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Writing Life #2

Before the big cull.

In my last post I said I would be going through seven binders of writing “stuff” accumulated over the past 20 years. Today was the day. There were actually nine binders dating back 25 years. It all started when I took my first poetry workshop with Mark David Gerson here in Yarmouth. At the time, I was farming, and had never written a poem in my life. The participants had so much fun we decided to keep meeting (and writing) and formed Yarmouth Write Away group. Although I haven’t been active with the group for many moons, it still meets once a month after all these years!

So I stacked all the binders on the dining room table and sifted through each one. What a hoot. Why, I found almost a year’s worth of “morning pages” from 2002. At the time, it was something that Julia Cameron had promoted in her book The Artist’s Way. 

Nutshell: she suggests writing three pages—in longhand—every morning. Wondering if Cameron was still active as a writer/author, I Googled her. Eh-yep, she has a website and blog here.

Her latest post, The Power of Creativity in the time of the Coronavarius, focuses on two of her favourite tools: Morning Pages and The Artist Date. I’d forgotten about the latter. Rather than tell you any more about these tools, drop into her site and hear from her directly.

All I can say about my own morning pages is that they suck. Supreme case of navel gazing and gibberish. The contents of the entire binder was relegated to the burn pile!

Then there was a binder full of poems I wrote between 1995 and 2005. I decided to keep the entire thing, mainly for sentimental reasons. Although a couple were published, most are pretty juvenile. But … some of them make me smile. For example, I went through a phase of writing Haiku and actually though I was pretty good at it until I sent a handful to a Haiku “master” whom I revered. She wrote back a lovely note saying that although I had a Haiku heart, what I sent to her was not Haiku. I was crushed—but she was right.

Pages destined for the wood stove.

Next, a couple of binders full of “stuff” from two courses I took through St. Anne’s University. Poetry was the first one. Seems that I’m not cut out to be poet. But, a few narrative prose pieces may have some saving grace if I can turn them into short essays. So I held onto those.  The essay course was totally different. Oh how I loved that course. And here’s the thing: as part of our term assignments I wrote eight essays; four of those have been published in magazines or newspapers; one became part of a book, and one I just submitted to a publication. The other two are just ho-hum and nothing to get excited about. But over all, not a bad batting average.

Aside from the essays I wrote which include the professor’s critiques,  that binder is loaded with wonderful sample essays that we dissected to learn everything from how the writers made their transitions so seamless to how they layered their stories.  I’ll be re-reading this material in the next month or so and mining more gems from that course.

And here’s where Marion Roach steps into the scene. I mentioned last week that she’s not a fan of writing prompts. She has an interesting point of view and expresses it well here in this post. Her mantra is “Stop practicing and start mastering … write with intent.” .

By the way, at the end of that piece, her suggested readings of Margaret Atwood’s work on writing is a bonus! Oddly enough, I’ve never been a fan of Atwood’s fiction and rarely can beyond page 15 in her novels, but I do love her poetry and essays. So I’m sure her non-fiction books on the writing life will also be satisfying.

Back to prompts. About 10 years ago I led a series of workshops at the Yarmouth Library focused on memoir. As the sessions came to a close, I gave everyone a list of prompts I had compiled from Natalie Golberg’s book, Old Friends From Far Away. I encouraged everyone to pair up, start with #1, write and share—and I also followed my own advice.  My writing partner and I got as far as # 61 then life got in the way. But I think that many of those prompts hold some promise. So I’m going to review them, assess, and come up with a game plan.

If you haven’t guessed already, I trimmed down from nine binders to three.

Bottom binder: poems (1995-2005). Middle folder is actually related to a photography course I took and never completed. May give it a go again. Top folder is what I’ve culled as non-fiction “keepers” to read, think about, revise etc. for narrative essays.

What did I discover in the process of doing this?

1. With the exception of the binder related to the essay course and the folder of stories I wrote from Golberg’s prompts, I never ever went back to anything I wrote. Not once in 25 years.

2. Any poetry and fiction that I’ve written in writing groups and workshops seems to range from gawd-awful to mediocre. However, exercises that prompted stories from real life scenarios fared much better and range from mediocre to good. Many show promise.

3. I remembered how much I enjoyed writing those Goldberg prompts and sharing them. I will pick up from # 61 can carry on. NOTE: If you’d like to receive a word doc. with all the prompts, just let me know and I’ll email to you.

Here are a few examples:

  • Tell me about how you drink coffee (or tea or gin). When. Where. How? Why?
  • List an inventory of good byes. But make your list specific. Write about it.
  • What have you tried to repair?
  • Begin a  10-min writing with No Thank You. Every time you get stuck, write No Thank You again and keep going.
  • No more. What do you no longer have?

4. Now, I have to write with intent as Roach keeps harping about. For me that means getting focused on finding markets, and I’ve busted a gut doing so. In the process, I’ve discovered there are lots of markets for non-fiction stories, such as op-eds, reviews (movie, music, art etc.), advice columns, long-form narrative essays both first and third person, travel stories–ad infinitum. Paying markets! Outlets span print form in magazines and newspapers, to online magazines, blogs, podcasts and inclusion in anthologies. I’ll be giving an online workshop focused on this through the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, Saturday afternoon, April 25 via Zoom. See here for more information: Getting True Stories Published.

