Update: 2014 VoiceCatcher Event Calendar

VoiceCatcher women read and exhibit:

Monday, April 28, 2014
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & vision – Reading
Conversations with Writers
(Find the details here)
Hillsboro Main Library
2850 Brookwood Pkwy.
Hillsboro, OR 97124
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Sunday, May 18, 2014 (New Address)
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions – Reading
Peregrine Literary Series
Holy Names Heritage Center
17425 Holy Names Drive
Lake Oswego, OR 97036
7:00 p.m.

Saturday, June 7, 2014 (NEW)
VoiceCatcher Fundraiser: Workshop with Susan Degreitas
“Poetry of Witness: Speaking the Unspeakable”
TaborSpace
5441 SE Belmont St.
Portland, OR 97215
10:00 a.m. – noon

Tuesday, June 17, 2014
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions – Reading
Milepost 5
900 Northeast 81st Avenue
Portland, OR 97213
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 (NEW)
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions – Reading
Mountain Writers Series
The Press Club
2612 SE Clinton Street
Portland, OR
7:30 p.m.

Monday, September 22, 2014 (NEW)
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions  Reading
The Glyph Café and Art Space
804 NW Couch Street
Portland, OR
7:00 p.m.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 (NEW)
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions Reading
Thursday Night Reading Series
Rain or Shine Coffee House
5941 SE Division St.
Portland, OR
6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (NEW)
VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions 
Reading and end-of-year celebration
TaborSpace
5441 SE Belmont St.
Portland, OR 97215
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Honor Your Work … Respect Your Audience

Reading Tips for 2014
by Carolyn Martin

In 2011, I wrote a series of reading tips for our online newsletter. I based these tips on forty years of experience standing in front of high school and college students, business leaders around the world and literary audiences here in Portland.

Since VoiceCatcher is offering a record-breaking ten public readings this year, it seemed a good time to update and collate these bits of advice on how to be a well-prepared and engaging reader who honors her work and respects her audience. Take a look. Use what works for you and share your comments and best practices with our community. We are all learners as we try to master this essential skill.

Tip 1. Listen, listen, listen
Writing teachers always advise their students to read, read, read. Yet the first tip for “reading students” is listen, listen, listen. Between Poets.org and YouTube, you have access to an abundance of live recordings that can serve as great, good and not-so-good examples of performance skills.

Start out with a master: Patricia Smith. Search for her work on YouTube or go directly to her 2010 presentation for The National Writing Project. In this performance, she combines a beautifully crafted speech with her explosive poetry. It’s a masterpiece that may move you to tears.

Also, find links to Billy Collins and Kay Ryan. Both are engaging and delightful readers. They are so different from Smith, yet their performances perfectly reflect their personalities as well as the styles of their poetry.

Notice the elements that make them so effective and uniquely themselves: body language, pacing, tonal variety, commentary, eye contact.

Attend public readings around town. Listen not only to a reader’s work, but to how the person delivers that work. Even before the first word comes out of their mouth, notice if and how they connect with the audience. Do they make eye contact? Do they offer a context for their work – a shelf upon which to set their work before they read – thus, getting the audience “listening ready”? What do readers do “up there” that you particularly like? What detracts from their work?

Observe. Take notes. What can you use in your own presentations? What should you avoid? Begin your own list of do’s and don’ts.

Tip 2. Practice, practice, practice
The path to finding your own comfort zone is obvious. It’s practice and more practice. On the seminar circuit, I presented the same eight-hour workshop, ten times a month, twelve months a year. Even at that rate, it took almost a year to perfect my rhythms and timing. But here’s the rub: Most of us don’t have numerous opportunities to present our work in front of live audiences. Without the luxury of frequent public readings, we need to seize as many opportunities as we can to practice.

