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Writing and the Dark Months

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. “ Henry David Thoreau

Today is the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year. A time when the sun

appears at the lowest point in the sky and seems not to move for several days before

and after the Solstice. Following the Winter Solstice, the days grow longer and the nights shorter.

Ancient Mother Earth, “our oldest ancestor, “ now rests. At the harvest and All

Hallow’s Eve, she has born new life to sustain life. Now, at the Solstice, she is

renewing, and dreaming and, "if we mirror her cycles, it is time for us to quiet our

lives and dedicate some time for our renewal, for reverie."(Jean Forest in Inner

Tapestry, 2003) This is the perfect time for writers to go inward. To renew the

Deep Voice and to dig down and harvest the words we have longed to share.

As Joan Borysenko says, in Pocketful of Miracles, “The Seasonal rhythms correlate

with our own body rhythms…. Our dream life and inner life grow more insistent in

the winter darkness…. The old year is put to bed, one’s business is finished, and the

harvest of spiritual maturity is reaped as wisdom and forgiveness.”


Sit back, and give into the darkness of the season.

Light a candle and study its glow. When you feel transformed, begin a piece, without

forethought or plan. Write like you talk, as Method Writing would call it. Write for

ten minutes without stopping. As you write, hear the darkness and quiet around

you. Take it in. Put it into words.



Cultivate your garden

Maine Lupines - Patricia Shea

When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Man the Reformer,” a lecture read before the Mechanics Apprentices’ Library Association, Boston, January 25, 1841.)

This morning, I walked out into the newly planted garden at our newly rehabbed house in Rockport, Maine, and paused, spying a squirrel, yawing mouth full of nut, who was going from plant to plant in search of the perfect home for his chestnut. Ahh, I thought he’s squirreling away something, creating a stash for the winter. Pulled into the squirrel’s world, I abandoned, for a moment, my concerns about the falling-apart world around us: hoards of starving people; over-population; ice caps melting; polar bears dying; environmental disasters; wildly gyrating stock markets; massive unemployment; the NBA lockout; the Greeks! The national debt! Ruthless dictators! A polarized society; a deadlocked Congress! Is it a function of age that I am more concerned--my sense of mortality causing me to ponder the world I will leave behind? Rather than going inside and saying the Metta Prayer 21 times (I’d done that already), I stayed my attention on the squirrel and my garden. How soothing it was to be among the flowers; to inhale their fragrance; to wonder at the bees; to observe the ways of the squirrels. As I quieted my mind, the last line of Candide floated

into my consciousness and (after silently offering thanks to my parents for my excellent liberal arts education), I smiled. Voltaire, speaking as Candide, whispered, “We must cultivate our garden.” Or, let’s abandon the cares of the world and turn our attention to what is before us. The final words of wisdom, the final line of the book, from a man who has seen many continents, much calamity and gnashing of teeth, has found and lost love, friends, gold, and returned home to buy a farm, live in community and begin a pastoral existence.

How like writing this is – cultivating our own words, sowing each word in a line on a page, shutting out, for a moment, the cares of the world. And how much more satisfying this farming of words is than paying attention to the world’s woes. Many authors have been gardeners. May Sarton, the American poet and novelist who lived in New England in her youth, as well as in her final years, says, “Gardening gives me back a sense of proportion about everything.” And Walt Whitman, “Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.” Listen to how poetic Nathaniel Hawthorne sounds when talking about his garden at the The Old Manse, his residence on the banks of the Concord River, “ I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.” I think of the expression “It’s nothing but a hill of beans” and marvel how a writer can change an ordinary bean into a line of poetry.

So, writers, I propose you cultivate your gardens, whatever form that might take.

Exercise: Choose five verbs, five nouns, five adjectives, five adverbs* from the

world of gardening, and create a short poem out of them.

Here’s a possible list:

Verbs: Cultivate, water, plant, nourish, turn over, mulch, splash, sprinkle, feed,

dig, hybridize, fertilize, focus, place, sow.

Nouns: Perennial, squash, seed, root, stem, juniper, sunflower, sweet pea, earth,

soil, clay, rosemary.

Adjectives: Ochre, sweet, fragrant, lavender, spicy, woodsy, buttery, orchid-pink,

juicy, crisp, wild.

Adverbs: Mindfully, carefully, artfully, gingerly, sequentially, playfully, seasonally,

gently, deeply, naturally.

*I know I usually rant and rave about the use of adverbs, but they have their

place and it’s fun to sprinkle them sparingly among the rows of words. (Yes, and

that sentence has two adverbs!!)

Patricia Shea



When I......

Storm clouds gathering over Maine

"Samurai Song" by

Robert Pinsky

When I had no roof I made

Audacity my roof. When I had

No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.