At the risk of leaving you with the impression that writing from prompts is a waste of time and you’re going to end up throwing out 90 percent of them as I have, Virginia “Ginny” Boudreau has done wonders with material she’s developed that originated from prompts. To date, she’s nudging ninety. That is, she’s had 90 poems, pieces of fiction and non-fiction articles published! Ginny’s going to be my guest on the Writing Life #3.  

Last word: although I respect Roach’s POV about prompts (and can see where it seems to be wasting time) I think it depends what you are measuring. Looking back, being in a group, writing from prompts and sharing, has its own value. For sure it’s social, energizing, liberating—and sometimes the results have been surprising! As well, the intent of writing from prompts is not always conditional on producing something worthy of being published. 

But, if getting published is your goal … stay tuned. First, Ginny will be on tap with lots of wisdom. Then, as time goes on, I’ll be adding resources for you to consider.

Meanwhile, as Margaret Atwood says, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

I smell like smoke from burning all those papers.

Tomorrow, I shall plant spinach and chard. And will smell like dirt and manure. I will also do prompt #62 from Goldberg’s book. And write a story about grass. First (and only) time I smoked the stuff.

Over to you! Would love to have you jump into the conversation.


  1. Cathy Donaldson Cathy Donaldson
    April 19, 2020    

    So enjoyed reading this, Sandra!

    • April 19, 2020    

      Happy to see you pop into view Cathy! Would so love to see you again. Perhaps once the “borders” are open. I’ll be in Hampton for sure (and Moncton is close!)

  2. Susan Surette-Draper Susan Surette-Draper
    April 19, 2020    

    Hi Sandra. I enjoyed your “culling” story. Could you send me the word doc with writing prompts? My writers group is on covid-hiatus but still communicating by email. Prompts might work to kick-start some of us who are stuck in covid-time.

    • April 19, 2020    

      Done! Let me know if you (and your group) find them useful!

  3. April 19, 2020    

    Please send writing prompts. I have the worst case of writer’s block of my entire life. distracted by FB and an anxious compulsion to know the very latest Covid19 news. I have a lot to write about but nothing to say. My blog languishes, so badly I actually deactivated it. I have no focus, no theme, no ability to concentrate. I writer narratives to friends and relatives about my daily life under “quarantine” and my writing energy has run out by the time I am finished. I can’t spell. Help.

    • April 19, 2020    

      Ahhh Shelley! Help is on the way! Those writing prompts will land in your in-box in a few seconds. ADVICE: Do not pick and choose. You will spend hours dawdling and thinking of what to write. Resist the urge to do that. Just start with #1. Put your pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard and GO! You will be amazed what comes out. Even if it’s junk. Matters not. Most of these prompts will uncover wonderful stories. I’m starting to do one a day again (I’m on #62 … about 140 left to go. haha) Let me know in a week or so how you are making out. And at the risk of sounding pushy or “commercial” you really should sign up for my course on Friday and set a goal of getting three stories published between now and ??? Now THAT would get you goin!

  4. Susan Hoover Susan Hoover
    April 19, 2020    

    Nice to see Ginny Boudreau in your course. She is one of the many Shelburne county writers in the Shelburne County Arts Council’s anthology, Salt and Wild.

    • April 19, 2020    

      I was away when the readings for “Salt and Wild” took place. But it’s a fine book by fine writers!

  5. Susan Hoover Susan Hoover
    April 19, 2020    

    Please send me the prompts too. They,ve got to wake me up too.

    • April 19, 2020    

      Done! See my suggestion to Shelley about how to proceed with them. Keep me posted about outcome Susan!

  6. April 19, 2020    

    I should follow your lead and cull. I don’t have binders but I have notebooks up the yingyang piled hither and thither throughout my relatively small house (and stuffed into closets too). No doubt they are filled with pearls of wisdom – or perhaps not since I haven’t opened many of them in eons. Given that I just had a major birthday I should probably get rid of the evidence of some of my misdemeanors, right? Thoroughly enjoyed your post! (as usual)

    • April 19, 2020    

      Oh! Keep your misdemeanors! Maybe trash some of the rest. haha

  7. April 19, 2020    

    Loved reading this Sandra. If you had not provided me with those prompts I never would have developed the motivation to finish and publish my book. Obviously prompts work for some of us. Looking forward to your article on grass

    • April 19, 2020    

      Yes, they are worth their weight in gold for some of us. I suspect it’s the kind of prompts and where our strengths or interests lie. Non-fiction prompts work for us! Thanks for popping into view Bertha. Hope you are faring well “down the road.” So close yet so far, eh?

  8. Sallt Harris Sallt Harris
    May 4, 2020    

    I also have a story about toking up, the one and only time and why it WAS the only time.

    • May 4, 2020    

      Oooh. Bet that one’s a humdinger of a story!

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