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?”