When I had no ears I thought.

When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made

Care my father. When I had

No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made

Quiet my friend. When I had no

Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made

My voice my temple. I have

No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune

Is my means. When I have

Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment

Is my strategy. When I had

No lover I courted my sleep.

Watch Pinsky recite this poem

The other night, I saw Robert Pinsky (poet laureate of the United States, 1997 -2000) talk about poetry on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Charming, engaging and passionate, he talked most particularly of his love of music and the importance of rhyme and tonality in poetry. As well, we saw a clip of Pinsky reading his poems with a live jazz band – his voice like another instrument riffing right along with the clarinet and the saxophone.

Pinsky says “I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a beautiful, gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it’s the same but it’s changed, and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I’ve been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time.” (The Progressive)

I hear the music in Pinsky’s work. Notice Pinsky’s repetition of “When I” at the beginning of each paragraph. Read the poem aloud and you will see that this powerful and lyrical language, this repetition pulls you into the poem. It’s what Jack Grapes calls “a sung verse… public voice, meant to rouse and inspire.” Mary Oliver uses the same voice in How Would You Live Then? --repeating “What if” and achieving a similar reaction in the listener. Read the poem aloud and you will feel the effects of the rhythm of repetition of What if.”

How would you live then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks

   flew in circles around your head?

What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and

   became your advisor?

What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all

   you needed to do was ask them and they would fill

   the bowl?

What if the brook slid downhill just

   past your bedroom window so you could listen

   to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?

What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves

   began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang

   from its painted branches?

What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver

   of money?

What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day

   and every day --- who knows how, but they do it ---were

   more precious, more meaningful than gold?

Exercise: Repeating the phrase "When I "' or “What if” build a series of sentences that, due to the repetition of “When I” or “What if," become an incantation. Vary the length of the sentences. For example, "When I think of gin, I grin. When I think of gin and grin, I reach for the bottle.” Or, “What if I wrote the poem that’s been living in me all these years. What if it got published? What if I had to go the publishing party and I had no dress. What if I went naked” Of course, I am trying to be funny to lighten the burden here, but this is serious and valuable stuff.

Think of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. He repeats the phrase many times, varying the length of the sentences.  You can go serious with your tone, like Oliver and King, or be light-hearted, talking about chocolate ice cream for example. It's the exercise that counts. It's the rhythm and tone of your writing that will be the incantation

And so the storm passes.




Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.

Must ask permission to know and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner, copyright 1976

Path through the trees   Patricia Shea

To me, this poem is about artistic process, whether writing, acting, sculpting, or painting. To get in touch with our deep artist’s voice, we must stand still and open ourselves to receive. “Stand still…The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.” As terrifying as it may seem, we must be willing to allow ourselves to lose control and get out of the way. The creative process is mysterious, and, if we’re not careful our grown-up inhibitions will block our genius. Pablo Picasso said, “When I was a child, I could paint like a master, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to paint like a child.”

Before you begin your work, create a sacred space around you. Whether it’s throwing salt over your shoulder, as Shakespeare did, or praying to Homer, as Stephen Pressfield does (see

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

), acknowledge, consciously, that you are beginning the task. In other words, ask permission to know and be known. By our words; by our characters; by our story. And then let the forest - the work - find us.

Exercise. Sit still, at your computer, or with your notebook open in front of you. Complete your ritual: ring the bell, light the candle, toss salt over your shoulder, put your Red Sox hat on your head. Shift into a state of hyper-awareness. Ask for the visitation of the powerful stranger. Empty your mind. Let the words find you.

And, check out

Chris Guillebeau’s Manifesto

for writers.

It should get your blood boiling!



Pass I on.

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

Dawna Markova

In her book,

I Will Not Die An Unlived Life

, Dawna Markova talks about reclaiming our passion. For me, this is a direct message to the writer in us. We get discouraged; we become self-critical; and, often, we give up writing. Throw down the pen, close the computer. Why did I ever think I could be a writer? Yet as Martha Graham says to Agnes de Mille, “There is a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action.” And, she goes on to say “This expression is unique. And if you block it…the world will not have it.”

Think about that. Your point of view of the world, your “optique” as the French would say, is yours alone. Artists offer their vision to the world humbly and without question. As Graham says, “It is not your business to determine how good it is. Nor how valuable it is. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Dawna Markova has another way of saying this. She breaks down the word passion into three syllables: Pass I On. I read this to mean that we, as writers, as artists, must Pass I On – that is pass on what is ours alone, our own unique expression. Humbly. As a gift. Without question. Yes, we must keep working at our craft and getting better and better at what we do. Study, learn, work, repeat, rewrite, work. And, then without ego concerns of “will they like it, am I good enough” we put the work out into the world. The rest, as friends of mine would say, is up to God.

