Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wednesday Guest Instructor: Virginia Hartman

Today's Wednesday Instructor guest is Virginia Hartman. She is the editor, with Barbara Esstman, of A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories about the Modern Wedding (St. Martin’s 1998). Her stories have appeared in The Hudson Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Iowa Woman, and she has recently completed a novel. She has had two fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University.

A lot of my writer friends don’t like to blog. They say it’s like publishing a rough draft. Well, yeah, I guess they’re right, in a way. It’s more raw, more spontaneous than the pieces I’d write, then put in a drawer, then take out and polish, then put away, then polish, etc. until some deadline forced me to let go of the thing and send it out into the world. With a blog, you go out of the house without make-up. Here I am, world!

Another instructor at The Writer’s Center argues that a blog is purely a promotional platform. And I guess that’s true, too, if you want it to be. Some bloggers started out thinking they were keeping a journal on line until they realized, (omigosh!) they had an audience.

I like to think of a blog the way I think of a hand-written letter. (Remember those?) You generally don’t go back and cross out, the letter is fairly stream-of-consciousness in style, and the reader understands that it’s not a piece of work you’ve labored over. It’s just a hello. So, hello! Kyle has asked me to blog, and so I blog.

My topic today is writing every day. There are books about it, so I probably won’t give advice, I’ll only give my own experience. On January 9, 2007, I was sitting with my friend Sarah Sorkin having a cup of tea at her kitchen table. Sarah and I have been friends for years—we met in the MFA program at AU. But I’d lived away and come back—in fact, I’d moved into her neighborhood—and we’d been meeting periodically to talk about our writing. Sarah, uncharacteristically, had gotten out her little black calendar one day and said, “Let’s write down our goals for our projects, and some dates.”

She wanted me to hold her accountable. And she wanted it to be a mutual accountability. On that January 9th morning, we’d been doing this for a while, setting goals, reporting our success, even getting together to write for blocks of time. But that morning she had a new idea. She told me about a book she’d read in which a painter started a new canvas every day for 365 days. Now Sarah’s a Brit by birth, and to hear her speak you have to imagine an English accent that’s been pummeled by “American” for 25 years. She said, “I was thinking that could be done with writing.”

I said (my voice: immature valley girl plus college-educated sophisticate with flat Ohio a’s), “You mean, write every day for a year?”
“I was thinking 100 words,” Sarah said.
“I’ll do it if you do it,” I said, having no idea what I was taking on.

That day, I wrote about my son’s first piano lesson. It was fresh, having happened that morning, and it was dramatic. I counted my words. I was surprised to see that 100 words was only about half a page—about 2 paragraphs. It felt good—I’d written something with a beginning, middle and end, something with action, something I was satisfied with.

Sarah wrote, I think, about a dream. We read what we’d written, out loud, to one another. We were both pretty proud of ourselves. So “I’ll do it if you’ll do it” turned into a pact, a commitment to write 100 words a day, every day without fail, for an entire year. Three-hundred and sixty-five days. And not only that, but to read aloud to each other what we’d written. Every day.

Here’s the remarkable thing—we did it. If Sarah had a migraine, she still wrote. When I went overseas, I still called Sarah and read what I’d written that day. I read to Sarah while she was hiking in California, and she read to me from that location. I wrote in my car, I sat down and read in a chair I happened to come upon in the grocery store, I wrote on the days that I taught and on the days I volunteered at my kids’ school, on the days it snowed and the kids were home, the days we went to the beach...get the idea? Some one was waiting to hear.

There’s more to say about this process, but let’s just say we kept on for about 379 days. I’m so in the habit now that even though our pact has expired, I’ve continued to write a minimum of 100 words a day.

That’s the process. For those who want to know about product, well, I’ve got a draft of a novel I didn’t know I was going to write, Sarah has an entire play and most of a novel, and no one can say we are not writers, dangit!

So there’s my letter. That’s what I’ve been up to. And like a letter, a blog seems to end when the writer feels she’s written enough.

Oh, P.S., Sarah and I will be talking about the writing partnership at the June edition of Leesburg First Friday, presented by the Northern Virginia Writers in cooperation with the Writer’s Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 5 at the Leesburg Town Hall, 25 West Market Street, Leesburg. So a blog is a promotional platform! Wow, the things you learn by doing.

There you have it, my rough draft, my promo, my letter. From me to you. Blog back soon!


Serena said...

What an insightful post. Don't you just love when pacts between friends turn into habits. I find myself writing every day now for the poem-a-day challenge at Poetic Asides in honor of National Poetry Month, and while I have missed a couple days, I've caught up the next day by writing two poems.

Its been a great experience so far and I hope to continue the project beyond april.

Kristin Blank said...

This is a very inspiring concept for those of us who can't devote hours each day to creative writing!