Zen to Pen: The Art of Writing
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. (Shakespeare Act II Scene VII.)
Sifu Lounsbury 2014
My goal for my teaching practicum was to offer a creative writing workshop that
incorporated three aspects of an artistic Zen development, being (a writer as a novice), knowing
(how to read like a writer), and doing (by reading the world though his writing). So, for a group
of writers to become proficient I imagined an artist creating a writer’s workshop where students
are encouraged to picture reading as a way of writing the world as a type of Shakespearean’s
stage. I wanted them to learn to craft a scene structure consisting of goal, conflict, disaster,
reaction, dilemma and decision.
I thought of writing a story much like doing a scene painting. My first writer’s workshop
used the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson describing the writing and reading as a creative
process: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing” (Emerson 59). The being
aspect of the writing process involves examining the humanness of everyday existence. As
innocent children we begin to put up barriers that filter out both the beautiful and mundane, often
to the detriment of our artistic endeavors. On the overhead screen of the Skaneateles library, I
placed a triptych painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. I felt it
was a good depiction of our lost innocence.
When the triptych is open, three sections, or three carved panels are hinged together and
can be folded shut or displayed open. It depicts paradise with Adam and Eve and many
wondrous animals on the left panel, the earthly delights with numerous nude figures and
tremendous fruit and birds on the middle panel, and hell with depictions of fantastic punishments
of the various types of sinners on the right panel. When the exterior panels are closed the viewer
can see, painted in grisaille, God creating the Earth. These paintings—especially the Hell
panel—are painted in a comparatively sketchy manner which contrasts with the traditional
Flemish style of paintings, where the smooth surface—achieved by the application of multiple
transparent glazes—conceals the brushwork.
I emphasized to my students that on the surface, a story is much like the closed section of
the triptych; you only see the surface setting. The closed section forms a transparent globe, also
called a grisaille. Grisaille paintings resemble drawings normally in monochrome that artists
from the Renaissance were trained to produce. Hieronymous Bosch achieved this technique by
the application of multiple transparent glazes— which conceals the brushwork. Thus, grisailles,
like a story, have layers of craft techniques which give the plot and character their movement.
The triptych painting worked in my workshop as a representation of staging. Thus the
Grisaille depicts the entire planet’s extrinsic surface. I handed my ten students’ three poems. By
looking closly, the poems could be deconstructed both extrinsically and intrinsically. I told them
to pay close attention to the unfolding of the layers of reality. Thus, in the first poem they were
shown an example of a direct surface of images without having to read further into it. But in the
other two poems, by looking closer, just below the surface, through the use of their visual and
subconscious senses, they could discover deeper meanings. Like the three part triptych depicting
heaven delights, hell and paradise, they could see three different quantum realities all existing in
the same time and space, yet hidden.
I used Larry Eigner’s Trees green the quiet sun, as the first poem to represent
the surface scene, much like Hieronymous Bosch’s closed section of his triptych depicts a
transparent globe in a grisaille. Grisaille paintings normally resemble drawings in monochrome
done by artists from the Renaissance:
Trees green the quiet sun
Shed metal truck in the next street
Passing the wheel house you listen
the roads near the beach
rough lines of the woods
tall growth echoing
local water (Eigner)
I placed the second poem by B.H. Fairchild’s The Left Fielder's Sestina on the overhead.
During the entire workshop, work was read aloud, as well as shown on the overhead. I emphasized how the descriptions of settings with tone shifts can change the overall tone. I used the description of tone shifts from Stephen Minot’s The Three Genres:
“I want that.”
This looks like a clear, unambiguous statement. How could we mistake its meaning?
Easy. In fact, we can’t even respond until we identify the speaker and the tone of voice.
