Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Matthew Adams on Transformative Writing: Part 2


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 second of two parts, the first part can be found here.

Transformative Writing Part 2

“Faith is built of reason, I think.  It is reasonable to acknowledge the passing of time and the mortality of moments.  We move through an experience whether we like it or not, and all the divine thoughts, the perfectly formed phrases, the intense feelings and truth of that moment recede before us, making Gatsby’s of all of us writers who would keep reaching back into the future-past to remember them.  What we need is to let go of such moments, not try to recreate them as we lived them, which is impossible, but to create a sensory pathway which can lead us back to their present.  Instead of a direct and linear journaling approach, we might better serve ourselves by creating lists of images, fragments, single-word impressions of character, free association, word art, sketches, or photographs—anything that occurs to us to relate to the particular experience we’re writing about—as ways of encoding an experience, creating a trail of breadcrumbs, of sorts, that will lead us back to the sense of the experience.

We might, then, after we’ve assured ourselves that we’ve moved beyond that experience, that we’ve sufficiently let go of it, try to craft a fuller piece, apply some tentative structure, perhaps a short poem that weaves words into phrase into stanza, or give it some overarching structure, such as story, centered on a particular secondary character or object before getting a primary character (often, inherently, ourselves) into the piece.  These we would draft and redraft, writing from all kinds of different angles and perspectives, and these drafts and redrafts will serve the same purpose as those initial sketches of impression:  each will mark a stage of our growth and thinking about that experience, thereby keeping us in the present of that moment while allowing the present of all the moments to which it led to exist and impress us in the same way.  This is how we might keep the inspiration of those moments alive—by recognizing and paying our respects to the growth they lead to—but it can take a long, long time, and critical to maintaining our energy for such longevity is letting others share in our work.

Nowhere is our faith put to the test more than our strained relationship to community.  It’s rare that we share our journals with people we know, rarer still that we would share them with a complete stranger.   The reasons for this are multiple, but most have to do with the vulnerability to which such sharing exposes us, both on a personal level and on a level of craft.  In a way, I blame my conceit of the finished product, the one that seeks to impress before it seeks to find, the one that has me preempt every act of sharing with a denial, of sorts, of the moment I’ve tried to recreate, an explanation of its faults, an apology for its failures.  If we could pull back the veil of the “finished” to accept the truth of the perpetually incomplete, I think we would be much happier as writers, and much better writers, too.  For opening our work to a community—preferably a community that shared in the original, inspiring experience in the first place, but this isn’t necessary (most of our experiences are universal, after all, part of the one great story)—then we might find a healthy distance from our own writing.  We might not apologize for our egos so much as we would ask humbly for help in facilitating our growth.    This can go beyond the simple “share and respond” of a lot of workshops.  If we accept responsibility to respond to another’s work, then we might even take that responsibility to a place where we’re actually writing for others, gifting our own pathways to them, attaching our own growth to theirs.  The community this builds, if we can marshal the faith to take these first, radical steps, is intimate, trusting, and constantly inspiring, constantly surprising.

But ultimately, in order to do this, we need to have faith in ourselves, faith that it’s all worth it, that we will still be able to locate ourselves in the pieces we continually reproduce.  The loss of self I’m proposing with this process I call “transformative writing” is not the loss of the essential, all seeing, all knowing self (the one that recognizes the divine in those moments of inspiration).  It’s the loss of the self that is constantly conscious of time, constantly in search of meaning and validation and vindication.  Let’s face it, our happiest moments are those when we forget to even breathe, and I can’t think of a more perfect expression of faith than that (the faith that suggests there is no such thing as dying, no such thing as failure).  It’s the kind of faith you find when you discover the balance of walking on two legs or riding on two-wheels, when you first find the rhythm of a song at a school dance, when you take the stage at a reading and find yourself become the story you’re telling rather than just the voice that’s telling it.  It’s a faith that I think comes of action, of performance, and thus wants desperately to become part of the writing process, either as a simple reading of the piece, or a recreation of it as performance—spoken word accompanied by song, dance, visual art—stretching the boundaries of the piece and breathing further growth into it.

Nothing is ever really finished.  Even if we’ve crafted something to satisfy the demands of ourselves and others, the demands of the experience we’re writing, it’s not ever really finished (there really is no such thing as dying), it’s merely a reflection of our limited understanding of what those demands are, and what “finished” means.  The goal of art is not necessarily to command the stage in order to tell ourselves, but to lend volume to the chorus of the world, to enter into the pulse of the one great story, become part of its heartbeat.  In order to do that, we need to respect that we only live in the here and now, and that our art is but a fragment of that here and now.  Thus does “finished” not really describe the art (that’s been my traditional misunderstanding), but the recreated moment that the art is attempting to be part of.  It’s finished only because we’re done performing this particular draft of it.  Though we can, and sometimes do, spend our physical lifetimes recreating and resharing such moments, they never really end.  And it’s in this fact—so often the true, hidden cause of our suffering and lifelessness in that we misunderstand “living” to be a frustrating, pointless, finite endeavor—that we can find our joy as both writers and thinking, feeling, engaged human beings.”


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

2 thoughts on “Matthew Adams on Transformative Writing: Part 2

  1. “Faith?”
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
    Through the Looking Glass.

  2. “Faith?”
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
    Through the Looking Glass.

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