The adage in Hollywood, where I worked for years, is “nobody knows anything.” That is none of us knows what will be a hit; what will cause people to line up and pay money for a movie or a book or a work of art.

So, make a commitment to do your best work, offer it to the world, Pass I On, celebrate the completion, and, since there is no reason to worry about its reception, move on to find your next expression.

Writing Exercise:

Let’s explore the dark side. Set the clock for ten minutes and answer the following 

question: Why do I not deserve to be a recognized as an artist? You will see that 

eventually you will run out of bad things to say about yourself. At that moment, set 

your clock for ten minutes and write out your fantasies – make them as grand and 

specific as possible – regarding the success of your work. Sit back with a cup of tea/ 

coffee/vodka (depending on the time of day) and review your work.



Be Passionate, Be Revealing, Be Different.

I just saw a film called As It Is In Heaven. It is the story of a successful international conductor who interrupts his career and returns alone to his childhood village in the far north of Sweden. Soon after he arrives, he meets the local pastor who invites him to listen to the choir and give him notes; and then our hero asks to conduct the choir. And from that moment on, the village is in an uproar. The conductor is a change agent and all kinds of buried passions, resentments and hostilities emerge. The choir develops and grows. Marriages fall apart. Dogma collapses. And our hero finds love.

What is striking to me about the film is its central theme: We each have a unique voice and it is our job to find it. With help from others. Daniel takes the choir through all kinds of physical and vocal exercises to open the passageway to finding their voices. Little by little, each one finds his or her voice and, inevitably, their lives change. We watch them become more and more alive, cell-by-cell, until their growth threatens their set beliefs, their relationships and their way of life. Growth begets growth. When they decide to go to a choral contest in Innsbruck, Austria, we know something big is up. Many of them have never v

entured beyond their small Northern Swedish town. And, indeed, Innsbruck is a life altering experience, not only for them, but also for all their audience. And for our hero. Do take a look at the film.

And, once again, the theme of voice. I can guarantee that if you are willing to find your true voice, and to express it, your life will change.

Writing Exercise:

Write three pages in your journal, without forethought. Practice Beginner’s Mind – remain open to whatever the universe will deliver to you. Just as Daniel says in the movie, the music is there waiting for us to hear it. So, once written, read your pages aloud. And then see if you can hear the rhythm in them. Turn the words into a melody.


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Creating Characters

The real voyage of discovery
consists not in seeking new
landscapes but in having new eyes.
Marcel Proust

All writers (and all therapists for that matter) are concerned with
character. Even if we are writing non-fiction, we tend to hang the
story on character. I have found in my own work as a writer, and
in working with my students, that it helps to have ways to explore
character. The following list comes from my own work and from
information culled from various writers, including Elizabeth George, a
first-rate writer of crime novels. Her book, Write Away is a must-read.

Here are some helpful hints when you are creating a character,
whether for a novel, or a memoir. The list is long and can be used
either to guide the creation of character or to jump-start you when you
are stuck. When writing a memoir, it is helpful to develop detachment
from characters who are based on people you may know well. This
list will help develop that detachment.

Specific information:

Weight and build
Color hair and eyes
Physical peculiarities – a limp, a bald head, an enormous mane of red
hair, an eye that wanders

Gestures when talking

Birth place
Educational background
Best friend

Family (mother father siblings etc)
Religious affiliation
Political leaning

Core need (single need that is at the core of who we are). We
are born with them and during our lifetime, we mold most of our
behavior to meet our core needs. For example, you may talk of your
character's need for success. But if you go deeper, you may discover
that the core need is to be loved – success in this case is based on
the assumption that success will bring love. Another character might
have a core need for excitement or risk taking. This character would
be out surfing or mountain climbing. Or, a risk taker could get the
need for excitement from being an entrepreneur or circus performer.

Pathological expressions (a core need flipped over: delusions,
obsessions, compulsions, addictions, denial, hysterical ailments,
illness, self-destructive behavior, phobias, manias). This is a terrific
way to look at a character and one we writers often ignore. Always
be aware of your character’s the dark side.

Ambition in life: How is this different from core need? Often we are
not aware of our core needs, and develop ambitions based on what
others want from us. Your character’s journey may be from someone
else’s ambition to discovering his/her core needs.

Strongest character trait—Aggression, shyness, flirtation,
sassiness, boldness

Weakest character trait—No direction, lack of force, inability to
focus, inability to relate

Laughs or mocks—What makes your character laugh? What does
your character laugh at or mock?

What others notice first about him or her.

What does the character do when alone?

One line character description—This is very challenging, but if
you can do it, you are on your way!