Notice how the meaning changes even though the words do not:
1. A stranger on a dark street says this, pointing to your wallet.
2. A friend says this with a laugh as you both gaze longingly at an elegant BMW.
3. A woman says this with a sarcastic sneer about an unexpected tax bill? (Minot
We then discussed how the hidden details of vision and other senses created movement in
both poems and stories. I mentioned how when opened, Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych showed
the three versions of existence of the globe. His artistic craft revealed hidden tones, suggesting a
triune coexistence where innocence coexists with the horrors of hell’s punishment and heaven’s
future eternal happiness. In Fairchild’s poem I focused on how tone shifts-descriptions of
settings with mood changes affect a story or poem. Thus, by using tone shifts a scene can change
from happy to sad, or from peaceful to turbulent in an instant. The students took turns reading
six lines of B.H. Fairchild’s The Left Fielder's Sestina:
I lose it in the sun sometimes, a rain
of light, spray of shrapnel in my eyes. (Fairchild)
Before going into the third poem I briefly discussed how annotating a story or poem helps in the writing craft. I began to notice that the students were slowly relaxing. During reading the poems, their tone of voice began to emphasize the sounds of alliteration found in the various lines. We all were learning unconsciously about the subtextural changes in an author’s writing. I explained how image details in the next poem reveal a deeper story, the sub textual meaning, formed by combining metaphor with details of the staged setting. They also learned that beside tone, the image device that Fairchild used in the veteran’s post-traumatic stress served as a trigger that leads to the deeper sub-textural meaning. As an example, I stressed how in B.H. Fairchild’s poem above, the setting is staged at a baseball game. But, the subtext begins to reveal information concerning the character’s former wartime experiences. I wanted to use Frost’s Home Burial to show another example of the craft of subtext and tone. First, I placed Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych on the overhead projector again. I hoped they would understand how, like a painting, words have movements. In a moment of sudden revelation, vowels and consonants captivate our senses through the shifts in color and other details. To further unlock the significance of subtext I quoted from Charles Baxter’s book on the craft of subtext:
Imagine this stanza as a series of stage directions in which the character’s hidden feelings
suddenly arise through gesture alone. We are given a plot, and then, very rapidly, we
move beyond it by means of hyperdetailing. (Baxter 19)
Robert Frost’s Home Burial:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn't see.
But at last he murmured, 'Oh,' and again, ‘Oh.’ (Frost)
After deconstruction of Robert Frost’s Home Burial, I introduced the first 15-minute exercise from one I learned from a Goddard workshop on memories. I asked the students to write a sentence, I remember when, and then finish it with whatever memories emerged. The result was a surprisingly moving collection of individual experiences dealing with deceased mothers, an assassinated president, and seaside walks with mothers and fathers on highland beaches. One particular student named Carol mentioned that Frost’s poem, Home Burial, seemed “full of doom and gloom.” Frost’s poem helped trigger her childhood memories of moments just after the Kennedy assassination. The annotating of the poems revealed how loss, entering a story, can enhance the effectiveness of understanding. Thus, the technique of telling a “small story with a huge back story,” i.e. creating subtext. Next, I used a workshop from Darcey Steinke titled W.G. Sebald/Memoir/Fiction concerning details. We deconstructed the text of W.G. Sebald’s Emigrants by focusing on the details of the scene. I noticed that the students intuitively read the lines of Sebald with feeling produced by the emotional impact of the details. It was like they were being hypnotized by the words of the author and drawn into the story without even noticing. Then we discussed how the details worked with the narrator in moving the story forward.
I decided to have them read another story of historical fiction, excerpts of Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. They deconstructed the details of the scene in the opening of the prologue. My goal was to unlock the student’s understanding of how a writer can use details to draw the reader into that world. I then asked them to begin another exercise in which they picked from a variety of porcelain figurines. They had a choice of seahorses, leprechauns, sand castles, snowmen, etc. I asked them to use a porcelain item as a trigger from some forgotten memory, or create a new scene using the figurine in the details of the scene. This exercise helped the students visualize lost memories from specific times and places.
