by Lily Fishleder

We’ve all been there: you have a story plotted out in your head, but when you get it on the page, it fizzles. Or, conversely, you’ll start with a single, throwaway sentence and, somehow, wind up drafting 60 pages.

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Sara Michas-Martin

In writing, planning and forcing can sometimes be your greatest enemies. No one knows this better than Lighthouse instructor Sara Michas-Martin, noted poet, essayist, and all-around cool person, “When we write, if we know what we want to say ahead of time, chances are the writing will fail,” she says. “Without discovery, without curiosity, where is there to go?”

We recently caught up with Sara to talk about the creative process, finding your voice, and the two classes she’ll be teaching at Lit Fest 2016 this year, The Lyric Lab and Savvy Sentences.

You’ve written many beautiful poems. What daily practices nurture a poem to grow from an idea to a full-fledged package of prose?

I think those practices have changed and will continue to change depending on my life circumstances. The first thing that comes to mind is access to natural spaces. I am more creative, more open, and happier if I can walk out the front door and get on a trail or be near some form of water. I also need to engage in some form of learning every day to feed my writing. I learn from reading, listening to public radio, and watching my four year old navigate his world. Teaching requires an enormous amount of time and creative energy, but for me, it also offers vital forms of learning—learning new material to teach, learning from the amazing stories and insights shared by students. I’m a more productive writer when I teach because teaching also requires being fully present and awake. When I’m in a classroom, I am completely there with what I am doing, with who is there with me. I love the spontaneous, intensity of working with a group of writers in a workshop, one of the great pleasures of my life.

I noticed on your website an inspiring and thought-provoking perspective on the importance of stillness and listening as a catalyst for creativity. Sometimes, we forget communication is a two-way street: writer and reader; speaker and listener. How do creativity and stillness find their way into the creative writing and listening process?

I think your question relates to what I was saying about being present while teaching. Learning to be fully awake in the present moment, in the classroom and elsewhere, has been the most important practice to cultivate in writing and in life. How easy it is to spin off into a memory or spend hours planning or imagining what’s coming next. As writers, too, we spend a lot of time stirring around ideas and can become locked up in our heads. Sometimes the flurry of thoughts is so loud, how can any one idea be heard? So finding my breath again, I notice its steady rhythm, my physical body, the connection my feet find with the ground, and that’s the first attempt at stillness. Then I notice what’s happening with my thoughts. Usually it’s a matter of slowing them down and observing the swerve and chase. If I can find grounding in this practice, there’s room to thoughtfully observe the external world, and from there, I’m able to write.

Peter Elbow said, “Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.” In your upcoming workshop, Savvy Sentences, you hint that participants could very well leave with “something unexpected.” What do you mean by that?

I love that Elbow quote! Thank you for sharing that. I relate Elbow’s quote to the motion or progression of creative practice. When we write, if we know what we want to say ahead of time, chances are the writing will fail. Without discovery, without curiosity, where is there to go? There has to be a movement toward, a leaning into, and a willingness to let go of outcome. I want to show students possible ways to utilize the sentence in fresh ways. And I’m not talking about diagramming sentences or approaching the sentence in a rigid or scientific way. Learning any aspect of craft comes from reflecting on other writers’ strategies and even more so from experimentation. When we isolate one aspect of writing and practice working through our implementation of a technique—playfully, extensively—we sharpen our tool. Wait, that sounds dangerous! We hone our skills…

As a teacher mentoring students to find their own voice and write from their innermost intuition, what can you tell us about how you find your writer voice?

Voice, that slippery slippery idea! I suppose the way I find my writer voice really has to do with authenticity. I sound like myself when I am focused and writing in flow. I sound like myself when I’m driven by a sincere question. It seems obvious to say that the work that comes easily and honestly is the work that addresses something of emotional significance, and more so when I don’t begin trying to write about that thing that really matters to me. And this resonates with the Elbow quote and process of discovery, I think. If I’m too attached to where I want to end up when I start, I limit myself and the scope of the work. When I don’t sound like myself, it’s usually when I have to write a cover letter or perhaps a commissioned essay—anything that I am not really interested in writing or something that has a prescribed theme or subject. I would be a terrible journalist!

You’ll be leading two Lit Fest workshops. Could you describe your inspiration for these courses and what students can expect to get out of them?

Sure! Savvy Sentences is a craft seminar. As someone first trained in poetry, I’m attuned to the textural and musical aspects of language—the sounds of the words themselves, but moreover, the different ways a writer can affect meaning via the sentence though pacing, cadence, and variation. I was inspired to teach this workshop because, so often in workshops, we turn our attention to what a writer has “said.” But what about the way he or she has said it? The sentence is the basic building block of everything we write, and yet, we spend little time talking about how to harness its expressive power. We’ll only have two and a half hours together, but we’ll use that time to read and discuss prime examples of writers who master the choreography, the stutter and flow of their sentences to reinforce an emerging theme or to communicate tone, etc. We will do a few exercises together to practice some of the identified strategies, and students will leave with some ideas for how to approach their drafts at the sentence level.

The other class, The Lyric Lab, is a weekend intensive workshop open to writers of poetry and short fiction or prose. When I was a graduate student, I used to go to Steve Orlen’s office hours every week. He was an amazing teacher and poet. We would talk through a draft of a poem I was working on, and almost every time, he would pull a book from his shelf and suggest a poem I should study to help me understand how to address a problem I was having in my work. I loved that Steve chose poems I had never read before and how he showed me how to isolate one aspect of the poem’s mechanics to learn from. The poems he suggested opened up larger considerations about writing—what is an image system? How can titles do more than name? And it was from our conversations that matters of craft become directly applicable to me and my writing practice. I wanted to teach a workshop in this same spirit. A workshop that includes feedback, but goes beyond the critique, where the student’s work provides a solid platform to talk about aspects of craft applicable to everyone. I will do for each student what Steve did for me and select a companion text for each draft submitted!

Lily Fishleder is Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s summer intern.