really want to make us better. We listen and hear everyone’s stories and hear the class’ comments, toss it this way and that, and you say something…maybe, simply, “What does the character want here?” and somehow, while we’re hitting our heads, Homer Simpson style, the miracle happens.
Tone is everything and the tone of this class is saavy, smart and generous. I roughed out the toughest chapter in my book in this class. I found that stepping outside my project into someone else’s, in this particular class, helped me to come back to my work more focused. Above all, I feel that I am not alone out here with this book. Have you ever seen a porch being repaired? The roof is shored up by the scaffolding so soundly that the the damaged columns can come out safely. That’s how I feel about your coaching. You’re holdin’ up the roof so I can get the work done.
Adair Lara gave me the best piece of writing advice ever in one of her workshops: “If there is something that is keeping you from writing, write about that thing.” There was: grief. And so I wrote about grief. It became my first novel. To this day, if I am stuck and just CAN’T write because of gummy guck life-stuff in my brain, I force myself to write about the thing I’m ruminating about or fretting over for at least for twenty minutes. Even if it’s laundry lint. The first time I tried it, it turned out to be the whole dang story I needed to write.
Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief
This was my first writing workshop and it snowballed on me. First you talked about needing conflict/struggle in your story and I thought, “Well, crap. There goes my non-fiction piece about living in an RV for ten years. No conflict. Won’t work.” (I know – these are my thoughts and they’re supposed to be italicized but the email font won’t do it!) After the first day I was thinking maybe I should just try essays and forget my project. Then, on the second day, you honed in on specifics and I got inspired. I’m just going to write. I don’t care if it gets published. I’ll have my story and it will be mine to keep.
Your class has helped me fill in a critical gap in my understanding of structure. It took me a couple of years with another private writing teacher to understand the difference between generating “argument- style” essays and composing stories with a “beginning, middle, and end.” I was still totally stumped about moving beyond that. Your explanation of the necessity of moving a protagonist and a problem through a narrative arc using scenes has been a mind-blower … though I suspect it will take years to fully incorporate what you’ve taught.
The tone exercise you gave us in the form of a rant or riff was especially helpful. It really supercharged my writing where it may have been only mildly entertaining. I plan to use it this secret weapon from now on when the situation calls for it.
Reviewing the first page of our papers out loud in class really helped me “see” how a rewrite works. What I learned: simple format for 1st person article. Recognizing real epiphanies recognize unnecessary passages (asides, rambling) not necessary to the piece. Setting goals while revising. Focusing on one idea and sticking to it.
I never knew how to revise before, and now I’ve got a firm grip on the process. I like that we revised on a macro and micro level–both expanding material and then digging into sentences. As a result of your classes, I’ve become a better reader as well as a writer, which is a bonus I wasn’t expecting.
As I prepare for becoming a mother, I think that the greatest gift you’ve given me, Adair, is to show me that writing and motherhood can be combined. I was always afraid that becoming a mother would take me away from writing. I don’t think so anymore. In fact I’ve learned in this class that I can use any life situation, any adversity that comes my way in my writing because conflict is the genesis of all writing. What a powerful discovery-to welcome what life gives me and shape it into art.
Boy was I pissed at you when you gave us an assignment last Thursday night. I thought, how could she ruin my vacation? I worked all Friday night on it so I wouldn’t have to take my computer down to Carmel with me but as brought it along anyway. All I’ve been doing is writing. I realized what you have been hoping we will find out, which is that writing is something you do every day.
I was re-reading my pre-Adair chapter drafts last week, looking for remnants I could use for my scene outline. They suck. Not that I ever thought these chapters were great, but now I can’t read them without making loud snorts and “oh, please!”‘s. that might not be the result you had in mind, but I am thrilled in some sick way to understand why these earlier pieces don’t work. And I’m motivated to keep flogging myself toward the goal. The simple and complicated definition of “scene” blew me away: the need for a change (who knew???), the setting, image and detail. The elements seem so obvious on paper, (‘like duh?’ you want to know what someone looks like??), but THEY ARE HARD TO DO. I’m at the point where I’m beginning to recognize story structure, but my writing hasn’t caught up to the idea that the reader might like to sit and stay awhile. I’m still in a hurry, and in stripped down mode, just like my poor tennis serve!