Carol used a porcelain radio as a trigger to recall further details of her dying mother, while Caroline used a porcelain figure of a snowman to trigger details of a winter’s day that occurred when heavy snow came to Campbeltown, Scotland.I was surprised at how well the first workshop exercises triggered their subconscious. The readings from the three poems, Frost’s Home Burial, Fairchild’s The Left Fielder's Sestina, and Larry Eigner’s poem Trees green the quiet sun, became a catalyst for dark feelings in some of my students. The exercise called I Remember brought out further subconscious thoughts centering on death, while the details from using the porcelain items triggered specific scenes from real or imagined memories. The details helped to make the memory of that time seem real by connecting the reader to the feelings and emotions of that scene.A primary goal for my first workshop centered on allowing the students to learn how to annotate, and write from the examples that I presented. Primarily I used the process I learned from Goddard, where the student deconstructed a section of a story or poem in a way that would reveal the writer’s craft. I told the workshop students to focus on a specific technique, such as character, scene, POV, etc.
The first workshop helped me shape a teaching model for the four other three-hour workshops. For example, in my first workshop I learned that I could create certain moods. I discovered that I could affect the student’s emotions by beginning a class with literature that contained certain emotions such as grief or happiness. In the third exercise I decided to bring out a little comic criticism by introducing a study on tone. I wanted the students to understand how a character’s actions could change the tone of a piece-from happy to sad, from comic to tragic.
The exercise I used was called “An irritating person exercise”. It was taken from Carol Bly’s
Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction.The results of the irritating person exercise was surprising funny. One of the students created a comedy by juxtaposing irate customers waiting in line at a grocery store with an elderly narrator who was the object of the other customer’s irritation. Mary wrote it in first person POV, and the twist at the end of the brief scene revealed the narrator’s thoughts concerning looking forward to going back to the store later to irritate other customers. After my first workshop, I learned that I needed to change my workshop syllabus. It was apparent that I was trying to put in too many craft techniques in the limited amount of time Three-hour workshops went by awful fast. Some of the students, especially the teenagers, were too shy to ask questions concerning scene structure. In the last fifteen minutes of my first workshop, I passed out a student critique sheet. Also I asked them to think of any questions they still had concerning the writing craft. I told them to either email the questions or bring them to the next workshop. Having them critique each workshop helped me to uncover the unasked questions.
Prior to the second workshop, I thought of what I could improve upon. The first workshop didn’t go into the specifics of six part structure of a scene. From the start, my intentions were to make each workshop an individual component of some craft technique, so that if any new students signed up later they would not be confused. It was a tremendous amount of work for me to set up the workshops along with doing the normal packet work. From the process of the first workshop, I was learning that the writing craft can’t be given to the student in large quantities. For example, the ability to understand pacing, making the dialogue real in the scene, or having stimulus follow response in a logical sequence takes time to learn. This learning process involves both reading and writing. I wanted the students to become more involved in the creative writing, so exercises became an important staple of my workshops.
My plans for the second workshop began with my emailing the students various readings. Since the library closed at exactly eight sharp, I had to be mindful of finishing in the three-hour period. In the second workshop I gave them an exercise on stimulus/response, which proved to be too advanced for a group of writers that were varied in experience. The printout I gave them contained a story broken down into a logical sequence of events. For example, in the second workshop, I tried to show them how everything must follow a logical pattern of cause/effectstimulus/response, but I was losing them. Even after I printed out examples for them to follow, they just couldn’t absorb that much information in just two workshops. I forgot what I had just mentioned earlier in the first workshop. Author Anne Lamott relates a story of how her older brother was overwhelmed on an assignment concerning birds that he had procrastinated on for three months. He had one day left to complete it. His father told him to take the assignment “Bird by Bird”.
Thus, my observant wife Caroline immediately picked up on how complicated the
previous example of the scene building was. I focused the rest of the workshop on how to write
the opening of a story. I explained to them how an overload of sensations can work to create a
strong impression of the setting. They read an example from a few lines of Jessica Hagedorn’s
1956. The air-conditioned darkness of the Avenue Theater smells of flowery pomade, sugary chocolates, cigarette smoke, and sweat. (Novakovich 158)
They each took turns deconstructing the lines, and explaining what they saw and felt in the lines. An exercise reinforced the use of sensations by asking them to write something for a beginning of a story. The results of the exercise verified that the process at Goddard is an amazing teaching model! Below is an example from one of my students:
The nausea was overwhelming. So bad she prayed for relief. Never in a million years would she have thought she would welcome vomiting, but now she was almost begging God, or anyone, to let it happen. Lying in the hospital room in her paper gown, relief swept over her as the ER doctor told her she simply had a stomach bug. Relief suddenly became fear again, as he asked the question. (Workshop student)
The lesson I was learning concerned keeping each workshop focused on one individual writer’s craft, just as we do when annotating a story at Goddard. The rest of my second workshop involved clear exercises on creating the scene. I did an exercise on conflict and contrasting trait involving a psychotic boss. I combined the last exercise with another conflict exercise; joining exercises allowed the students to understand the entire creation of goal/conflict disaster in a way that was fun and understandable. I was particularly surprised by how clear and powerful the goals and conflicts of my student’s stories were. One of my students used a heart attack of her mother as an example of her goal and conflict with a psychotic boss:
She was a small woman, and since the heart attack she had become very frail looking.