Four practical suggestions:

  1. Videotape yourself – then pretend to be the audience. Listen to your voice – its timbre, tempo and intonations. Where do you need more gusto to bring your piece to life? What do you need to tone down because you’re overacting? Your body should support the content of your writing as much as your voice does. What are your hands doing? Your eyes? Your feet? The best way to determine that is to see yourself in action, no matter how initially painful that might be.
  2. Capture as many practice audiences as possible. Grab your partner, child, dog, cat, a trusted friend. You’re not asking for feedback on content; you’re seizing opportunities to hear yourself out loud. Practicing in your head is not sufficient. You need a live audience.
  3. Read at open mics. There are many welcoming venues in the Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA area including Figures of Speech at In Other Words Feminist Community Center; the Stonehenge Studio Series at the Stonehenge Gallery, and Three Friends Coffee House. All of them offer writers of every genre airtime every month. But remember, once you’re out there, you’re creating a reputation as an author/speaker. Don’t make the open mic a dry run; practice before you take the stage. While local audiences are forgiving, they will appreciate your preparation.
  4. Finally, if you belong to a writing group, suggest that an occasional meeting focus on reading skills. When your pieces are ready for performance, what better place to practice than with people who have helped shape your work?

Tip 3. Check out the reading site before you perform
For example, find out if the venue has a microphone, a lectern and good lighting. If possible, “scope” the place out before your event – or, at least, arrive early enough so you can check microphone levels. Is the lectern height comfortable? What will you do if there isn’t one? Is there enough light so you can see your manuscript?

About microphones
I’m not sure where people got the idea it’s somehow sophisticated not to use a microphone. “Oh, I don’t need one,” they say. “My voice is loud enough.” Perhaps – if you’re in a small room with eight people. In most venues, the mic is for your audience, not for you. If one person has to strain to hear you, you’re doing them a disservice. Besides, you can be much more flexible with your voice when you use one. Highs, lows, whispers, emphasis – the mic gives you a range of possibilities you wouldn’t have otherwise.

However, always check sound levels before you perform. One of my pet peeves is the reader who asks, “Can you hear me?” She should have made sure of that before the program. Also, play with the placement of the mic. Is it easier to keep it in its stand, or does taking it out and holding it in your hand give more range to your movements? Find your comfort zone. One hallmark of a professional reader is knowing how to handle a microphone professionally.

Tip 4. Make wise decisions about your selections
Have you ever seen a reader flip through pages of poems or prose, trying to find the next piece or section to read? Or, worse yet, ruminate out loud, “What should I read next?” The decision about what – and in what order – to read should be made long before you take the stage. Of course, there’s room for spontaneity as you become more proficient at reading, but for most beginning readers making those decisions ahead of time produces a more polished reading.

With that in mind, consider the following:
Unless you’re another Patricia Smith, shorter is better. Your audience has only one chance to hear your piece. Challenge them, don’t leave them bewildered. Some poems or sections of prose are so verbally complex that they are more effective on the page than on the stage.

Unless you’re reading from a book, print out your work in a font size that is easy to read and put it in a folder or binder. That looks so much more professional than pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of your pocket as you walk up to the lectern.

Some authors disagree, but I believe a short comment about your piece – its inspiration or brief explanation about a word or setting or character – gets the audience “listening ready.” But the operative word again is “short.” If you can’t shape an introduction in a few sentences, this may not be the piece to read.

Write out your introductory comments for your piece(s) until you’ve read enough times to have them memorized. Great speakers know exactly how they’re going to begin their presentations and great beginnings set the tone for the entire reading.

Tip 5. Have fun!
You’ve prepared, practiced, know your venue and picked your selections wisely. Now only one thing remains: Go up there and have fun! If you are well-prepared, know your audience, have scoped out the reading area and tested the microphone, what else is there to do? The idea of having fun gives you permission not to be perfect.

One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, once said, “To be great, one must seem so. And seeming that goes on for a lifetime is no different from reality.” To be an engaging speaker, you must “seem so,” and “seeming” may mean acting as if you’re having fun until you really are.

The best gift you can give an audience is an enjoyable, inspiring experience that makes them laugh or cry or say, “I never thought of it that way before”; that makes them feel their time with you and your work was well spent. Why not have fun doing that?

