Pat MacEnulty

Pat MacEnulty
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
December 31
Writer and teacher. My most recent book, Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter's Memoir, is about taking care of my elderly mom. Published by The Feminist Press in 2011. I also give writing workshops on transformative writing.


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JANUARY 30, 2012 7:12AM

Writing, Exploring

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This is a reposting from my Transformative Writing Blog:

My friend Becky recently said to me, “The thing about writing is that all the things you don’t know about yourself come out.” This is one of the reasons I think of writing as spiritual exploration. We are like spelunkers going into caves with our flashlights piercing the depths as we gaze in astonishment. We discover our fears, our secret joys, our hidden longings, our obsessions, and a host of forgotten moments. This sense of the unexpected is also why I enjoy our transformative writing workshops so much: because even though I have done all the exercises I am going to be presenting, I have no idea what will come out when I do them. Every time it is something different.

This weekend my daughter accidentally set our house on fire. She’d left a candle burning by the bathtub. By six a.m. the fiberglass bathtub was in flames and we were standing outside in the cold, waiting for the fire department to arrive. So I knew what I was going to write about when I went to my TW workshop that day. I had to write about the fire. But I didn’t know I was going to write about my house and how I had fallen in love with it the first time I saw it. I didn’t know I was going to write a love letter to my house. 

I have lived in this house for nearly thirteen years, longer than I have ever lived in one place. Now I am getting ready to put it on the market. In the piece I wrote during the workshop I focused on the memory of the pack of neighborhood girls tromping through on a snowy day with a fire in the fireplace as I poured hot chocolate and marshmallows into ceramic cups. In all my preparations for moving on to the next phase of my life, I had not stopped to think about everything living in this house had meant for me: the sense of family, the sense of normality, the love.

So that was the gift my explorations brought me that day, or one of them. Through the explorations of the other writers I experienced the strangeness of a panic attack, the joy of discovering you’re pregnant, the fear and rage you feel when you’re attacked in a dark parking lot by four men for your sexuality, the satisfaction of taking your life back and deciding to live for yourself. And underneath those feelings was a  pervasive sense of strength. We were conquerors recounting our battles. 

Here are some prompts to help you in your explorations this week:

1. What is home to you? Where do you feel a sense of home? What are the physical manifestations of home? Conversely, are you still looking for home? 

2. What is the very first place you can remember? What details stand out to you? What is an incident that happened there? Draw a map or a blueprint of the place. What happened there that still somehow affects you today?

3. Have you ever felt fear or panic? What did it feel like inside the body, in your bones, your organs, your muscles? 

4. What about joy or contentment? Describe a time you felt either. Use as many metaphors as you can. 



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Good illustration of how the act of writing can tap into ordinarily overlooked parts of our memory. I prefer not to pursue this process deliberately, i.e. with prompts, altho I know that is a good way to jumpstart the imagination. I think my reluctance with the prompts is that it's too active a search. I tend to feel more creative when the prompt comes from within on its own, as a need to get something that's bothering or fascinating me out so I can examine it. I know a prompt can stir these inner mysteries, but I think for me discovery via intuition is more immediate and visceral.

Also, not to be critical of your teaching method, Pat, but I'm always leery of metaphors that seem contrived. For me to feel comfortable using them they need to satisfy an itch for vividness, a clarity that gleams, rather than the novelty of proximity I see too often in inexperienced writing and even in much contemporary "literary" writing. I see so many writers - many of them here on OS - who seem enamored more of their metaphors than of the story they're telling. This emphasis on metaphor can work brilliantly in comic or satiric writing - Tom Wolfe, John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart come to mind - but without that intentional edginess it tends to showcase the writer more than what the writing is trying to reveal.
Excellent post! Excellent thoughts! Excellent writing, but please let us know about your house. I hope the firefighters were able to save it....
Thanks for the comments. Matt, I agree with you about the potential for overwrought metaphors but I also like to remind writers to have fun with writing and metaphors can be lots of fun. Certainly when you get in there with the left brain you need to curtail some of the silly suckers! Also I understand you on the prompts. I have some followers of my blog who really enjoy prompts so I put them in. For me they work best in an actual workshop setting.
@ I Love Life (sweet) the house is okay. It was just the bathroom that got the worst of it. Insurance should cover the damage. Most fortunately no human or cat life was damaged. The smoke from a fiberglass tub is pretty toxic.
I write about my longing to have a house w a yard, washer/dryer, and someone to come home to that is as happy to see me as my dog is. R