She would laugh at her appearance, tiny spindly legs and arms with a face so swollen with steroids that she looked like a hamster storing its meal in its cheeks. (Workshop student)
The workshops became a wonderful revelation for me. The process was teaching me that clearly written words were better than cliché and abstract thoughts. My thoughts after ending the second workshop included how I would advertise for the following three workshops. Skaneateles library had kindly placed my workshop on their website as well as advertising me in the local paper. Meanwhile the local college in Auburn allowed me to place workshop flyers throughout their college. My worry of not having enough students was unfounded. A student named Beverly even asked me if I would consider doing workshops after April.
My plans for the last three workshops included more material than needed. Therefore, I immediately went back to basics. I brought out an exercise by The Gotham Writer’s workshop on the goal and desire of a character. I tried to streamline the process. I did this by thinking about Goddard’s workshops. The Goddard workshop host always presented excerpts of literature highlighting a specific craft technique. Therefore, I looked through stories from different novels and used them. Next, I thought of an exercise that would allow the student to practice the same craft technique. In summary, I included an excerpt of a literature piece for class annotating, an exercise, and my own finished example of the exercise for the students to follow.
By the third workshop I was firmly entrenched with my own methodology of teaching. I had my tri-method of teaching (excerpt/exercise/example) down to a science. My observer, Professor Richard Bower, managed to instill a much-needed dose of confidence in me. He arrived at the workshop early and actually sent out his observation report to me that very night In the last fifteen minutes of each workshop I routinely reminded the students to send a student’s evaluation to me by email or by leaving it at the front desk. I also encouraged each student to keep a notebook on hand to write down any ideas that came to mind. They were encouraged to read and write daily whenever possible.
I was beginning to get overly confident in my third workshop. In the martial art of Ving
Tsun the three stages of learning are being, knowing and doing. The second Zen of knowing
(Chum Que), is like when Adam and Eve hid in the new knowledge of their nakedness. They
were separated from the garden through the fall of their innocence.
Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych’s second panel on the right depicts hell and its fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners. All the beauty of the garden was lost, and cast out to the reality of our world. Like Adam and Eve, a beginning writer also needs to find his or her lost compass. It will lead him back to the beginning, to that garden of innocent imagination. I also felt a need to get back that childish innocence, where the subconscious doesn’t filter creativity.
I looked forward to doing the third workshop, even convincing my normally repressed subconscious that maybe I had a chance at completing the workshop without even a ripple of a problem, but I was wrong. My advisor, Darcey prepared me for it, but when the time came for difficulties, I froze. Two high school students began to attend my workshops. At the first workshop a boy had arrived and just as quickly left at his first fifteen minute break. Then at the third workshop, it happened, the moment when I questioned why I was even teaching writers workshop.
The knowing (ChumQue) meant that as an instructor I must lead the student from the annotation excerpt, to an exercise and example that builds on the structural foundation of the scene. It was a simple exercise, or so I thought. In the young girl’s defense, she was only fifteen and brilliant in her writing. Looking back, it might of have been too abstract an exercise for a beginning writer. First, I did indirect conflict. I used an example of blood flowing down a white ceiling that I felt would reveal the exercise clearly. I gave them twenty minutes to write this exercise. While they were writing, I checked and rechecked my exercises, each one neatly clipped and ordered in confident chaos.
