I live on an island. Not a tropical isle, but one in the Pacific Northwest, with rocky, cold-sand beaches, bald eagles roosting in cedars, and great blue herons squawking as they skim the bay near my house. At least half a dozen times each day, I can see a Washington State ferry, our link to the mainland, coursing its way here.
Most mornings, I retreat to a small writing space that once was my son’s bedroom. My only company is my yellow lab/Shepherd, Buddy. It’s my own writer island. Why, then, would I board a ferry to a neighboring island to write?
The simple answer is evident in this poster:
Leaving the solitude of my home office gave me the chance to study again with my friend and writing mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. This time, she taught at Orcas Artsmith, leading a prose workshop, “Make It Move!” I was hoping for inspiration to make my pen move, and I wasn’t disappointed.
With our group of ten, Ana Maria reviewed how good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, move—through the growth of characters, unfolding plotlines, shifting scenery, and emerging meanings. Additionally, good stories move readers when they strike a chord, stir emotions, and change us. Ana Maria then posed the question, “Is there something about a way a story moves that moves us?”
After we each read excerpts of writing that touches us, we generated a list of characteristics that move the story—and the reader:
- Concrete details
- Repetition of images and sound—like a heartbeat
- Shifts and surprises
- A bit of humor blended with the grief of loss
- Descriptions of acts of compassion
- Juxtaposition of big concepts/ideas with the small.
Then we turned to our own writing, generating a list of scenes or moments that have moved us. When Ana Maria asked us to choose one, I circled my note about the day I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, thinking of my father who had served as a Marine in that war.
For the rest of the morning, Ana Maria led us through a series of exercises using craft techniques that help carry readers from one emotional state to another:
- Use active verbs (rather than forms of “to be”)
- Note character gestures – the ways they touch and move
- Look for a larger cultural context.
In the afternoon, we scattered to our own “writer islands” to work (or walk, nap, read) individually. After dinner, we gathered again at the inn that served as home base to have dessert and to read from our work.
The next morning, I left the workshop with the beginnings of an essay, a list of fourteen other moments that moved me that just might make their ways into my writing, and a few more tools in my writing toolbox. Could I have accomplished as much had I sequestered myself in my writer island office for a day? Perhaps. But I would have missed out on the wisdom of a gifted teacher, inspiration from other writers, and the luxury of a day free of the distractions that swirl around my desk.
And I would have missed the dessert.