 

Carolyn MartinAfter forty years standing in front of audiences, Carolyn Martin is blissfully retired in Clackamas, Oregon, where she gardens, writes and plays with creative colleagues. Currently, she is president of VoiceCatcher’s board of directors.

Illustrated Poems for Mama: A Book Launch Party, April 26

I Love My Mom with an ‘A’: A Story of Art, Ardor and an Abecedarian
by Sarah Fagan

26 Love Letters for Mama: An Alliterative ABC is an illustrated abecerdarian — or alphabet  — book scheduled for release in time for Mother’s Day. As the illustrator for the letter “P,”  I am excited to be a part of this fanciful poetry book illuminated by women artists from the Pacific Northwest.

"Spoonful of Sugar" by Sarah Fagan. Acrylic on panel. This illustration of the letter "P" reflects a Mary Poppins-themed verse.

“Spoonful of Sugar” by Sarah Fagan. Acrylic on panel. This illustration of the letter “P” reflects a Mary Poppins-themed verse.

I find, however, the story I want to share is not the one found between this book’s covers, but rather the one that took place in the decade leading up to its release party, as well as the chapters still to be written as time goes on.You could say the book was thirteen years in the making. The leading force behind the project, Susan Chung of Corvallis, Oregon (known to many as “Sooz”), describes how its first iteration came to be:

 

 

 

In May of 2001, I sat at my kitchen table and wept tears of joy. My daughter, Ema, had just given me a gift of love, light and healing for Mother’s Day: a scroll with a hand-written poem that I have cherished for years. Since that morning I have read it again and again; a reminder of our closeness and a tribute to the wonderful bond we share.

“I love my Mom with an ‘A’: Her absolutely abundant adorations account for my assurance that all is well.” Thus began the poem by Ema Greenspan, aged sweet sixteen. The scroll continued, spouting venerational traits from “benevolence” to “zest.”

That mama/daughter love brought Susan through some difficult years. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she came to rely on the strength of many women in her life as she was forced to find her own. In 2011, Susan, Ema and a couple of Susan’s closest artist friends discussed sharing the sustaining love by turning Ema’s now symbolic poem into a published book, complete with 26 illustrations.

It was going to take time. It was going to take money. It was going to take more artists. Susan turned to myriad relationships to find these artists. Some she already had, some she forged during the search itself. She called upon friends and family, proffered artists whose work she enjoyed. Personally, I found out about the project while reclaiming my work from an art exhibit in Lake Oswego, Oregon in 2012. On the back of one painting was a post-it note — put there by the show’s curator who received it from Susan with the request to pass it along to me. “I’m interested in your style for a project I am working on — call me,” it said.

What intrigue! How could I resist? And how could I know that I was being written into such a wonderful tale by responding?

"Winging Through the World" by Ema B. Greenspan and Susan Chung

“Winging Through the World” by Ema B. Greenspan and Susan Chung

Each artist was encouraged to illustrate one or two letters in her own trademark style or media to correspond to a verse in Ema’s poem. Metal, fiber and ceramic works were crafted alongside paintings, prints, and drawings. Each letter is a complete work of art imbued with the whimsy and personality of its maker.

Even while the art and layout of the book were progressing, the road was bumpy. In 2012, Susan found out her breast cancer was back. Publishers dragged their feet on the project. But Sooz, being Sooz, took the hardships as a sign to bypass the red tape and self-publish. With the help of crowdfunding and much emotional and monetary support, the book secured the backing it needed to see itself in print in 2014. “Just in time,” Susan puts it, “for Mother’s Day.”

What of the original art that was created for the book? Fortunately, the letters are not doomed to exist together only as scans and reprints, destined to live forever apart. The 26 pieces will get to meet and mingle this April, as their 22 makers do the same.

The original works will be on view during the book’s public launch party on April 26 at the Wheelhouse Event Center, 421 NE Water Ave., Suite 2400, Albany, Oregon. The event, running from 3 – 6 p.m., functions as a book sale, and also as a chance to meet many of artists who took part in the project, sharing their art and their stories over food and wine. It will be the first time the 26 pieces are displayed together, and the first time many of the artists have met each other. The afternoon promises to spread the joy of a shared accomplishment and foster connections for years to come.

