Writing the Rockies, voice, and Barbara Chepaitis

It’s been a month since I attended the Writing the Rockies conference and, in my own defense, I‘ve not written more about it because I‘ve been spending most of my free time writing and revising fiction.  I had the good fortune, while in Gunnison, of participating in a session by author Barbara Chepaitis – I say participate because she got attendees involved from the start.  I showed up, pen and paper in hand, ready to take notes, and instead we began with something akin to Tai Chi.  Chepaitis, faculty coordinator for the fiction component of Western Colorado’s creative writing MFA program, explained the importance of tuning into our bodies, and getting our minds in the proper place to write.  She suggested establishing a simple routine, some stretches or perhaps some sort of simplified yoga, that could provide a way of triggering the mind into ‘writing mode.’  Valuable as that was, I was struck even more by how a roomful of people who wanted to write books that they would share with the world seemed so uncomfortable with taking part of a group exercise.  We’re only human and tend to be self-conscious in unfamiliar situations with new people, but perhaps, as writers, that’s just no excuse.

The session got more revealing.  She asked everyone to write down anything they’d ever been told about their physical voice – compliments, criticisms, and everything in between.  We also had to write down how we felt about our voices.  A few people then shared what they had written down.  The idea I came away with was that most of the people present didn’t feel all that great about their voices; the fact that so few volunteered to share (and the somber expressions that this activity produced) added weight to my theory.  Chepaitis had everyone take part in an exercise she compared to a drum circle.  Drumless, we were instructed, one by one, to contribute in a noise-making activity that was rather like singing in the round.  Participants, one at a time, started humming, whistling, or making any sound – nonsensical or otherwise – that added to the groups’ effort.  People were visibly uncomfortable, awkward, and several stopped making noise once the collective decibel level had grown enough that their silence might go unnoticed.  And then she explained that our physical voices are our writing voices, and that we can’t really feel good about one, and not the other. 

She later had us as a whole conference, not just the students in her session, sing a song together.  I was delighted, others less so.  There were actual groans and protests from the crowd but she insisted.  I think that, besides fostering the sense of community that comes from shared effort (or, for some, shared misery), Chepaitis’ leading us in song helped prove the point, that we can’t ever really be storytellers if we just don’t want to be heard.

Along with this look into the mess that is the writer’s psyche, she had us try an exercise with music.  We listened to Danse Macabre while drawing doodles with the expectation that the doodles would at least attempt to interpret how the music made us feel.  Then, we listened to the song again but this time wrote a scene for a story.  The result was even more profound than I expected.  Perhaps the doodle beforehand got me to really listen, but I had chosen a scene from a story that I had meant to merely transition the character from one place to another.  In the end I had something compelling and meaningful, something far more powerful than I had ever hoped to achieve for a character walking from the sofa to answer the doorbell.

I’ll add a plug here, again, for Writing the Rockies.  It really was an incredibly worthwhile experience beside also being really fun.  I’m also going to recommend my readers check out Chepaitis’ work and this interview with her, but in case you haven’t the time, here’s the best quote from it (possibly the best quote on writing, ever): “… I feel like a goddess, which I think is the appropriate attitude for a writer.”  I was lucky enough to talk with her one-on-one and hope that I may one day be as gracious and articulate.

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1 Comment

Filed under Conferences, Uncategorized, Writing

One response to “Writing the Rockies, voice, and Barbara Chepaitis

  1. Yes – the “mess that is the writer’s psyche”! Voice is such an abstract concept and the exercises you mention above make it much more concrete and free it from the mess inside. Thanks for sharing!

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