BLP Workshop Show Notes || “On ‘Necessity'”

I had the pleasure of leading a workshop for the fine folks at Black Lawrence Press this evening, via their Virtual Readings and Workshops program. It was titled, “On Necessity: What do you NEED to write right now?”

Here’s the (full-throated) description:

Donald Barthelme wrote, “The writer is that person who, embarking on her path, does not know what to do.” In the face of that insistent not-knowing, we’re somehow supposed to (wait for it…) write what we know. We’re also supposed to write for ourselves (and strangers). We’re supposed to make it new and tell the truth (but tell it slant) and so on and so forth. These tired platitudes fall flat most of the time – especially in a world that feels, in equal parts, like a dumpster fire and a firehose of possibilities (both good and bad). This will be a generative workshop designed to help you identify and claim your current central obsessions and write about them – your path, in Barthelme’s terms, and your embarkation. And, with luck, you might discover the makings of a healthy disregard for knowing what to do coupled with a seed of confidence in feeling your way there instead.

It was a massive consolation (see below!) in my day (seriously, a salve), and I hope others in the group felt the same. I promised to post some summary notes for the group, so here they are. Here’s hoping they’re of some use.

Abigail Thomas | “Vulnerability Is a Strength” in Brevity

  • Don’t skip the hard parts
  • For her, it seems, VULNERABILITY is necessary
  • It allows connection, insight
    • for yourself (“clear your vision”)
    • for others (“be of use”)

Allen Ginsberg | on Automatic Writing (qtd. in The Gift by Lewis Hyde)

  • Write secretly
  • Embarrass yourself
  • “…not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what yourself is saying.”
  • Here’s a blog post with an embedded YouTube version of the pre-writing talk I mentioned in the BLP workshop. It also has some pertinent external links: “Write Mindfulness: The Recovery Narrative.”
  • Here’s a link to Julia Cameron’s seminal text on creativity — The Artist’s Way — where she articulates her concept of “morning pages.”
  • Here’s another interesting text on creativity: Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Live It for Life

Ashley M. Jones | Reparations Now!

  • Ashley’s GMA interview
  • A longer, more substantive (wonderful, inspired) interview with ABC News’ Byron Pitts
  • My talk with her on necessity (with a list of 30 things she loved right then)
    • 0:00 – 1:04 || Long, boring lead-in (my fault) (skip it)
    • 1:05 – 2:37 || What’s your writing life like these days?
    • 2:38 – 7:18 || Do you feel the burden of “necessity”?
    • 7:19 – 8:44 || Is that burden different for different genres?
    • 8:45 – 12:32 || Audience — do you ever write stuff that isn’t meant for an audience?
    • 12:33 – 20:20 || Something(s) that feel necessary to Ashley: two poems by Lucille Clifton, “Why Some People Be Mad at Me Sometimes” and “Surely I Am Able to Write Poems”
    • 20:21 – 24:22 || Sovereignty — the confidence component of necessity (and of simply being human)
    • 24:23 – 27:11 || Being useful and being human, for better or for worse
  • My takeaways from Ashley’s (very useful) notion of necessity:
    • Schedule time
    • Let the [poem] be
    • “It’s in my head and it needs to get out”
    • Something is necessary that speaks a truth and changes your thinking in some way
    • It should knock you back
    • It should be succinct and clear
    • It should address the “task at hand” — life, the present moment, our world as it is

Pre-Writing Prompts

  • Write a list of 30 things you love write now. (Do this with some regularity. It not only serves as a useful tool to keep your mental and emotional equilibrium, it will help you mine the territory of your creative preoccupations.) 10 minutes.
  • Write a list of five “consolations” and “desolations” from your day today. (Hat-tip: Eric Clayton and St. Ignatius. Also a useful practice, for the reasons above.) 5 minutes.
  • Read through your 30 things list and your consolations and desolations. Circle the most interesting, resonant items on your lists. Pick one of them and use it as the focal point of a free write (a la Ginsberg and his description of automatic writing). 3-5 minutes.
  • Read through your free write. Circle the most interesting parts of that. 3-5 minutes.

Make (Craft) a “Thing” (or Three)

Using one of the interesting parts of the free write as a spark of some kind, write the first few sentences or lines of a poem, story, or essay. Use the principle we talked about — that a lot of good beginnings start things off with an arresting image, a vibrant action, and an open-ended question. Like Ashley does in her poem “Friendly Skies, or, Black Woman Speaks Herself into God.”

So here’s what I was going to do, but we didn’t have enough time:

I was actually going to ask you to do this exercise three times, picking different “interesting parts” from your free write each time.

The first time, I was going to ask you to write (craft) this “thing” with the firm assumption that it wouldn’t be read by anyone.

The second time, I was going to ask you to write a new “thing” with the idea that it would be read by someone specific, one real person you care about.

The last time, I was going to ask you to share it with the group. In our workshop, I fast-forwarded to the third one in the interest of time, but I encourage you to do the other two iterations at your leisure. Does the writing experience change? Does the writing itself change? Do any of them feel more “necessary” than the others?


For what it’s worth, here’s a series of posts I wrote on necessity — where I try to craft (draft, anyway) my own definition. I’m really thankful for the ways this workshop helped me refine my thinking on it.