Susan describes her involvement with the book as both a healing balm and “a fire of determination” as she continues to fight her metastatic breast cancer. She hopes that the book  — a physical manifestation of this balm and fire —  will bring laughter, love, and light to other women.

It is always grounding to see how our own struggles can be turned into refuge for others if given the right outlet. The existence of this joyful alchemy is what makes hardship worthwhile, strife endurable, and what made me want to share this story about a book.

 

Sarah FaganSarah received a BA in Fine Arts and English Literature from a small liberal arts college outside of Boston. She worked as an editor and writer for a New England arts magazine for three years before relocating to Portland, Oregon in 2009. There she decided to concentrate on her own artmaking, and attended a post baccalaureate program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft where she studied bookbinding, printmaking and painting. In Portland, Sarah has developed a traveling curriculum of art classes which she teaches at various venues. When not teaching, she is painting: Her work is represented by Portland’s Blackfish Gallery. Sarah is the guest art editor for VoiceCatcher’s upcoming Summer 2014 edition.

April Prompt: Justifiable Homicide

April Prompt: Justifiable Homicide
by Thea Constantine

April is the cruelest month
-T. S. Eliot

Does anyone really wake up and utter “mwahahaha”? Life certainly would be easier if things were so cartoon-simple — but we know they aren’t. Perhaps Jean Renoir said it best when he stated, “The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons.” 

The Wicked Witch in the “Wizard of Oz”

What’s the cruelest thing you’ve ever done? If you can bear to think about it for a few minutes, you’ll most likely recall the reason for doing what you did. It may not be a great one, but the circumstances that led you to that action probably weren’t based on the desire to be a smashing villainess or your just feeling evil that day. You had your reasons.

Grab your pen or fire up your laptop and write down three things you find completely rotten or unacceptable. Now pick one and find the best excuse you can think of for doing that very thing. Try applying these dilemmas not only to your antagonist, but to your protagonist as well. Please come back and tell us what you found.

 

Thea ConstantineThea Constantine is a writer and certified AWA facilitator with PDX Writers. Her short stories have most recently appeared in In Focus, the quarterly magazine of the PEN Cyprus Center; Stellazine; Roving Writers; “On the Yellow Line,” a weekly column for Street Roots; and an original serial for the online magazine The Black Boot. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies. She just won 1st Place Short Story in the maiden edition of the Watercress Journal. She is currently at work on her first novel, Stumptown.

Writers on Writing: Freewriting

Freewriting — Fishing the River Styx
by Tanya Jarvik

Freewriting has been the foundation of my creative practice, insofar as I have a practice. It’s one of the best tools I’ve found for combating writer’s block, and it has the added benefit of functioning rather like meditation: After completing a freewriting session, I feel much more alive and awake to inner possibilities.

What is freewriting? Well, for anyone who wasn’t forced to do this exercise by some zealous language arts teacher in junior high, it’s when you take a pen to paper – that’s right, you have to write longhand! – and you just keep recording whatever comes into your head, not bothering to finish a sentence if some new thought – or bit of nonsense – elbows its way onto your page. The main point is to keep going and, if you can’t think of anything, you write, “I can’t think of anything” over and over, until some different words show up. You stop when you get to a pre-determined number of pages, or when you’ve written for a certain length of time.

In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron refers to this type of writing as brain drain. She believes it is important to get the “angry, whiny, petty stuff” out of our heads and on to the page, preferably first thing in the morning, so that it doesn’t muddy our thinking and get in the way of our ability to work creatively. Her feeling is that these “morning pages” – three pages of “whatever comes to mind,” written as soon after waking as possible – are “nonnegotiable.” They must be done, regardless of internal mood or external circumstances, every day.*

Natalie Goldberg, in her lovely book Writing Down the Bones, which I highly recommend, has a somewhat different take on why freewriting is useful. In her view, “the basic unit of writing practice is the timed exercise,” and its primary purpose is to “burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”** Goldberg advocates paying attention to images and emotions in particular, especially if they seem “scary or naked,” because this is where the energy is.

