Friday, August 27th, 2010

Matthew Adams on Transformative Writing: Part 1


On my recent trek to Loretto, PA for the Summer Rhythm Renewal retreat, I took one of  Matthew Adams’s Transformative Writing workshops. Typically a 12 hour program that he teaches in and around Pittsburgh, we were given a 90 minute sampling at the Renewal of what the full course has to offer. I found Matt immediately likable and what impressed me the most in his class & speaking with him afterward, was that his style of teaching encourages  you to open up to new possibilities with your writing through your own self discoveries.

I asked Matt if he would write a post for us on Transformative Writing- this being the first of two parts:

Transformative Writing : Part 1

“Every day, every moment we’re alive, is something of a rebirth in which we are, before our very eyes, being made.  And in that delicate, turbulent space between our essential, shape-able selves and the world we encounter lies everyone we’ve ever been and are, even in that moment, in the process of becoming.  Maybe this is why something in me revolts with certain forms of art that present the conceit of a “finished” product—published writing, photography, drawing—or at least, certain forms of art that I, in my limited understanding of what I’ve traditionally called “finished” art, engage in.

Nothing is ever, for me, finished in that I, the writer, am never finished.  And thus, especially with writing, I find myself constantly engaged in battle.  Each word I write seems inherently limited in its ability to capture what it can be, what it’s going to be once I am reborn enough to understand and communicate it.  By extension, so does each occasion for writing, each impulse to write.  It’s like I’m screwed before I even start.  There are layers upon possible layers of impact and meaning in each experience that inspires me to write, and writing out each individual layer only seems to put me further and further behind my own growth as a person.  So what’s the point?  It’s a wild, doubt-inducing, confidence-shattering ride.  And yet, here I am.

This “here” is a place I’ve gotten closer to understanding over the years.  Not only does writing seek to capture us in moments of rebirth, but writing itself is a moment of rebirth.  Each draft and redraft is a primary director of that rebirth.  Thus it becomes a record, of sorts, that never ends, a log of the pathways traveled through the forest:  the ones that failed and what I saw and felt there, the ones that led me deeper in and closer to the forest’s heart.  That’s what makes it so risky, so arduous, so frustrating, terrifying, and exciting.  It mimics how we experience our lives.   And to call one of those drafts “finished” is to essentially determine ourselves dead.  Or so my thinking has historically gone….

It won’t be surprising, then, that I’ve spent large swaths of my life not writing, or writing hyper self-conscious, narcissistic dribble that failed miserably to push my ego out of the way and find something true.  I spent a lot of time, in those days, experiencing really, really important things (some of the most important things, sadly) with the doubt-inducing thought pulsing through my head, “How am I going to write about this?”  Even then I realized that this was perverse of me, an echo of the over-conscious self I have since spent a lot of time trying to un-become; it made me passive, a disengaged, distracted non-presence in my own life; and worse, it made the writing—that which I most wanted to represent me—boring.  That is to say, I was boring.  I was no longer growing and being reborn.  I was stuck in a perpetual process of “attempt,” which itself was a process of entrenching myself in memory.  I was anticipating how those experiences would impact me in the future-past, when I was sitting down to write them, and not what they meant to me then, in that moment of just being, the present tense.

On its surface, journaling seems tailored to recording the present tense.  It is an immediate record—portable and informal, inviting and flexible, a noncritical friend who just listens to us unload whatever is on our minds, whenever we want, for as long as we want—and thus presents a good practice, I think, for everybody to engage, if for nothing more than to get comfortable attempting to put words to those experiences by which we are being made.  But because it is an art, writing wants to go beyond this.  It wants to mimic our growth as we grow, draft after draft, not just record it (otherwise, there’s no growth to record).  In other words, it wants to be in a perpetual state of rebirth, just like its writers are.  And as such, we should not be so familiar with our writing, as journaling in the present tense allows us.  For that is the conceit of the so-called finished piece.  It says, “I know what I mean,” when we mean for it to say, in both form and spirit, “Here’s what it means to me now only.”

In order to get here, to disengage from the future-past and enter into the present, is to, ironically, create in the now an unknowing, truly flexible, and undiscovered piece, to let go of what we want or hope or think something means and open up the writing process to allow for our understanding to emerge naturally, in drafts that may or may not be considered “journaling.”  This should probably start at its inception, at the first impulse to write.   Inspiration occurs during those moments in our lives when we glimpse the divine, when we experience a loss of self and find in its stead the name of the world forming on our lips, and because this is so humbling, and because humility dislodges our sense of gravity, we tend to immediately want to impose structure on it in order to ground ourselves, to return to the earth.  Thus is our impulse to write.   We disengage from inspiration in order to capture it, in other words.

So we take to our journals.   We write it out.  Probably we put this in nonfiction form, in paragraphs and complete sentences with the innate subject being ourselves.  Our heads will swim with thoughts, seemingly unrelated, that we’ll dismiss in order to get back our focus.   And throughout the writing, we’ll grow conscious of the raw, growing ache of dislocation from a receding moment that’s already in the past.  So by the end, instead of lightening in a bottle, we’ll have before us a neat pile of shattered glass, and the arduous, frustrating, terrifying task of putting it back together to resemble something that’s simply no longer viable.  Thus does breaking out of our traditional approaches to journaling require an element of faith.  Not just faith in the writing process, but faith in others with whom we might share our process, and faith in ourselves.”

Stay tuned for the second part of  Transformative Writing by Matthew Adams


Matthew Adams is a journeyman writer and teacher from Pittsburgh, PA with advanced degrees in education and fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and Bennington College. He has taught at numerous secondary and post-secondary institutions, including Penn State, Duquesne, Frostburg State, Point Park College, and CCAC, and runs a writing workshop called “Transformative Writing:  The Art of Journaling.”  His talent lies in helping students find voices that fit their life experiences, identify and resolve whatever writing issues this uncovers, and replace their doubt and self-consciousness with a more open, honest, and grounded appreciation of what their writing has to offer.  For more information about his approach, workshop schedule, etc.,., visit

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