I’m just back from a weekend workshop with Kathleen Norris, poet and writer of memoirs that are moving and evocative. The San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle called her “one of the most eloquent yet earthbound spiritual writers of our time”. Norris is a Benedictine oblate and very much at home in the setting of the guest house of the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto. Many probably hoped for a way to light a spiritual spark when they signed up for the session. Instead what they got was a wealth of good advice about re-writing, the title of the weekend workshop. The talks are interspersed with optional worship, meals are taken in silence, and the pace of life slows into a relaxing and restful one. It’s a great way to spend a weekend free from pressures and concerns.
Norris started most of the five sessions by reading poems to illustrate points she wanted to make and answering questions. Then we turned to listening to poems and memoirs that we ourselves had written. My poetry bibliography is brief but I will post some selections later.
Norris presented a key word about the point of re-writing, the topic of the workshop. We need to be hospitable to the reader, she says. She sees two phases in any writing – having the nerve to do it in the first place, which requires a strong ego – and then having spilled it all out, having the wisdom to reduce the gush and mistrusting one’s self, which requires humility. She proved the strength of reading work out loud when we listened to our own voices. Though we were in the middle of one, she cautioned about the attendance at workshops as a substitute for real work. Most of them were a waste of time unless they were led by skilled teachers. The other danger of workshops was reinforcement of weaknesses, especially fo people on the same workshop circuits. Editors and agents are the best people to bring criticism to bear on writing. For amateurs, the choice of readers who are discerning and honest is crucial.
Some simple tips – You have to write the first one or two sentences to get them out of your system. When you start to revise, delete them. Sometimes the real start is two sentences into the story or the poem or even a paragraph or two later.
She quotes friend and poet, Ted Kooser, who says, “The difference between doing it and not doing it is doing it”.
Perhaps the wisest advice for any kind of writing is the last tip: After you have written anything, go back and remove 50 words from each page. Cut adjectives – I initially wrote “most adjectives” right now – which proves the point. And pay attention to the audience. If it is really just yourself, catharsis is good, but if the writing is for others, they deserve the re-write.
Norris is wise, funny and kind. It was a privilege to hear her read and benefit from her comments and experience. And yes, I did a re-write on this post. It probably could use another one.