My own approach to freewriting has evolved over the years, after a couple of decades of experimenting.

The first freewrites I did, at age 14, were very much in the brain drain vein:

Oh gosh – tonight absoleutly [sic]…nothings happening!! I’m talking to Lisa again. I started to cry because Andrea was so upset (she feels she’s being    ignored etc) and she asked me to give Lisa a chance so I am. Andrea has been sort of insecure lately. Oh well. More Bio Homework.

Five or six years later, my freewrites were all about proving to myself how poetic I was. They tended to showcase phrases such as the sky is black, stained, falling and snatching vultures bite the carrion dust.

I finally settled on a combo approach. Two or three mornings a week, I get up early, make myself a cup of tea, set the kitchen timer for half an hour, and write – with a cheap pen, in a cheap, lined notebook – until the timer goes off. I write whatever comes to mind, with this caveat: Whenever an interesting question or an image rises up out of my monkey-mind blither-blather, I try to stay with it for as long as I can.

Nearly every poem I have ever written first appeared, in nascent form, during a freewriting session. This is why I sometimes think of my poetry as a type of found art. It’s like fishing the Styx. The first things I dredge up from the river of my subconscious mind are usually clichés: an old tire, a soggy boot, a broken bottle. I just keep writing. If I’m patient, and I keep my inner critic quiet, I begin to glimpse the first flash-silver fishes of poetry.

My poem “Abandoned Church,” which appears in the Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, surfaced this way. Here’s my original freewrite:

I remember sitting in church, and there was a particular smell, the babies crying, the little tupperwares or plastic baggies full of Cheerios. The oppressive heat of those places! How different from a ghost-town church, all dust motes in the sunlight! Bare pews, blonde wood weathered and dusty. There’s a spareness to a ghost town … a kind of space & freedom – loneliness, w/ the wind whistling through the tumbleweeds, whereas there’s some kind of claustrophobia in my memories – stifling, my childhood seems stifling to me now. Packed with people … This goes back to the idea that our memories get tinged by the present – does that mean we really do lose the past?

And here’s the poem that emerged:

Abandoned Church

Every time I visit, there’s less to see.
The rats and ravens have been busy,
stripping plush from the pews
and pages from the hymnals
to line their nests in the rafters.

When they finally finish
picking the place clean, and relocate
to scavenge elsewhere’s clutter,
families of termites will settle
in the beams, chewing their way
toward a tinderbox apocalypse.

Some day, I want to usher out
the noisy throng of ghosts
still meeting here each Sunday,
shoes shined and bows tied,
in defiance of dismantling and decay.
I’ll send them to a mountain
or a restaurant or a peep show
and stand alone in the aisle
watching dust motes congregate
in shafts of weak winter sun,
listening for the silence
that accumulates
when the last echo
of the last hallelujah has gone.

The poem’s central image, the ghost town church, wasn’t something I constructed. It was already there in my subconscious mind; freewriting just stripped away enough of the everyday for me to see it. My task as a poet then became to develop this image in such a way that others would be able to see it, too.

Michelangelo is purported to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to find it.” I have found it incredibly helpful to approach writing the same way: as a process of discovery. A freewriting session simply provides me with the raw material I need in order to practice my art. However, a word of caution: I have also found that nothing crushes creativity like the weight of expectation. If I begin a freewrite by thinking, “There had better be a poem in here, or what’s the point?” I just about guarantee a creative shut-down.

Freewriting is, by definition, a pointless exercise. It’s writing done simply for the love of writing – and that’s the true beauty of it.

 

* Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, New York: Tarcher/Putnam (2002), pp. 10-12.

** Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Boston: Shambhala (1986), p. 8.

Tanya JarvikTanya Jarvik is a writer, reader, freelance editor and a lover of words. She has an M.A. in English and is currently writing a book about alternative relationships.