I’ll be in the Chronicle’s H&G section this Saturday, Insight on Sunday and Food in a couple weeks. I’m also in “The Walker Within”, an anthology published by Walking Magazine (just published last month). I know you enjoy walking and might get a kick out that book. It’s kind of like a “Chicken Soup for the Sole”. Anyhow, I really feel like I owe my accomplishments to you. Your class helped me more than anything else I’ve ever done, plus it introduced me to Terry Norton, who is now one of my dearest friends!
You arc so full of writing ideas, ways of seeing, different approaches into a piece – it’s very fabulous. You’re also a very strong writer as well as teacher – an uncommon mix. Usually its one or the other. Just wanted to share some fun news: Lumina is going to publish an excerpt from In the Lap of the Gods: My 8-1/2-Month Marriage to an Impostor! Every time I read my outline, I think of all the good work that took place around your lovely kitchen table.
Fantastic class! The best I’ve taken!
You have a special gift for knowing how to critique our writing—that delicate balance of pointing out the good stuff and the stuff that isn’t quite working YET. I’m going to try hard to remember that all- important “YET” because as you have probably guessed, I tend to be a catastrophizer-if something isn’t working out, it will NEVER work out.
I learned a great deal about epiphany and the importance of a great opening line to hook the reader. Ironically, I discovered that the pieces I wrote that poked fun spoke more eloquently than the essays that were more sympathetic.
Your point about the message needing to be universal was important and necessary for me to hear.
Your criticism has always been fair, true, constructive and extremely supporting. (Did I really need the extremely or the really for that matter?)
The in-class exercises pulled me out of various ruts, in terms of WHAT to write (never thought of doing a rant) as well as where to send it, etc. I was glad you asked us to write what we “heard” in the story that was read this evening.
In the two weeks I wrote to my writing partner, my life changed. The inertia I had been experiencing lifted, and I felt a sense of purpose I do not recall ever feeling before.
Now I go through my days thinking about angles and epiphanies, and they make exact sense to me. I look at previous work in my mind, and notice what has those elements and what doesn’t.
One of my very favorite essays – as yet unsold – came from being forced to write 500 words to my partner. I enjoyed the specific writing assignments a great deal (when I managed to carve out time to do them): add images, add three sentences, and write 10 epiphanies (even though I hated that one too–but you’re right about it bringing me to grips with important questions/issues). Much more useful tome than “revise a piece and send it to your partner.” your enthusiasm about expunging unnecessary adjectives and adverbs just inspired me to do my own assignment with the anorexia piece I’m wrapping up. Every time I see an adverb, I ask myself, “Is there a better verb I could use–one that would allow me to ditch the adverb.” For example, I just changed “moved cautiously” to “crept.”
The assignments also interesting, challenging, sweat inducing. They made me stretch even more than I did in college writing classes. And the information about publishing is really priceless, some of which I knew from the school of hard knocks, but some of which is useful to know from an insider’s pov, both as a writer as well as an editor. Deadlines also really important, otherwise I never would have done anything. I know this is something I need to work on–even one page/day. Anne Lamott said if you write one page/day, by the end of the year you’ve got a book. Or, at least a shitty first draft, anyway.
If you have been told by friends and perhaps a few family members that you have incredible writing talent – much better than anything they’ve ever read in The New Yorker! – and all you’re looking for before you send your masterpiece off to eagerly awaiting publishers is praise for your organic brilliance, stay away from Adair Lara’s writing workshop. It’s not the place for you. My first day of class, a student read a non-fiction piece about being dragged to an AA meeting after a precipitous downward spiral. The scene was poignant, sharp, wry, emotionally evocative, devoid of self-pity or whine, funny, vivid in imagery, ironic, moving, and impeccably crafted. In short, everything I would ever hope to accomplish as a writer.
