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SATURDAY ReVIEW: Writing Your Self, Transforming Personal Material

Copyrighted cover art, fair use.

We wrote the book because we believe that personal writing is very potent both for the writer and the reader, because some of the greatest literature is rooted in personal material. Myra Schneider in an interview HERE.

The subtitle of this book about personal writing is “transforming personal material.”  I think it is implicitly also about personal transformation. It always seems to me that writing and reading about life is a healing activity, a way to live hugely, and a way to empower ourselves and others. If we can do it well enough to engage others, whether our purpose is to leave a record behind for family, to set the record straight, or simply to share and entertain, the experience is rewarding.

Writing Your Self is the most comprehensive book of its type that I’ve yet to read, and I’ve read many. It is organized in two parts:

  • Part I: Here the focus is on life experiences, the exploration of those human experiences that are universal. These include childhood, self-conceptions, relationships, displacement, physical and mental illness and disability, and abuse.
  • Part II: Here the focus is on writing techniques, recognizing material that is unfinished, working on refinements, and developing work projects.

Writing Your Self is rich with examples from known and unknown writers including the authors. By example as well as explanation the authors reinforce what we all intuitively understand to be true: that telling stories preserves identity and clarifies the human condition. It helps us understand what it means to be human. The experience of working through the book was something like a rite of passage.

I very much can see the use of this book by individuals training themselves and by teachers of adult learners who wish to write memoir, poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction. It would be useful in hospital therapeutic writing programs or in writing programs for active seniors.

Memories, both recent and distant, tell us who we are and so play a crucial role in our experience of life…

You may have memories which you want to plunge into or you may have material like a diary or letters which summon them up. There are other ways though of triggering memories. We offer a series of suggestions. Chapter 13, Accessing memories, secret letters, monologues and dialogues, visualizations.

I think Chapter 13 alone is worth the price of admission. I work a lot off of childhood memories and even the event that happened two minutes ago comes back to me with a dreamlike quality when I sit to write. I have not thought of the things I do naturally as triggers, but indeed they are. It was quite interesting to see these natural aids laid-out and organized on the page to read: objects and place as starting points, physical sensation as triggers, people in memory, and predominant feelings. The section on secret letters – that is, letters that you write someone and never send – was particularly interesting. I’ve only done this twice in my life, but I know some folks who do it all the time. I’m sure it is a common practice and would make a fine jumping-off point for some. The authors go on to monologues and dialogues – now everyone does that in their heads – and visualization. Hey, if you can see it, you can write it.

I’m an experienced writer and I enjoyed the book and the exercises and learned a few new things, got a few new ideas. If you are inexperienced or stuck midway in a transition from one form of writing to another, you’ll benefit from the exercises, ideas, and instruction in Writing Your Self: Transforming Personal Experience. This one’s a definite thumbs-up.

Myra Schneider  is a British poet, a poetry and writing tutor, and author of the acclaimed book: Writing My Way Through Cancer. Your can visit her HERE.

John Killick was a teacher for 30 years, in further, adult and prison education, but has written all his life. His work includes both prose works and poetry. You can visit him HERE.

THE RED DRESS by Myra Schneider … a poetry reading

Video posted to YouTube by SpokenVerse.

My first reaction is: I want it,
can’t wait to squeeze into
a scarlet sheath that promises
breasts round as russet apples,
a waist pinched to a pencil,
hips that know the whole dictionary
of swaying, can’t wait
to saunter down an August street
with every eye upon me.

But the moment I’m zipped in
I can’t breathe and the fabric
hugging my stomach without mercy
pronounces me a frump.
Besides, in the internet café,
where you can phone Tangiers
or Thailand for almost nothing
fourteen pairs of eyes
are absorbed by screens.
No one whistles when I smile
at boxes of tired mangoes
and seedy broccoli heads
outside the Greek superstore.

By now I’m in a fever to undo
the garment and pull it off.
And for all its flaws, for all
that it only boasts one breast,
I’m overjoyed to re-possess
my body. I remember I hate
holding in and shutting away.
What I want is a dress easy
as a plump plum oozing
juice, as a warm afternoon
in late October creeping
its ambers and cinnamons into
leaves, a dress that reassures
there’s no need to pretend,
a dress that’s as capacious
as generosity, a dress that willingly
unbuttons and whispers in the ear:
be alive every minute of your life.

The Red Dress from Circling the Core by Myra Schneider, 2008

I know that there are a number of women who read this blog who have or are in remission from cancer, including breast cancer. Also there a few who are the caretakers of someone with cancer. Mulling on that today while I acted as scribe and moral support for a friend visiting her primary care physician, I decided that Ms. Schneider would be the next in my periodic and informal sharing of favorite poets. Ms. Schneider’s first poetry collection was published in 1984. In 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Writing for her – as for many – was a part of the healing process. She journaled two weeks after diagnosis:

I have to hang onto the thought of friends and the relatives and friends of people I know who have survived for years and years after breast cancer. I owe it to myself to manage my panic and to make this a life experience not a death experience, to concentrate on possibilities, to grab every moment of life I can, to use what has happened for writing, to include the awfulnesses but also the plusses. I mustn’t forget the moments of joy: the sun lying in swathes on the grass, the sharp clean cut of the air, the disc of the sun on water. I must keep the words that came into my head about the snowdrops I saw in a garden when we walked to the shops a couple of hours ago. I think it’s the starting point of a poem. MORE

An accessible poet, Ms. Schneider has authored several poetry collections, young adult fiction, and books on writing: Writing for Self Discovery and Writing My Way Through Cancer. The later describes her journey from diagnosis to recovery and encompasses various treatments and their effects, including mastectomy. She provides practical suggestions for using writing in recovery and healing.

This post:

IN MEMORY OF MOM and GIGI EVANS, MARY, PARVATHI, and DEBORAH.

and

DEDICATED TO E, L, A, R, and B.

With love and in solidarity …