“Writing on the Edge” with Jillian Lauren

For five days at the AROHO Retreat, a successful author, poet, or playwright mentored small groups of students. My mentor was Jillian Lauren, author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty. She’s also a talented spoken word storyteller for The Moth, and an overall rockin’ lady.

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Our small group sessions focused on “Writing on the Edge.” How do you make all the atrocities you see in the news everyday still seem fresh and engaging? How do you write about sex, drugs, and rock & roll without sounding like a cliché?

Jillian shared some insightful tips. Forget about shocking topics. It’s all about the ride the narrator takes you on. And how the narrator takes you on that ride.

Your narrator should:

  • Have an authentic and powerful voice. Easy, right?
  • Inspire empathy in the reader.
  • Share experiences that are relatable. Or somehow make them relatable.
  • Convey an organizing insight. What revelation will the reader walk away with when the pages are done?
  • Have a specific way of observing/interpreting life and show that in every scene and detail.

We read excerpts from Permanent Midnight, The Kiss, and You Got to Burn to Shine, and examined how the author accomplished this. She gave us a fantastic arsenal of writing book recommendations like Writing from the Body, The Tools, and Writing Down the Bones.

Jillian also led us through yoga, meditation, and writing freewrites so that we could dive into our own bodies and the hidden parts of our minds. A couple of her prompts kept me up writing late into the night with only moths for company.

"Writing on the Edge" Group with Jillian Lauren at Abiquiu Lake (Photo Credit: Rachel Schwerin)

“Writing on the Edge” Group with Jillian Lauren at Abiquiu Lake (Photo Credit: Rachel Schwerin)

In one particularly difficult session, we explored our “Shadow” selves—a Carl Jung archetype that is the worst part of ourselves. It’s everything that we don’t want the world to see. As you can imagine, it was agonizing to conjure up this image and translate it to the page. But, in order to write on the edge, we have to connect to this part of ourselves.

During our farewell sessions, we burned notes to our Shadows, massaged them into red clay shapes, and spent a day at Abiquiu Lake jumping in, Shadows and all. In the cool waves and on the scorching rock slabs, the wind pestered us for secrets waiting for release. We told them true.

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