Thursday, February 11, 2016

Facing Our Dragons: A Week with Tom Sleigh

It is inevitable in writing that, sooner or later, we will come face to face with a dragon. My dragon is often my grandmother’s death; I want to write about her, but nothing I put down on the page feels good enough. I get overwhelmed and it scares me to look the dragon in the eye. It is so much easier to put down my pen and wait for the dragon to curl back into its cave. I’m not ready. Maybe it’s not my story to tell. Perhaps I’ll write about something else.

Tom Sleigh described the writing process to our workshop group as a combination of emotions, thoughts and words. Emotion finds a thought, that thought finds a word. We took out old pieces of things we’d written days, weeks or months earlier and began to revise them, recasting our sentences because that, Tom said, is the joy of writing. The lines we had initially written were stretched and broken and changed until our emotions found the right thoughts and the right words to portray them on the page. And in that workshop, we watched ourselves (and each other) transform.

Eventually, we writers want people to read what we’ve written. Why else would we keep submitting to journals or showing up to workshops? But when we’re faced with material that is overwhelming to us, difficult to write because it’s too personal, too tough to get out and on to the page, sometimes we give up. Sometimes the dragon looms over us, breathing heavily down our necks and we can’t take the heat. Our emotion found the thought—waking the dragon—but the words aren’t there yet.

In our classroom, on the board, Tom draws a dot. “This is you,” he tells us, “and this—” he draws another dot, “is your dragon.” He connects the two dots with one very short line. “Now, you can’t fight a dragon with your bare hands, but if only you had a sword.” Tom draws another dot, redirecting the route from “you” to “sword” to “dragon” making a triangle for us to observe. “Put something between you and the dragon and you’ll get that distance you need to fight it.”

We use language as a disguise. We want the world to know what happened to us but we don’t want the world to see through the experience to find us cowering in a corner afraid of what we might have unleashed. By focusing on individual words and sentences first, building up from there and allowing our material to grow, Tom Sleigh encouraged us not to hide from our material, guiding us to see that it’s not about what you write—it’s about how we move through it. Orchestrating the perception of the reader through manipulation of the line will create the thing so many might refer to as “voice.” Tom, however, calls this “style.”  

Rebecca Jensen is a second-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction. Her poetry appears in Eunoia Review, Firefly Magazine and FishFood Magazine, and she is a nominee for the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Project in creative nonfiction. 

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