As a teacher of writing, I often find myself learning from my students. These lessons aren’t usually about craft or technique, since most of the time I’ve got years (or decades) on them in terms of experience. But that very experience can be a disadvantage when it comes to keeping the impetus for writing alive, the passion and flame that brought me to storytelling in the first place. 

In the past month, I’ve traveled to Costa Rica and New Zealand, and it’s from down under that I’m writing you about a creativity workshop my three sisters and I held last week in a town about an hour north of Wellington. Raised by juicy, creatively alive parents, my sibs and I have each ended up making our living in a different field of art, so our collaborative workshops always involve painting (Helen), music (Suzy), film animation (Janie), and writing (Louise). Just a few days ago, at the most recent Four Sisters Workshop, a young woman helped me remember what trumps structure, plot, and language. Like the others in this course, she had no professional background in writing, painting, music or film. Like the others, she chose an object to bring with her, a totem that acted as a spiritual and artistic fulcrum for each session. What she chose, a small chunk of volcanic obsidian, changed us all.


The final session in our workshop is often a free write, a letter written to each participant from their object. It’s a right-brain, erasure and thought-free expression of why and how the object is with us, why it chose to take this creative journey. In the free write that this young woman shared with us, the small jet-black chunk of stone she’d chosen (without knowing why), wrote her about explosions and fear, about destruction and chaos. It explained that while darkness and pain are usually confusing and frightening, they can also lead to renewal and growth, like the brand new flora that populate volcanoes years after an eruption, or the beautiful shattered face of the obsidian itself. 

I will not quote from the actual free write here, since workshop is a sacred space that needs to be protected, and a blog is the last place something one of us channels from our emotional core, needs to end up. But I have obtained the writer’s permission to share with you here the phrase, the exhortation that her totem, the small dark stone thrown off hundreds of years ago by an eruption, kept repeating. “Where is your volcano?” it asked. It urged the writer (and the rest of us) not to go where it’s safe, but to go where things are bubbling under the surface, where the footing is dangerous, where we are uncomfortable and unsure. It told the writer that the lifestyle and career choices before her could all be decided by asking herself, “Where is your volcano?” 

Not a bad way to make writing choices, too, I think. At least for me, from now on, a great many decisions, from the initial undertaking of a book-length project, to the selection of view point, to the determination of scene content and even word choice, will depend on the answer to a single question: “Where is my volcano?”


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6 responses to “WHERE IS MY VOLCANO?

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Louise! I love this question: Where is your volcano? Just this weekend, at a writers’ retreat, I was reminded that as writers, we must go to the place we fear the most. Only by facing our fears do we create the opportunity for real growth. And as a “rock hound” with plenty of obisidan and other volcanic rocks around, I have many reminders!

    • louisehawes

      Yes, Terry, rocks, in their shaggy quiet, are full of lessons, aren’t they? I wish I could say that the volcano in the picture is the source of the obsidian the student brought to our course. Actually, the photo was taken a few weeks before I visited New Zealand. It features Poas, a volcano in Costa Rica that is, as you can see, still steaming…

  2. Well there’s another metaphor for writing–seemingly quiet yet the steam indicates the deeper emotions slowly being released. It’s when the steam stops that you’d better watch out because something’s going to blow!

  3. louisehawes

    Indeed, Terry. Suppressed emotion plus a place to vent is a recipe for explosive doings in lit and life…

  4. Elizabeth Kuelbs

    I love this, Louise! Thank you for posting it, and thanks to your
    student for sharing her stone’s question! What a great prompt to shake things up.

    I have a short volcano story to share, too. Several years ago I had a moment of connection on the summit of Haleakala on Maui, so I feel kinship with your student. I don’t know if you’ve been to the top of Haleakala? If not, it’s a long, switch-backy drive up from the sunny beaches to the cold, Martian-like crater. Especially with three crabby kids in the car who’d rather be swimming than sight-seeing.:) But I coaxed my family all the way up, and at the top of the mountain we met a woman ranger who spoke to my kids in what sounded like the voice of the volcano to me. I’m sure that impression had something to do with the 10,000 foot altitude, but it shook me deeply.

    I got a poem out of the experience, which was published in the Hawaii Women’s Journal. I discovered the journal through a call for submissions posted on the bulletin board of Dewey Hall at my first residency (at least one of its editors was a VCFA grad) which layered more connection and fun onto that volcano moment:) (It’s on page 19 here, if you’d like to see:
    http://hawaiiwomensjournal.com/ISSUE4forWEB.pdf )

    I hope the remainder of your trip is wonderful, and safe travels home!

  5. louisehawes

    Wow, Elizabeth! Synchronicities abound! The osbidian in your poem “reflects” my student’s stone, and the “hot sparks of making” are a lovely picture of the creative, volcanic power in each of us. Thank you so much for sharing!

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