Writer’s Craft: Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes

by Trista Cornelius

Preparing Your Writing for Publication: which style guide to use
Before you submit your manuscript to a literary magazine, website, or other publication, make one last edit to make sure your work meets the publication’s expectations for style. Style includes everything from punctuation and capitalization to what gets italicized and abbreviated.

Many different style guides are available, but for creative writers, these three options are the most common:

The publication’s own submission guidelines
The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago)
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP)

To highlight some differences between these three options, I decided to look at how each one treats my two grammar pet peeves: the serial comma and the possessive apostrophe (when a noun ends in -s).

Option number one: the publisher’s submission guidelines
If your target publication shares its submission guidelines, those rules trump any others you know, even those which have your devotion.

The amazing people behind VoiceCatcher, for example, took the time to make decisions about grammar and explain them in a clear, accessible way so works in their publications will be consistent.

And, in case you think I’m biased, let me tell you that VoiceCatcher‘s style conflicts with both my pet-peeve preferences: VoiceCatcher‘s leaves out the comma before the conjunction in a series unless you need it for clarity. And it leaves off the -s when it creates an extra “eez” sound, as in: James’ stylebook.

Option number two: The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago)
This beautiful book has been published since 1906 and is in its 16th edition. The pages feel like silk, and the incredibly thorough (and thick) volume is organized seamlessly. It took me only seconds to find what I was looking for, quite unlike AP (more on that below).

Based on an online conversation I had with the effervescent Laura Stanfill, founder of Forest Avenue Press, Chicago is the guide to use when submitting work to literary publications — like Bellingham Review or Tin House unless they post their own guidelines as VoiceCatcher does.

As for my grammar pet peeves, Chicago does it my way and “strongly recommends” using the comma before the conjunction in a list to “prevent ambiguity,” and to include the -s, as in James’s style guide, because it cannot be read aloud without the extra “eez” sound.

Chicago also includes topics like manuscript preparation, editing, proofreading, and a section on rights, permissions, and copyright law.

You can buy an online subscription for access to ever-current information, or get the 2010 hardback edition for $65. I’m saving my pennies to buy the paper version just so I can thumb the smooth pages.

Option number three: The Associated Press Stylebook (AP)
For any publication that comes under the general category of journalism, use AP. However, this also seems to be the guide many other types of publications now use, maybe because as news publications have gained broader, global reach, AP’s style has become the most common and familiar. It seems especially common when publishing online (except for literary magazines, but that’s a generalization).

Like with Chicago, you can buy an online subscription or choose a print edition. The 2013 is AP’s latest print edition. It’s not as thorough as Chicago, and it’s specific to news writing. For example, in the A to Z guide to capitalization, abbreviation, punctuation, and other usage, entries include whether or not to abbreviate Central Intelligence Agency and the title “presiding officer,” and whether to use “Congress woman” or “U.S. Rep.”

I found the A to Z style of organization cumbersome, confusing. But, for those of you with writing styles that cross genres, like sports or food, AP includes sections discussing those in particular.

Regarding my grammar pet peeves, AP’s recommendations often conflict with mine, but they also seem to be followed by the majority.

AP uses the comma before a conjunction in a list only if its absence would cause confusion (just as VoiceCatcher prefers). Keep the extra -s in a name like James only if the next word does not also start in -s. For example:

I borrowed James’s tricycle yesterday.
I borrowed James’ style guide yesterday.

Based on my research, I think Chicago should be on your writing desk to answer all of your grammar questions. Then, when it comes to refining for publication, know that AP is being used more and more.

If you are submitting work to a newspaper or something “newsie” like salon.com, follow The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are submitting work to a literary publication like Tin House or Bellingham Review, use The Chicago Manual of Style. However, no matter where you’re submitting your work, if the publisher provides submission guidelines like VoiceCatcher does, follow those over anything else.

 

Trista CorneliusTrista Cornelius writes VoiceCatcher’s monthly column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Writing from Sacred Story
It begins with a snake.