Will reader (viewer) like or dislike the character? How can you
make this character likeable even though he or she may possess lots
of negative traits?

Does he/she change in the story and how? We certainly hope so
as the arc of the character will keep the reader interested.

Significant event that molded the character.

Significant event that illustrates the character's personality.

My Suggestion: Keep this list close to your work space and
consult it from time to time and especially when stuck. Have

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The King's Speech

Sunrise in Camden Harbor, -10 degrees

“Objectivity and again, objectivity, and expression: no hind-side-beforeness, no straddled adjectives, no Tennysonianess of speech; nothing – nothing that you couldn’t, in the stress of some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion,

actually say.

(Emphasis mine), Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.” 

Ezra Pound

The Kings’ Speech

tells the story of the man who becomes King George VI, after his brother abdicates the throne to marry Wallace Simpson.  Bertie, as the future king is called, suffers from a speech impediment and a deep and irrational fear of speaking publicly.  After years of trying to overcome his challenge, Bertie works with an unorthodox and remarkable teacher who takes Bertie back to the origin of his fears and helps him to find his voice.  In the last dramatic minutes of the film, King George VI

delivers a faultless speech by radio heard around the world declaring Great Britain’s war on Nazi Germany in 1939. This moment in the film is the moment of triumph. The hero has found his voice.

In watching the movie, I was struck by the parallels between Bertie finding his voice and my students and clients finding their voices.  When my students come into class, they often write with a voice they consider to be “real” writing.  We might call it writerly, because it is not true to the natural rhythms of the writers’ speech. It is not believable. When Bertie is able to stand before the microphone and deliver his famous speech, he is believable.  Any good actor knows that when they deliver lines, it has to sound as if they are delivering them for the first time. The same is true of writing, the lines must sound alive.  In order to get writers to discover the natural rhythm of the voice, the first exercise in Method Writing is “Write Like You Talk”  We ask the writer to start with an empty mind – think the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind – and then write just like they talk.  The way anyone talks. Jack Grapes, my mentor and the creator of Method Writing, says this: “Our brain is hard-wired as it applies to speech and the syntax of language.”  He goes on to say that if we are writing a shopping list, or dashing off a quick note to someone, we tend to write in  “the syntax of speech.”  We don’t add a lot of adverbs, a ton of adjectives or compound sentences. Straightforward and to the point. Just as Ezra Pound says above. This is what we look for in the development of the Deep Voice.  First discovery of the natural rhythm or your voice, then, through a series of exercises, we begin to find your Deep Voice.

Writing Exercise


  Open your journal; empty your mind, no thinking about what you are about to write.  Pick up your pen and begin to write.  Imagine you are talking to a friend, recounting your day.  Write like you talk.  Write for two pages. When you finish, read it aloud.  Does it sound believable?  Does it sound like you?  Repeat the exercise until you begin to identify your voice. And, as a further exercise, listen to yourself as you talk in ordinary conversation throughout your day.

Sea smoke over Camden Harbor, -10 degrees



My Talk At the Monday Club in Camden

Sunrise over Curtis Island


"Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stilled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." Henry Miller

The Monday Club, Camden, Maine:

I was invited to speak at The Monday Club, an organization founded in 1885 to study and discuss “literature, art, science, and the vital interests of the day” Throughout the years and through all the changes in the world around them, ladies of the club have met in each other’s homes on Monday afternoons from November to April to present papers on the topic chosen for the year, followed by a tea complete with cucumber sandwiches and cookies.

The chosen topic for Monday Club for this year is letters. I read seven letters, from authors as diverse as Abigail Adams, Sigmund Freud, Henry Gates and George W Bush Sr. What I emphasized was writing from your authentic voice, whether it be light-hearted, such as Groucho Marx’ letter in the voice of his dog writing to his son, or more serious, as Rilke writing in a deep voice about what it is to be a writer. As I read, I asked the attendees to listen to the rhythm of the words – the music of the letter. The energy in the room changed according to what I read. When I quoted from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the room became quiet, people became thoughtful and went into themselves. Rilke spoke the truth and in doing so broke through each listener’s heart. I ended with Henry Miller’s quote (above) and invited all the members and their husbands to sit down and write to someone who was on their hearts.

Talking at the Monday Club

Members of the Monday Club listen with Graciousness

Writing exercise:

Write a letter to someone you know who has passed away. It could be a grandparent; it could be relative several generations back, or a close friend you lost as a teenager. . Imagine them and talk to them. Use your deep voice and speak from your heart and gut.  Talk about your present life and ask for their advice.  They are part of you and will speak to you.

Moon over Camden Harbor

Please feel free to 

contact me

 with your questions and exercises.