Talking back to the darkness

In difficult times, two workshop instructors say, writing can illuminate corners of the mind and restore a sense of possibility

In these difficult days, most everyone is looking for a way to cope, to find peace, to make sense of things. For some, it’s taking a walk, paddling a kayak, or learning a new skill. And for some, it’s writing. In the near future, Nancy Linnon and Kim Stafford will be leading writing workshops at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. I talked with them about writing your way out of darkness and how to defeat the demons that hold people back.

Linnon’s online workshop, “Changing in Place,” runs this weekend, Sept. 5 and 6. A writer for nearly all her life, Linnon has long had a practice, especially during tough times, of writing daily. But when the pandemic struck, she’d let that practice lag.

“I wasn’t giving it the attention it needed, given how chaotic and painful things were,” said Linnon, a writing instructor of 25 years. “My yoga teacher immediately went online daily, so I was doing my yoga practice daily. I was like, ‘I can do yoga every day, but I can’t write every day, when writing has been my practice?’ There was a lot to digest. Things were starting to pile up internally. I brought that practice back into my life. Nothing sees me through like writing.”

Nancy Linnon will teach a writing workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Nancy Linnon advises writers, “Before you sit down, tell yourself you are free to write the worst junk in the world.” She will lead a virtual writing workshop this weekend at the Sitka Center.

Linnon thinks of writing as a tool, not just to express what is there, but to discover what you didn’t know was there. It’s a sort of flashlight moving around inside, illuminating corners, she said. For her, one corner was a troubling connection with a family member who lost her mother when she was barely more than a toddler.

“My oldest sister’s mother died in the polio epidemic” of the mid-20th century, Linnon said. “I’m in the middle of this pandemic and not drawing the connection that an epidemic like polio had touched my father’s life. It was in the writing that I had that ‘A-ha.’ Probably if I had talked to my sister, it would have come up. Instead it came up in the writing, keeping me present in myself in a way nothing else really does.”

For those new to writing or intimidated by it, Linnon likes to draw on the teachings of author Natalie Goldberg. While some may insist writing is as simple as sitting down and picking up the pen, Linnon acknowledges it’s not always that easy. One important tip is to keep your hand moving.

“The other thing is, before you sit down, tell yourself you are free to write the worst junk in the world,” Linnon said. “All these voices in your head come and say, ‘You’re not describing it right.’ This isn’t the place for that. Don’t cross out, don’t think, don’t get logical, don’t worry about punctuation or spelling. When the critical voices come in, either put what they are saying on the page, or notice them and try to write through them. Go where your mind takes you. Another thing Natalie Goldberg says is, ‘Go for the jugular.’ It doesn’t matter what you start writing about, it’s the flashlight thing again.”

Stafford’s online workshop, “Pandemic Diary for the Earth” is set for Oct. 10 and 11. Like so many in these challenging times, Stafford said he finds himself starting the day with a sense of being surrounded by dire news.

“There are problems that are many and challenging, and then on the blank page before me, a miracle begins,” said Stafford, Oregon’s ninth poet laureate and founder of the Northwest Writing Institute. “There’s a story that consoles me. There’s a memory that informs me. There’s a question that intrigues me and I start to feel better. Maybe my standards are low, but an idea can help me through the day. A new perspective can restore my sense of possibility.”

Kim Stafford
Kim Stafford, who will lead a virtual writing workshop next month at Sitka Center, says he often starts the day feeling surrounded by bad news, “and then on the blank page before me, a miracle begins.”

Stafford has a daily writing practice and is the author of numerous books, but notes you don’t have to write a book to experience the writing process. Even a note to a friend, a few lines in a journal, can offer the benefit of creating, he said.

“One example of a writing exercise is to write about the lost good thing. This is an exercise that counselors use. I think it is available to anyone who writes. Was there a beautiful time, a beautiful friendship, a good feeling you had about yourself? If I write the story of that lost good thing, it’s not lost anymore. I’ve made it real. I’ve made it available to my life. It’s what my wife called talking back to all that darkness by creating something on the page. It may be small, but it’s important.”

Stafford’s tip for getting the words on the page is to think of the best listeners in your life — the person who didn’t change the subject when you said something important, the person who wanted to hear more and to understand how it made you feel. For Stafford, that person was his grandmother. She died when he was 16.

“If I write with her as my audience, I can tell the truth, explore something difficult, explore my inner feelings, because she wants to hear it,” he said. “I lost my good listener, but as a writer, I didn’t lose her.”

Stafford also warns of being wary of letting the inner editor take a crack at the work too soon. The time for that is later, after the intuitive work is complete.

“Writing is a way to stay on your path of thought until it becomes something rich and strange. A place like Sitka is dedicated to its gift, for all of us, of giving people time and community to live a creative life. And that creativity may seem like an extra or indulgence, but it’s actually crucial, especially in times of crisis. We can do new thinking, discover new ways to live on Earth.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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