Writing Raw. Capturing Awe.
Even after six years of leading Awe Writing Workshops, my step lightens, my chest expands, and I feel more connected to humanity each time I wrap one up. I love hearing pens race across paper and seeing faces filled with determination as writers put ineffable experiences into words.
I appreciate how everyones’ heads are bent forward in attention, listening carefully, as tender stories of awe are shared in a circle.
Awe experiences can happen in a myriad of settings. They can occur in nature or with collective engagements; they can flower during encounters with the divine, art, music, big ideas, moral beauty, or life/death transitions. After enumerating and explaining eight different types of awe in my workshop, I read poems to juice up the room with sensual imagery, accessible story structure and specific, wonder-filled moments. Quickly thereafter, unique and unexpected narratives pour forth from participants, giving both the writer and the audience chills and goosebumps.
Recently, I’ve heard tales depicting the ecstasy of an ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro and the terror of eluding a panther in the Amazon. I’ve enjoyed descriptions of pink flamingos lifting off lakes, monarchs erupting from trees and snow geese filling the sky. I’ve related to exhilarating stories of welcoming newborns into the world or those that express gratitude and relief after rescuing a loved one from a near fatal accident. I’ve appreciated depictions of grief as a series of snowstorms and the shocking abundance of love a person experienced after a cancer diagnosis. I never can resist an inspiring narrative about the altruism of a teacher, a friend, or a stranger. But I also relish a gleeful report about diving into a mosh pit as a young teen, throwing a raucous reunion or surfing with manta rays.
Awe stories are as unique, insightful and powerful as the people who write them. Always surprising, I never tire of hearing them. This last time I taught, I used a pack of glossy cards invented by Dacher Keltner and Danielle Krettek Cobb. Each card asked about awe experiences from eight different categories. They posed questions such as: How has a musical artist changed your life? Have you ever experienced a miracle? Have you traveled somewhere that has changed your worldview? Recall a time when you felt entirely connected to nature. Have you ever been mesmerized by a built environment? Think about someone who has shown you kindness for no reason. How has encountering death changed the way you live your life? The room buzzed with excited conversation before the writing began. Truthfully, it was hard to get everyone to quiet down and settle back into their seats because the groups were so animated and engaged while they shared their stories.
Many instructors of creative nonfiction believe a good story comes from difficulty and darkness. They urge you to write about the things that keep you up at night, the things that break your heart, the times in your life when you were brought to your knees and were filled with despair. And I agree, problems do make for a good story, especially if you are able to explain the wisdom you took from changing a bad situation into a better one. But I think it is fruitful to examine the awe-filled moments of a life, too. Detailing awe experiences can yield personal turning points and transformational insights that celebrate a life that may not have been riddled with heartbreak, devastated by loss or shattered by trauma.
If you are interested in exploring both the raw and the awe-filled moments in your life through writing, I’d love to have you join me and MEA co-founder Jeff Hamaoui for Write for Your Life in Baja this October 30 - Nov 6. There are a couple spots left.
Mollie McNeil is an award-winning teacher who has taught writing at Mills College, the University of Wisconsin, Madison and De Anza College, as well as the Esalen Institute. She has published many short stories in literary journals and is just finishing up her first novel, a work of historical fiction set in Northern California.