Thursday, April 11, 2019

I Left Something Important Behind

                                By Cheryl Oreglia

There are experiences in life that leave you permanently altered, rearranged, rebooted. I'm not talking getting a new puppy, tattoo, or full body massage. This is more like writing a new chapter in your life.

I recently returned from a Writer's Conference on Bald Head Island, in beautiful North Carolina. The event was hosted by a dynamic writer named Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart. 

She believes that we all have a story inside of us, and if we find the courage to write from a place of honesty it can be a tool for healing not only ourselves, but others. I've only been to a handful of workshops for writers so you can imagine my surprise when this event turned out to be one of enormous impact. 

Nancy Slonim Aronie lives on Martha's Vineyard, she teaches at Harvard University, and has been a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She used to write a monthly column for McCall's magazine, but is best known for her writing workshops at unusual and vibrant locations around the country. She is the director of the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha's Vineyard. It's difficult to categorize Nancy, she is an amazing presence, one who fills the room with an electric sort of charm. 

Her workshops revolve around the concept of validation. She developed this idea after participating in a writing group that felt destructive and detrimental to the art of writing. Her focus is on writing from the heart, complete honesty, and finding your own voice as a writer. She believes we all have an important story to tell and these narratives have the potential to heal. 

She begins the workshop in a casual manner, sharing bit and pieces from her life, poignant stories that elicit emotion from the audience.  About five minutes in she has turned the word f*ck into a lovely verb. Nancy creates an easy camaraderie with the audience. Her style is warm and inviting, you feel it, and the result is magnanimous. 

Then she assigns homework. I felt a sinking feeling deep inside. The assignment was to write for 15 minutes, no more, no less, about a dinner from our childhood. The following day we read our stories out loud to the entire group. This is completely out of my comfort zone but I did it with a shaky voice, caked in fear, and when I found the courage to look up I was greeted with applause, tears, and voices of encouragement. It was a humbling experience to say the least. 

This is where it gets interesting as the audience learns not only more of each other, bonding in the process, but it allows for feedback, validation, and genuine encouragement. The only rule is that we comment on things we liked, connected with, or powerfully responded to, no negative comments are allowed. She wants us to focuses on what we did well. That is a rare experience in life. 

It is a powerful moment to sit and listen to how your narrative was positively received. The instructor illuminates your strengths and in the process she pushes you to a higher level of writing. She says you have to feel the emotion as your are writing. This is how you connect with your audience most powerfully. If it is not honest, raw, detailed, and transparent then it falls flat, and everyone knows it. 

Our next assignment was to write about the most difficult thing we ever had to deal with. We had twelve minutes to get the experience down on paper. In between breaks and lunch she challenges us to write something your father told you in two sentences. I wrote, "My father never told me I couldn't shoot a gun, change the oil in the car, or fly a single engine plane. I was the second girl in a two kid family, the wrong sex, so I became the son he never had but hoped for."

By the third day you are writing the name of your next book and titling your first ten chapters. When it was time to pack up our supplies, suitcases, and sunscreen we have bonded with each other and our fearless leader. No one wanted to leave but all of us were excited to move forward with our writing. 

We felt validated. This is the gift, something writers desperately needs, and the confidence to move forward with the projects you've only dreamed about. 

I left something important behind at this conference, my derogatory beliefs about my abilities as a writer, but unexpectedly I found my voice. 

Nancy has published a book on writing called Writing From the Heart. The book is full of suggestions, prompts, and practical ways to sharpen your pencil, strengthen your pose, and discover your own unique voice. I suggest attending one of her workshops if the opportunity ever presents itself, if not, go out and find one. 

What has your experience been at conferences for writers? 

When I'm not writing Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, this is where you'll find the rest of the story.  


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I love the feeling of community and camaraderie. I usually leave a conference on a creative high. It's really something to bond with other writers.

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Thanks for the comment Kim, you describe it perfectly, the result of a writers conference is a "creative high." As I listened to the stories and important narratives shared by the participants I was in awe of the use of language, metaphors, vocabulary, and pose. It was so inspiring. I slowly discovered that regardless of the style of writing, a persons voice is unique, and that is what appeals to the audience. That was empowering for me to learn.

Carrie Beckort said...

Great post, Cheryl! And it sounds like you had a wonderful experience. I've not yet attended a meaningful writer's conference. It's on my writer bucket list though.

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