Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Three Lessons on Writing (In The Word Cellar)

I just started the third semester of my MFA program. Here's some of what I've learned so far. (And scroll down for a giveaway!)

Lesson One: Write with your body

At my first on-campus residency last summer, I realized that I'd been writing almost completely from my head. I'd been ignoring the five senses on the page, writing about my observations and interior life nearly devoid of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. When I heard people read work that mesmerized me, I realized that they were describing things in the physical world. Fancy that!

This simple concept revolutionized my writing. I started writing not just with my head, but with my eyes, nose, mouth, skin, and ears. I discovered a lyric writing voice I'd never suspected I had -- or  that I'd even wanted. I fell in love with this new way of writing down the world.

Lesson Two: Choose your own story (and your voice)

By my second residency last winter, I was practicing my new voice and playing around with various writing styles and topics. I'd written a few lyric essays that were related to each other, but I didn't have a real direction with my work. When I realized that I'd need at least 75 pages for a final collection in order to graduate, I panicked. Those 75 pages didn't have to be related, but wouldn't it be nice if they were? It was time to choose a direction.

On top of it all, my advisors were encouraging me to write about a true story from my life that I did not want to write. "I'm just not interested in telling that story," I'd say.

They'd counter with: "But there's so much good stuff in there!"

I knew they were right: There is good stuff in there. And I knew I wanted a cohesive collection of 75 pages for my portfolio. So I started writing that story. I wrote 30 pages. I hated most of them. I hated the process of telling that particular story in that particular way.

But I'm so glad that my advisors encouraged me to try it, because those 30 pages showed me exactly what I didn't want to write, which finally illuminated what I did want to write.

I realized that my lyric essays had been trying to tell a similar story as those pages of memoir, but I hadn't seen it until I took a detour. By showing me what I didn't want to do, those 30 pages illuminated the story I did want to tell and how I wanted to tell it.

The only way to keep writing (and to keep making art of any kind) is to be true to our creative visions, to honor our passions and quirks. Sometimes it takes a detour to show us our true path. That's just part of the process.

In the end, you get to choose the story you tell, and how you tell it.

Lesson Three: Let the writing take over

I got back from my third residency last week. While I was there, the message all around me was this: Go deeper. Be wilder. Let the writing take over. Stop worrying about appearing normal to other people.

Within a few days of receiving this message from the universe, the first challenge to it smacked me in the chest and sent me to my knees. Circumstances conspired to make this going deeper and being wilder seem too risky. I contemplated scrapping my soul-baring lyric essays and instead writing about coffee or kittens -- anything to avoid letting the writing take over. Anything to avoid telling my story in my voice. Anything to avoid going deeper.

For two days I cried to friends and teared up when anyone asked me how I was. I looked for loopholes, tangents, escape routes -- anything to avoid the work of my artistic calling: to be true, no matter the consequences (real or imagined).

I don't know what going deeper and wilder will look like. I'm excited and afraid. I'm also utterly convinced that there is no other way forward.

*  *  *

Ask a writing question. Be entered to win a copy of Lanterns.

For the rest of July, anyone who emails me a writing question or leaves one in the comment will be entered to win a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories. I'll choose the winner randomly, and there's no limit to how many questions you can ask.

Leave your questions in the comments of this post or email them to jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com. Small questions and big ones. Vague questions and the very specific. Questions on the writing life, the writing process, and the craft of writing. Send them all!

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

Reader Comments (13)

GREAT POST! As a writer, and as a former writing student (now proudly graduated), I totally get all these things. In fact, they are many of the things I teach my own writing students!

I was thinking it would be great to read a post about how you chose an MFA program, process/low-residency vs. traditional/financing/etc. If you're willing and ready. I think it's a great thing for people to read who might be contemplating taking their writing further.

Also, the journey of writing personal essay is so, well, personal. Maybe talking about that would be cool, too.

I love that your posts inspire me to take my own experiences of these topics and write about them. You are truly helping me find my own voice. Thanks for that!

PS: Please don't enter me into the drawing, I am already blessed to own a copy of "Lanterns," which sits on my desk where I see it daily.
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSara
This is all great advice--my favorite is to stop worrying about appearing normal to other people. And no coffee or kittens unless they're part of the depth and wildness. Thank you for sharing this process.
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela
i've been doing that lately ... going deeper and wilder and it makes me shake inside but i think that is good, digging in and really finding those sweet seeds buried deep inside the passion fruit.

have i mentioned how much i love your writing lessons ... because i do ...
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdarlene
Good stuff! By deeper and wilder, do you mean interior and exterior? Which do you find more difficult?
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoss
I also found the lesson "stop worrying about appearing normal to other people" particularly exciting. The thought of it calls deeply to me. I sense my real voice as something very wild and strange - not something I judge internally, but find hard to access clearly, or show to others. I think I will keep turning this lesson over in my mind for a while. Thank you. Great post.
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandra
How do you stay inspired? How do you write when you're not? :) Thanks!
July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDani
Yay! I'm Jenn from over at the Flock, though I've been reading your blog for longer. Thanks for encourging us to ask questions. I have one that I always dream of poseing to authors I admire, here it is....

Once you let the writing take over and you're flowing, how do you know when to stop or rather how do you separate that life you are creating on paper from the life you are creating around you? I find it hard to write for a few hours and emerge from that space with the ability to stay connected with the people, places and things around me. The feeling scares me and as a result I haven't written much in the last few months. I just start to feel like I'm going crazy and I don't want to.

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJrenee
I forgot to leave a writing question: here is:
What in you is ready, or even dying, to be born?
July 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandra
How do you recognize "ready"? In other words, you have been over the draft a million times. How do you know when the piece that you are writing is finished? Is it a feeling? Do you need confirmation from someone else? Or is it possible that it's alive and can always be revised and improved somehow?
July 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie
Great post! Nice to see how you've pieced the journey together in this way.

I'm intrigued to know more :-)

And, of course, I look forward with an open heart to whatever soul shattering stuff you have to share.

July 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
Jenna, I commend your bravery...because I KNOW you're brave enough to do this. Youre already a fine craftsman. Mix that up with a bit of deep and wild and you'll have utter magic.
My question is - where can I look for inspiration for the ideas?

July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathy
I am three-quarters of the way down your list of topics on writing and I don't want the teachings to END! Seriously, you have presented some wonderful ideas and topics.
I have JUST started blogging two months ago, and I am writing totally on the fly with no regard for rules and regulations and (gasp) tense and grammar. I am loving it and find myself full of inspiration at this point.
I have been looking on the internet for tips and ways to be creative and YOUR site has provided more than I have found in weeks.
Keep up the great work!
March 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEd Williams

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