Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Old Grumpy’s fence was right behind the cricket wicket and when the balls flew over the fence he sliced them in half, so the bad deeds gang came up with some inventive revenge tactics.

Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.

Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.

Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.

Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.

In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.

After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.

James explored the famous literary figures who had impacted on his work.

Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.

The Tell Tale Heart

Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, like ‘The Woman With Hair of Gold’, as told by Pinkola Estes, tells us much about the toxic nature of secrets. Both the dismembered heart and the golden hair of the murdered woman tell their tale and eventually bring about justice.

In Chapter 13 of Women Who Run With Wolves Pinkola Estes not only spells out just how secrets can slay us but also provides tangible ways of opening the secrets.

In Lived Experience Narrative Workshops we talk about ‘airing the dirty linen’. To ‘launder’ we undertake a body scan that involves listening to what the heart and other parts of the body have to say about secrets that long to be released. Then we work with mandala templates of hearts, colouring and noting scars and secrets that are seeking to be released from the lock proof places where they have been stored. Once secrets have been identified we focus on one and write a stream of consciousness for twenty minutes. We share what we are able to share and the homework is to develop the piece further.

From experience, I know that this can lead to some exciting, incredibly diverse projects. Perhaps Australian author, Gail Bell, began like this. She is one author who has been willing to bring into the sharp light of day shocking family secrets.

I am currently listening to an audio recording of her award-winning book. The dust jacket outlines the basic story for us. “When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets. Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences and avoided detection and punishment.

Or did he? Secrets can be as corrosive as poison, and as time passed, the story haunted and divided his descendants. His granddaughter, Gail Bell, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to understand Macbeth’s life. Herself a chemist, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the nineteenth century, in myths, fiction, and poison lore.

Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, The Poison Principle is a masterful book about family secrets and literary poisonings.”

 

Little Red Suitcase of Memories

Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.

Mirabai Starr and Natalie Goldberg have documented guidelines for this kind of writing.

  • Set a timer and write for twenty minutes without stopping or censoring yourself.
  • Lose control. Allow yourself to be naked! Follow your heart and write without restraint.
  • Be quite specific. Stay as grounded as possible and use expressive language.
  • Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy! Just take off the leash and go for broke.
  • Give little thought to punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence construction. Liberate yourself from any constraints.
  • Remember that this is not about being published. This is compost! You can write absolute twaddle if you like. There will be more than enough time to edit later.

Lean on A Literary Giant

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish them–words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
The Body by Stephen King

Participants who join one of my Lived Experience Narrative courses are responsive when I stress that we are not going to try to begin at the beginning. Instead, I make it very clear that to begin we will work with a number of prompts, build up a collection of material and then, piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle.

As a facilitator who effectively draws material from people, I am rather fond of leaning on techniques used by literary giants. There is little dispute that Stephen King is a literary master who has the power to help us break open the lock.

The opening of his novella ‘The Body’ captures the reader’s attention immediately. He begins, what has been regarded as a piece of autobiographical work, by alluding to the perils of keeping secrets locked away. Then, when he writes  “I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago… although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me” we are taken to a pivotal time.

With this strategy in mind, I encourage participants to identify pivotal times. One way of doing this is by ‘making descansos’ or by creating ‘hisstory snakes’ and then choosing a moment to flesh out in more detail.

One participant who was compiling a biography about her mother talked about her being banished from her small community to go to Melbourne to have her illegitimate child. She talked about her standing on the railway station platform, suitcase in hand, ready to leave her family and the small country town she had grown up in. I suggested she begin by having her pack her suitcase ready to go.

Another woman began to tell the story of her uncle by beginning with the moment the ship carrying soldiers back from World War 1 docked at the Melbourne port.

Both these pieces had their origins in making descansos. Another strategy is to take a look in a rear vision mirror.

 

Autoethography of a Writer

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

One way to get into writing about your lived experience is to begin by writing about something as simple as the story of your life as a writer. When you tackle this task write creatively, focusing on as many concrete events as you can. Give your story a beginning, middle and an ending. Make your story interesting rather than telling about it in ‘this happened, then this’ fashion. Make sure to include memories of childhood and adolescent writing experience.

Here are some questions to consider as you begin to work.

Do you remember being taught how to write?
What principles were you taught?
By whom?
Where did you write?
Do you recall any products of your early writing experiences?
What made you like or dislike writing?
When you write now, how do you feel?
What emotions circulate through your body?
Do you feel as if you are a subjectively or emotionally different person when you are writing? Characterize these differences?
Is writing a rational, emotional or spiritual experience for you? Explain or specify.
Do you feel compelled to write or do you avoid writing as much as possible?
Describe the best and worst writing experiences of your life. What made each memorable? How do you write?
Where do you write these days?
Is writing integrated into your daily routines?
Do you write every day or only when you must?
What are your work habits as a writer? How do you get started?
From what sources do you draw inspiration to write?
How many drafts do you typically write?
Do you write with the door open or closed?
In restaurants, bars, or coffee shops?
What is your ideal writing environment?
How do you organize your space for writing?
With whom do you share what you write?
What are your revising or rewriting habits or patterns?
Do you have someone to rely on as an editor, critic or writing buddy?
How do you know when you have finished writing a particular piece?
Do you act “professional” as a writer?
What does “acting professional as a writer” mean to you?
What forms of writing are you engaged in, e.g, poetry, journalism, short stories, memoir? Which do you enjoy most? Why?
What are your hopes and aspirations as a writer?
What are your fears and apprehensions?
What kind of future do you envision as a writer?
What would you like to accomplish?
What will you need to do to achieve this goal?
What obstacles are in the way of your writing?
To what extent do you get distracted by social media, e-mail, text messaging and phone calls?
How can these distractions be overcome?
Do your family members and/or friends understand the importance of writing to you?
Are you able to keep them from disturbing you while you are working?