As the students began to read what they had written, my heart filled with joy. I thought to myself, how lucky to have such brilliant students. This workshop was following the process beyond my wildest dreams. Mary presented a fine example of a scene depicting a murder mystery. Her character was an elderly woman in a nursing home who slowly wrote a cryptic message to her daughter: M-U-R-D-ER. The entire room of students sighed in an acknowledged understanding of what had occurred in the scene.
Then the young girl raised her hand. Yeah, the high school girl with a Justin Bieber notebook. She began to read slowly, mentioning a pendulum, then a taut string that became slack. All I could picture was a catapult. The silence in the room was deafeningly. I could feel all the eyes of the students riveted on me. I imagined them thinking, what will he say? I looked longingly at the seat in which my wife was perched. Later I learned that she was anticipating my reply with gleeful expectation. What would make a courteous response to a confusing example of my exercise? It suddenly came to me; I managed to mask my panic and confusion by asking the class, “Did everyone get that?”
Rather than admit the obvious, everyone said yes, but no one offered an explanation. I quickly turned to a student named Dennis and asked, “What about those foo fighters?” Changing the subject worked this time, but in hindsight, I now understand my advisor’s advice:
In annotating a student’s work, first allow the student to post her response, but don’t allow her to comment until after all of the class gives their opinion of what they understand in her work. Then she should tell us what she hoped we would see in her work. Then, everyone would begin to understand the process of writing and rewriting involves more than one draft. (Goddard)
In the fourth workshop I continued to print out examples that were too long winded. After the first half hour I realized that I would be better off varying the length of the readings. I was learning that the workshop ought to be more about doing the craft of writing. Like any artist, the tool of the trade involves writing the world. Thus, between each writing exercise I would not only review the examples ahead, but also browsed though various books that I routinely brought along. If I found a better example, then I would use it rather than the one already printed. I also had the students read aloud, rather than myself. I wanted them to be fullyinvolved in the process.
Each workshop began with a routine that allowed the students to look forward to the next class. My chief aim was for the students to come out of their fifteen hours with knowledge of both reading and writing like a writer. What I personally discovered was that the workshops allowed me to see techniques that I could use in my own writing. It is exciting to know that I am
not only learning how to write, but how to teach the craft as well.
In the fourth workshop I reflected on what resources were most important to me and how the teaching practicum influenced my ideas about the greater questions of education. I now was at the Doing (Bill Gee) stage where words were like fingers, each one accomplishing an important task. Use just the minimal amount of words to energize the movements in a proficient unity of plot. In this Doing (Bil Gee) stage, the writer goes full circle from just reading the surface of story, to discerning how specific groups of words serve as a craft device that unifies the piece.
For example, while learning to set up the workshops I ran across various ways to teach writing. In the fourth workshop, the students brought in questions asking how to be published, and what type of books sold. We went over places online where they could submit their creative work. In addition, we discussed how each of them felt about revision. It became apparent to all of us at the workshop that revision was an important aspect of the process of writing. It was like sculpting a statue out of clay, where each piece added or subtracted from the entire creative piece.
I discovered the question that was most on the minds of all of my students was how truthful they should be in their writing concerning political correctness. It begs the question of how abstract a story should be in contrast to a scene in which everything follows a fictional reality that is so real that it shapes our senses into hyperrealism. The students’ question surprised me, but then I realized that as a writer truth often takes on different guises. Writing should be presented in a palatable form, and able to reach as many people as possible. As writers, we have a far more long lasting influence than any atomic bombs. We can change the world for the better. I told them that they ought to write as clearly as they wanted to. They should continue to write even if it upsets people, as writing comes from their heart and soul. To do this I told them to follow the process that I taught them in my workshops- annotation excerpts, exercises and examples. Read and write every day. Carry a notebook with you at all times, and above all else, listen to life so that you can read the world though your own writing.