Once upon a time, a serpent in a garden tempted the first woman to eat forbidden fruit. The woman fearfully remarks, “But God says we’ll die if we eat from that tree.” The serpent scoffs. “You won’t die. God knows if you eat that fruit, your eyes will open and you’ll be like divine beings, who know good from bad.” So, the woman takes a bite. And we take a bite. The luscious juice of story dribbles down our chins. We know what happens next. We are never the same. Is this sin or salvation? I’ll come back to that later.

The cultural role of sacred story
Whether or not we are religious, we know these stories. We have heard them in school, listened to them in songs and seen them depicted in movies and art. Moses parts the Red Sea, Raven steals the sun, Thor wields his mighty hammer, Buddha sits (and sits and sits) beneath the Bodhi tree. These stories live inside using that vast collective unconscious of our dreams.

These stories, like pearls buried in the flesh of oysters, become seeds around which cultures grow. The rich heritage of oral tales and written texts glues us together, binding us in a tradition of communal story, whether we experience this history in a literal or figurative form. Sacred stories can tell us more of who we are if we venture inside them and overlay our lives with theirs.

Using sacred story in memoir
Similar to Jungian archetypes, characters and symbols in religious or folk stories can represent parts of our own psyche’s struggles and triumphs.

Let’s return to Eve and the snake. When you hear the word serpent or snake, what associations and emotions spring up? Are they evil, holy or something else? Snakes and serpents figure in mythologies throughout the world: Africa, the Amazon, Ireland, Italy. In Voodoo/West African lore, for example, the snake represents a rainbow, a bridge to God, and infinity. Your reaction to, and interpretation of, Eve’s serpent will depend on your personal history with that and other snake stories you may consciously or subconsciously bring into the mix.

I often don’t know how I will relate to a particular story, and what it can illuminate about my personal life story, until I step inside its world and write about it. That relationship changes as I continue to work with a story. I’d like to share my process for going about this work.

Writing exercise: You are the story
Pick a sacred story you have some relationship with or connection to.* It could be one you have read from a religious text, or heard from a parent or teacher, or seen a movie rendition of that has moved you to tears.

Make a list of characters from that story (the serpent, Eve, Adam, God). Make a list of symbols from that story (forbidden fruit, tree, garden, nakedness, eyes).

Pick one character or symbol from the lists and use as an “I am” prompt, like this:

I am the serpent … or I am the tree

Freewrite from that prompt for 10 minutes. Don’t put your pen down until the time is up. Don’t plan ahead. Just allow the words to bubble up from your subconscious and spill onto the page.

Notice what happens. Did you learn something about your own story, or gain a new perspective on the old story?

Keep going. Choose another story, one that feels foreign or unfamiliar in some way — one outside your usual conception of the world. Repeat the exercise above. What does it feel like to enter that story?

Compare your two writings. You may be surprised to find that you could enter the unfamiliar story just as easily as the familiar one, and still discover something about your own sacred journey through life.

I believe all sacred stories originate from the same great, collective creative well. As we live our lives and struggle with obstacles in our path – as every great heroine or hero must – we are living our own sacred story. When we engage with the powerful tales that are our birthright, we reinterpret them, searching for relevance in our modern lives. As we do so, we renew them for today’s generation and allow ourselves to become renewed, as well.

* Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions by Marilyn McFarlane (Aladdin/Beyond Words 2012) is a compact source for tales from different traditions.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s thirteenth (and last) article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, her series is the perfect place to start. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the first installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

When Lyssa Tall Anolik agreed to write a memoir column for our website, little did she know her commitment would span almost a year and a half. Her first article appeared on October 14, 2012 and introduced readers to what memoir is and is not. Each subsequent column was not only highly polished but engaging and practical. We kept encouraging Lyssa to think about transforming these “chapters” into a book. We hope that happens someday.

Lyssa has given us concrete ideas, craft ideas, inspiration, how-to’s and encouragement to write memoir – the personal stories hardest to tell. Thanks, Lyssa, for enriching our readers with your experiences, examples and wisdom. We will miss you on the pages of VoiceCatcher and are grateful to hold you in our community.

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest MosaicThe Wild,VoiceCatcher3 and 4EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.