Adair Lara responded like this. “You’ve been to AA before this, right? We’ve already heard about that?” “Yes,” he answered. “Then we don’t need to hear about it again. Move on to the next beat. Who’s reading next?” I couldn’t believe my ears. So cold! So heartless! So wrong!
Even more surprising was this student’s reaction. He smiled, nodded, and calmly crumbled up his work without resistance, with no outward sign of frustration, of disappointment, of disbelief that all the labor and craft poured into that piece had been a complete waste.
He was a veteran of the class. He knew that she was right. And she knew that next week he would present an even more amazing scene that would move the story forward.
I realize now that Adair’s workshop is actually a hypnosis session. She tells us, if we write it that way, people remember it that way, even if it happened slightly differently. She tells us not to be saps, and to write what the reader wants. Put them in the action, and let them figure it out. Make ourselves culpable for things. Slow it down. And over time, I wrote differently (albeit not frequently). Each scene became real, as the memories shook themselves free from my brain and landed on the page. Until, finally, I believed it myself, and saw things in a new way.
You are smart, funny and kind. I live for your scrawls on my work, I have finally figured out what belongs where and why. During this class, I have produced over 125 pages of new text. In the two weeks I wrote to my writing partner, my life changed. The inertia I had been experiencing lifted, and I felt a sense of purpose I do not recall ever feeling before
The homework assignments. I found them creative and challenging. Even if I didn’t get to always complete them entirely, it would usually be enough to make the point. For example, the tone exercise you gave us in the form of a rant or riff was especially helpful. I know that my writing has strong tone but I’d never really exercised the idea of committing fully to the tone; just handing myself over to that one useless point was liberating and so much damn fun. Not only that, it really supercharged my writing where it may have been only mildly entertaining. I loved that feeling and plan to use it this secret weapon from now on when the situation calls for it.
Just the idea of you bringing up the subject of ‘beginnings’ or ‘project/solution’ made the concept of the personal essay attainable, just by breaking it down in that way.
I enjoyed the specific writing assignments: add images, add three sentences, write 10 epiphanies. Your enthusiasm about expunging unnecessary adjectives and adverbs inspired me. For example, I just changed “moved cautiously” to “crept.”
Damn. This learning to write business stands a really good chance of screwing up my writing. At sixty- one, do I have time to actually learn how to write and still have a few days left to get anything written? Yesterday morning, as I was happily cranking out the material, I was thinking, “it’s about time I get an agent”. This morning, having been to writing class last night, all I can think about is “it’s probably time to get an angle”. An angle? Son of a bitch! Who even knew about an angle?
Have been surprised at how some of the assignments turn out to be a lot more than just exercises – the love hate list has really allowed me to know my characters better…the summary assignment, which I’m still grappling with, has me reeling with new information about my parents, some very weird correspondences of their early life with mine, etc. So I think they are really a valuable tool in providing a story with the kind of authentic detail that makes for interesting reading.
What I learned: Become a vicious user of the delete button, murder darlings, go ahead and write whatever comes to mind, but don’t stop until you’ve found the structure, the thread that ties all the parts together Let a piece simmer on a back burner. When you go back to it you’ll have fresh eyes and a better perspective.
Work on multiple pieces at once! I am working on so many that I don’t have enough time to go back to most of them. I need to try to focus down. Right now my subject (‘my book’) is my whole life. Often, when I sit down to move a piece forward (by adding a second ‘chapter’ for instance, I find I urgently want to write about an experience twenty years earlier (or later). Still, this is not as bad as writer’s block.
I have learned that I’ve been starting a lot of my pieces “when the alarm clock goes off.” Okay, I don’t start my stuff exactly when an alarm clock goes off, but it’s my nature to start at the beginning and plough through. For example, in the “Winners” piece about Megan and her cheerleading squad not making it to Regionals in 2003, I started at the beginning – like before the competition. Well, actually, I started while watching the Canada geese fly in formation which made me think of how the girls on the cheerleading squad all stand in formation.
Now I know that I can jump in right when the action starts, and this will be a valuable device for me to use in all of my pieces. I know that I can start the above piece I just referred to right when we’re at the competition watching – start with a bang and put a little back story in.
the part of the class I valued most (along with the writing I did get done) were the ideas and attitudes you imparted about writing. Building an inventory of writing, the importance of raw writing, rewriting, the fact that writing is usually not easy for anybody–all these concepts were precisely what I need to hear and learn. I
One thing that has stuck with me is “stay in the moment, don’t summarize” another is to avoid adverbs. These are things I am conscious of, the little voice in my head sort of thing. Think I have an understanding of scene and subtext. I came in for a lark and found that I love it so that it occupies a lot of my thinking during the day. I am appreciating what people around me are saying so much more, I examine strangers on the street and wonder about them rather than seeing them in just a glance and just as immediately forgetting them. So, bottom line I have benefited from the class in ways I hadn’t expected and am already looking forward to March.
Choosing where to begin the story in time: It helped in class when Adair mentioned building the tension first before going into back story (the guys only talk about their personal lives when hanging by their fingernails from the ledge of a burning building, etc.). I also helps to realize that the first few pages of any story are likely to be thrown out no matter how precise I try to be about the right place to begin.
Editing: No matter how much I cherish part of a story or how good it might be, sometimes it just has to be chopped for the story to advance, even if raccoons must be sacrificed. At other times, it’s worth admitting that something just can’t get better and abandoning it altogether (no use “polishing dirt”)
Structure! Structure! Structure!
I had the weirdest dream last night – I was sitting in your living room talking with you and then I reached down a pulled a nail out of my foot. A quick predawn search of an online dream dictionary indicates that it symbolizes “removing an obstacle that has prevented you from taking a step in the right direction.” So thanks for helping me get rid of whatever was holding me back, writing-wise.
I was a raw novice when I was in the class in 2005 and emerged wiser, more centered, and with a deep appreciation for writing fundamentals but also for the power of the 15-minute let ‘er rip!”
I took a weekend writing class which was all sacred and spiritual and soooo sooo serious. I smiled to myself as a woman described herself as needing a 12 step group for being a daughters of a mafia family – but she didn’t want to write about that – she wanted to write about a moment of nirvana that she received while watching a monk do a sand mandala. I could hear your voice say, “Hey! Wait a minute. We want to hear about the mafia daughter!” and in that conversation I was having with you in my mind, I agreed! Humor and lightness go a long long way for me.
After taking her class I’m skinny, beautiful and soon to be rich and famous. How does she do it?
The 10 pivotal scenes, outline and back-story summary exercises have also been very powerful. Week after week, I hear you tell me directly or indirectly that my story can’t drag on and on. I keep resisting the advice because I believe that the fact of its dragging on and on is part of the story. But I’m warming up to using the finding of old love letters as a final scene BECAUSE (1) in writing the outline, even I am bored and annoyed at the tedium that follows, and (2) having read the back story summaries you gave us, I realize that lots of ground can be covered in a summary that works.
Two simple questions can help: Sit back, look over the piece, and ask yourself: “What, really, is going on here?’ Then: ‘And how do I feel about it?'”
I am better at staying in first person in a piece. I found the assignment to change a piece to third person tough, but it taught me how to expand my world in pieces.
Lara’s class has changed my life. When i started in October 2005 i stood 5’2″ and weighed 376 pounds and made my living as a professional dumpster-diver. Today i weigh 103 pounds soaking wet and stand 5’10” and even though I’m 62 years old am now a dead ringer for Angelina Jolie.
Handouts were thoughtful and useful. There’s a real knack in knowing what to give students, and not confusing quantity with quality. I have stacks of them from other teachers that I’ve never locked at, and that overwhelmed me, instead of teaching me.
You have great ideas for making writing better, and you don’t let any of us get away with not having tension and a problem in the writing. But at the same time you’re nice about it. I liked what you said to Jan on Saturday. The gist of what I got was o.k. you can’t write about someone doing o.k. or well (as she did in her piece). But you write really well, so we can fix that (she can learn the other part). It’s very positive, while at the same time saying there’s work to do.
I took the short workshop at Book Passages in Corte Madera purposely to “check you out.” I wasn’t going to trust my newly recovered writing voice to just anybody. I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t have enough experience to have any. I didn’t hear or take in everything you said, because part of the time I was feuding with “the voice” that likes to mincemeat my efforts at learning. I studied you, your fit body, the “snap glasses” and the way you sat on the table swinging your legs like a nine year old and I thought, humm-mm-mm-mm she’s spunky, smart, and short–she speaks confidently. Still not convinced that I could handle any kind of critical feedback or learn structure after a humiliating experience diagraming sentences in the fourth grade, I shakily defied that which keeps me stuck and jumped when you decided to open another nine week class Still with lingering doubt about this being right for me, I stayed with the deposit I had made financially and emotionally, and then began reading your book–NAKED, DRUNK AND WRITING. What I had liked about you in the workshop is what I like about your writing: Spunky and smart in addition to funny, clear and insightful. This book is speaking to me! I am nervous about taking your class fearful that “my voice” might not be able to outwit “the voice,” feeling exposed, wishing I was tipsy, and hopeful that I have something worthwhile to say with my words.
I’ve learnt sooo much from you. I’ve gone back over all my notes to help me find an angle for saying thank you that wouldn’t sound worn out, syrupy-sweet and full of superlatives and clichés. Not much luck yet, but I’ve managed to jot down a few details and images that stick with me-your great hairdo that I wish I could wear but can’t because my ears are too big, your funny shoes that appear to need regular feeding, your interesting house, free cokes and cute husband-oh yes, and all the writing stuff.
Way back a million years ago when I first started writing, I lived on top of a mountain called Mount Innocence. From the window of my thatched hut, I overlooked the Valley of Writing Principles. One day I packed bread and sausage, took up my walking staff and my keyboard, gave Irrelevance and Mediocrity a good-by kiss and set out to search for the holy grail of Perfect Writing. As I descended to the Valley I was amazed to discover that it was not the sunny land I had viewed from Mount Innocence but a dense and complex wilderness.
Cn reaching the valley floor, the first thing I noticed were two signs, each guarding a path that disappeared into the wilderness. While I could easily see that the paths were separate from each other, I also detected a subtle, though definite, relationship between them. One path, marked, Ending, stood in a sparsely planted patch of Healthy Restraint. The other route, by which I chose to enter, logically enough, was labeled Beginning and wound through a garden rich in Savory First Sentences.
Almost immediately I came upon a pool whose shimmering depths invited me to Jump Right In. I did and surfaced smack in the middle of The Great Forest of Motion and Events, surrounded by Flashbacks. In every direction Concrete Details fluttered down from the trees, arranging themselves into Scenes.
Further on, the path entered a meadow thick with Adjectives and Adverbs, surrounded by borders of Exhaustive Descriptions, all in full bloom and in every hue and size. I wanted to lie down, cover myself with them, never leave. At the path’s edge rested a scythe, urging me to eliminate most of them and move on.
Several times, I became bogged down in the Quick Sands of Revision, attempting to cross them too early. Before I could add to the cliches, dangling modifiers and passive sentences that I could see sinking out of sight, I had to take the warning signs seriously, First Drafts First. Cn and on I tramped, all the time searching for Tone. Often i t flitted in and out of sight, hiding behind Subjects that sprouted alongside the path, their Emotional Relationships resonating too closely with Tone itself.
Once, rounding a corner, I came upon the Cataracts of Epiphany. Some of the changes that this torrent had made in the terrain were obvious and stunning; others so subtle that the effect on me was gentle as a breeze.
I went to a writer’s retreat over the weekend and studied a stack of pieces I’ve written that don’t work. I found pieces without angle or epiphany that I think I can save-and pieces that I thought were hopeless that aren’t.
I’m in that mine shaft with goggles on for sure. Happy to hammer and occasionally at least strike crystal without getting hit in the eye. Bruise my thumb a bunch, natch.
Attendng Adair’s class may have been one of the best decisions I have made in a long time regarding my writing life and the advancement of my craft. I cannot believe how much I have grown and how much I have learned in this past few months.
Adair is what I have described to others as a fireball. Her incisive ability to take in, at first glance, and first reading, the scope of a piece, what is working, what is not, what it needs, where it should go, how to perceive and approach it differently, all this is still something of a marvel to me. Her intelligence is deeply evident in every line of feedback she delivers–her attention is unwavering–her memory of people’s work over the course of 14 weeks quite a feat. I have found myself tuning to this intelligence and thirsty for it. I have found that it makes me a better writer simply because I am viewing so much content from brand new eyes–Adair’s.
Being around her has sharpened my craft and my approach to craft. I feel excited at the writing journey ahead because I know that if I continue to work at this level, in the company of Adair, and all you wonderful writers, I will be a happy soul simply for having given my best effort to the beloved written word. For this, I am deeply grateful.
So here’s what I have done:
I have written to every prompt Adair sent out via email and have noticed, particularly in the prompts that Adair assigned in relation to hearing my material–for example where she asked me to write from the Mother’s POV–I find those prompts to be the most rewarding of the discovery writing I have done.
I have attempted an essay on language and another on the notion of the immigrant building a new self in a new world. Essays elude me right now in terms of structure, voice, examination of topic and indeed the choosing of topics. But I feel relieved that I have dipped my toe in the water.
With Adair’s incredible eye for voice and perspective, I have a new understanding as to the weaknesses of my first manuscript. I have completed some exercises assigned at the very beginning–from the list of required assignments in relation to the development of persona. Those have been revelatory in terms of understanding the narrator and fleshing out other characters.
I have partnered with several wonderful writers and have been inspired, encouraged and enlivened in my own writing practice as a result.
I have read several books, including three plays by Noel Coward.
I have attended all but the first two of these wonderful Saturdays in the Attic, which for me, with my health struggles, is just miraculous. I find that when I am completely absorbed by something wonderful, even if many times I spend the week in recovery from the exertion, that it nourishes my spirit in a way that is deeply healing.
I’m sure there’s more but that’s what I can recall for now of the things I have done.
What I have learned is:
I was whining!!!! I learned that, despite my best efforts over 10 years with my first finished manuscript, that I still ended up sounding whiny!!! Drat to that.
I learned that the victim perspective runs so deep that it can become embroidered into your work under the guise of persona.
The persona and the person (author) are two separate individuals and even when you think you have done your level best to take out the aggrieved daughter, sister, lover from your writing, that shit still lingers in the tone!
The development of persona is a pursuit, and the journey toward honing that perfect persona to tell a particular story is its own relationship within the writing of a book.
The shift from victim to hero in one’s own work is a momentous action because it not alone shifts the entire timbre of your memoir from defeated to defiant/triumphant but it also shifts your perception of yourself, your past and others from put upon and powerless to precious in many of their parts.
I learned from every single writer every week–learned from your work and the feedback you received–from your struggles and your successes–from your encouragement and engagement in one another’s work. I have been famished for such a community–a community of writers who truly, under the kind example of Adair, give time and attention to one another in a very unique way.
I have learned that I will never tire of learning–that I thrive in an environment where I am pushed to expand way beyond my own skills and limitations.
As of January 2014, I’d been working on my kidlit novel, Lindy Leeland Overcomes Her Great Fear of Spiders, for a year and a half. I liked my characters, I liked the setting, but it just wasn’t working.
I was reading lots of books on writing, taking a few workshops, and learning plenty of useful things, but I was still thrashing around. I needed help on structuring the novel and finding a way to make Lindy a more active protagonist.
I found out about Adair’s workshop – I read Naked, Drunk & Writing and my writing took a leap forward. I read Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, and was really impressed. The workshop is 12 weeks long – not something for dabblers. This is a dig down and get serious workshop. I needed help, and I needed to get more serious. So I +applied and, Yay! Adair accepted me.
The workshop offers an abundance of treasures: The delight of driving over Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco on Saturday mornings; the walk from my car in a very cool neighborhood that sets my creative juices bubbling even before I reach the stairs to Adair’s house; the magnificent meeting room with dormer ceilings, lined with books, featuring three comfy sofas, and chairs, and a ping pong table. Just walking into that room makes me want to write.
I was inspired and amazed by the determination and courage of my colleagues – working through such hard life experiences and finding a way to triumph as they wrote their memoirs.
I loved Adair’s enthusiasm, good cheer, fine wit, wisdom, great patience and artfully no-bullshit attitude. She insisted that no one wants to read a victim’s whining. Stories are only worth reading if the author works through all the tough stuff, and finds the inner strength, insight, and courage not to just endure, but to learn from what they’ve been through and triumph. Recasting one’s terrible experiences works a kind of alchemy – the writer changes their own story for the better.
Every time we read, we first write “love letters,” the written comments that find gold before we cut into the flesh to improve what is there. After the students critique, Adair sums up the essentials and adds her own insights. Her ability to zero in and diagnose a problem, to recommend fixes and directions to go from here, is amazing. I learned so much from just watching and listening the process with my workshop-mates, and as I worked to diagnose and give useful feedback myself. I believe that my own ability to critique effectively has moved up a notch – in reading others’ work as well as my own.
As for my own novel, Adair stressed the importance of Lindy having a strong desire line. With direction and encouragement, I began to dig deeper.
By the end of the workshop, I understood that I’d been trying to write two stories that didn’t fit together. I was trying to write the story of a girl whose Grandmother had died, leaving a huge hole in the middle of her core family: mother, Grandparents and Lindy. “We’re like a hive who’s lost her queen.” But the family wasn’t coming together, and Lindy felt abandoned and resentful. She wanted to make her family whole, to find a sense of comfort and support as they worked through their grief.
My spider fear plot line was supposed to be a metaphor for intense grief which dwindled as the grief healed and as the family came together as a whole.
But it didn’t work and only confused the readers. Worse, Lindy was only reacting, not acting, and didn’t step into gear until 2/3 of the way into the story – long after my readers would have stopped reading. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I had to push my storyline over the cliff. It was only a little painful, because I’d seen it coming for a while. I felt mostly relieved, if a bit disoriented, like I’d just thrown out 90% of all the junk in my basement that had been accumulating for years.
Adair was swift, clear and to the point. Like a surgeon sewing up after a successful operation, she helped me to find 7 key scenes, to give me direction for writing a story that worked, with a truly active protagonist.
And so I began writing my new story at the beginning of the summer. The direction was fine, but I wasn’t. Lindy’s fear of spiders now seemed lightweight to me. She annoyed me, and if I’d been reading this book, I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it.
But I delved into the characters and discovered a bigger story. Lindy (now Lyndie) became the antagonist, and Nancy, a more conflicted and interesting character, became the protagonist. I got inspired and began to write with more enthusiasm.
I couldn’t have gotten here without Adair’s workshop. All the weeks of watching and listening, as people cut the dross and deepened the gold in their own work, helped me to apply what I’d learned to my own story.
Now I’m writing a novel about a group of kids, all of whom desperately want to get into a great school, and it all depends on how they perform at the summer nature camp, an intensive 6 week program focusing on field studies. My characters are filled with passions, conflicts and complications that bump off each other and motivate their actions that push the plot forward.
At least I hope that’s what’s happening. Today I’m sending in my submission to Adair for a diagnostic critique. I can feel how much my writing and my reading has grown. No doubt, I still have plenty to learn.