Henry James equated fiction writing to being similar to painting. Medieval paintings had no landscape for background, and the characters they portrayed expressed little emotion-no laughter. At the close of the Middle Ages, exuberant life appeared in the foreground, landscapes, and cityscapes in the background. My hope is that someday my workshops might be the seed that inspires each of my student’s unique voice to bring their own stories to life. In Henry James’s The Art of Fiction, he wrote:
The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process, (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same. They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. (James 46)
The way my students were writing their world impressed me. In a depiction of their lost innocence, my last workshop began with the same triptych painting used in my first workshop.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch became an example of a character’s journey. It also reflected the innocent circle of awareness that each of my students shouldered in their everyday lives. I selected scene building as my last workshop. We were coming full circle. I used Earnest Hemingway’s Hills Like white Elephants as a fitting example of a scene filled with
subtextural meaning. The students learned how the subtext could be understood by studying the surface words and actions of a character.
In our writing exercises Laruralee, Caroline, and Mary expressed their hidden thoughts through the use of minimal words. They dredged up the joys of childhood along with the horrible realities of living with post-traumatic stress syndrome and drug abuse. Lauralee spoke of the heartbreak of a brother dying from drug addiction that was the fault of a failed health care system. Mary spoke of the joys of a byegone era where family took precedent over material, where as a child she would help her father manicure the clocks of Lessendrum estates. Caroline told of her brother Colin’s childhood pranks, his alcoholism, and his being a member of the Menza with an IQ of 156. How helpless she was, when finally at the age of 49 he died in her arms.
What I learned from this teaching experience is that a writer learns not only to read the world through books, but if he pays close attention to details, a story can be gleaned from everyday life as well. As a writer, I must be both teacher and student. The dynamics of writing involves interacting with others. In a workshop, the best growth and discovery comes by making art a journey of mutual discovery.
Prior to doing the five workshops I wanted to go over many craft techniques, but there wasn’t enough time. I learned from teaching the workshops that an important aspect of becoming a writer involved the process of just putting pen to paper. The lesson plan I designed during each workshop evolved into a three part format from the structure that Goddard taught me. It consisted of an annotation excerpt from a novel or story, a workshop exercise, and a completed example of that exercise for the student to follow. The purpose of my workshops centered on getting my students into the process of writing and reading as a writer. Thus they could continually use each word, each sentence, of an annotation as a trigger for their own muse. I planted that seed. I wanted them to become independent thinkers, writers who developed their own artistic voices through the concept of self (the conscious, subconscious and hyperconscious), which is the end product of their yin and yang. A fellow student of life might notice something in my writing that triggers another scene. It is an endless process of art making. Adding and subtracting a word can make the difference between a clunky line or a unforgettable piece.
My goal for my teaching practicum was to offer creative writing workshops incorporating the three aspects of an artistic Zen philosophy, being (Sil Num Toa), knowing (Chum Que), and doing (Bil Gee). I discovered that allowing students to read short pieces of a story or poem prior to a workshop helped them prepare to learn the art of reading like a writer. Focusing on one craft issue per workshop prevented confusion. I tried to do three or four craft issues in a workshop, but in the future I’m just going to focus on one craft issue. Another mistake that I made was thinking that everyone would understand the process. The critiques from students revealed that some of them did not understand the complete structure of a scene.
There was one final challenge to my teaching. I began a process of critiquing students’ work honestly. It revealed to me the importance of proper grammar. Goddard taught me that tense and other mechanics of writing must be followed. I decided that in future workshops Iwould have a clinic that focused on grammar errors. Teaching the right method of writing was important. The best teachers are those that tell you both the good and bad qualities of your creative work. They show you how to revise your work until it is as flawless as a diamond.
Life often will give you lessons when you least expect them. Near the end of my teaching practicum I discovered that my wife and kids were amazing writers. I thought of how my teaching experience had showed me that a student just needed a process to help them begin to read and write like a writer. The thought of change in life or fiction can have a tremendous impact. It was this attempt to change that caused me to experience the joy of teaching something that was already inside of each of my workshop students. Unwritten and unspoken mysteries of life resided within their subconscious, waiting to emerge by the flick of a pen. After completing the final exercise in my workshop, all my students talked about publishing and writing the truth.
We all agreed that we wanted to shake up this world by showing the truth through our writing. I grew through this workshop by knowing that teaching involves opening your subconscious to things you never knew. It is like my Kung Fu. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare)