Every writer knows the horror of the blank page, the cursor blinking away in a sea of white. Like all creative processes, writing requires courage to face the unknown and trust that some kind of order will evolve. As seasoned writing teachers and coaches Dara Marks and Deb Norton see it, the writing process closely parallels life itself.
For the past five years, Marks and Norton have collaborated on a women’s writing workshop that guides participants on a creative journey, using ancient myths and feminine archetypes as metaphors for creativity. Their course, Engaging the Feminine Heroic, incorporates both theory and practice, drawing on Marks’s studies in mythology and her background as a Hollywood script consultant, as well as on Norton’s knack for helping writers at all levels to get unstuck and reconnected to their stories.
Marks and Norton’s own life stories share much in common. In the late 1980s, Marks began consulting with screenwriters. Over time, she found something missing in the traditional story structures that were being perpetuated: formulas that emphasized plot but overlooked characters’ internal quest. She returned to graduate school, earned her PhD in mythology, and has spent the years since then refining a nuanced approach to storytelling she calls the “transformational arc,” which she details in her book, Inside Story.
Meanwhile, Norton, who for seven years ran Theater 150 in Ojai, originally trained as an actress, only to discover she hated the business of acting. “I realized what I wanted was to tell really life-changing stories,” she explained. After years spent teaching herself to confront the blank page, sidestep her fears, and write, Norton found she had effective approaches to share with other writers. She has developed a series of classes and workshops focused on overcoming resistance — among them Unleash Your Genius and Write Club.
Both women teach and coach independently — Marks also gives lectures — but their collaboration on Engaging the Feminine Heroic yields a particularly rich synthesis of theory and practice. In June, I attended an immersive, weekend-long version of the workshop at La Casa de Maria in Montecito. Drawing on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone and the lesser-known Sumerian myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal, Marks gave a series of riveting mini-lectures, focusing on what she sees as the feminine equivalent of the hero’s journey: the journey into the underworld. As the survivor of a devastating car accident in her teens in which she was burned, Marks is something of an authority on suffering and on the transformation it allows. She’s also an articulate and impassioned speaker. “Story is the human instruction manual,” said Marks. “If you want to understand how to develop characters, look at how your own character has been developed. It’s really about how you deal with challenge and conflict.”
Marks’s talks fueled the intellect; Norton provided the ideal balance with guided writing prompts and effective approaches to getting pens to flowing across pages. Her instructions for writers emphasized process over product. “Keep your pen moving. Don’t try to be clever. Get it wrong; bark up the wrong tree,” and her tone was at once playful and respectful. The results, moreover, were stunning. Over the course of three days, I wrote, read, and listened to raw, funny, and moving stories of women’s journeys through darkness and back.
Though Marks makes a clear distinction between the feminine (an archetypal set of qualities present in all people) and the female, Engaging the Feminine Heroic is aimed at women. Eventually, Marks and Norton plan to develop a comparable workshop for men. After all, their approach to storytelling is relevant to all human experience. “In stories, as in real life,” Marks noted, “big external challenges make big internal demands on us, shaking up the status quo. This is what propels life forward and causes us to transform and grow.”
Engaging the Feminine Heroic is June 12-15, 2014, at La Casa de Maria in Montecito. Deb Norton’s Unleash your Genius workshop is September 6-8 and 13-15 in Ojai, and Write Club meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at Bohemia Coffee House in Ojai. To learn more about Marks and Norton or register for their workshops, visit daramarks.com and partwild.wordpress.com.