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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
When all Writers are Welcome. Then what?
I do the occasional gratis talk or presentation about creative writing at libraries, community centers, and other places. There is no money in it, the audience will be small (usually about a dozen folks), and it takes as much of my time and mental energy to prepare and present these talks as it does to do so for a (paid) class or seminar. But I have my reasons.
Recently, I gave a talk at my local library titled, Creative Writing: Making it Stick, and promised to talk about developing a writing habit, motivation, process, writers block, the art of rewriting and other topics which frequently derail the newer writer, the writer without benefit of a writing group, and the writer who is not sure whether what they are doing can even be called writing. Fourteen people registered and nine arrived on a rainy Monday morning for the 90 minute session.
I asked participants to talk about what they were working on and what was holding them back in their writing endeavors.
Participants one and two: a 40-years-married couple, recently retired.
Husband: At my brother's funeral, everyone was laughing their heads off during the eulogies because my brother was such a funny guy. I thought, I should write this stuff down, maybe write a book of stories about all the funny things he did and said.
Wife: We started working on it together and it's fun. He dictates and I record it, then we go over it together.
They asked great questions which opened up a lively and rich discussion: "How can I make sure anyone will want to read about someone else's life? What makes a personal story interesting to others?" They took notes. They stayed after the session ended and asked more questions. I got a terrific sense that this was not going to be one of those retired couples who drive one another around the bend. On the way out, they checked out a book about writing and a memoir of short humorous essays. I saw them holding hands on the way to their car.
Participant three: Retired paralegal with decades years of hilariously unlikely observations about life in that otherwise stuffy industry. She needs organizational help, wants to shed her tendency to write it right the first time, and thinks she hasn't got time to write an entire book anyway. She's visibly intrigued over a few relatively routine writing suggestions I make about how to get a first draft down on paper (and why it's okay for it to be so awful her former attorney boss would have fired her for producing anything quite so crappy), how to turn some of her otherwise off-limits time into writing time, and my suggestion that she group her stories according to theme or decade or situation. Few things measure up to the feeling of seeing light bulbs go on in the eyes of anyone who has come to you for help.
Participant four: Someone who took one of my creative nonfiction classes last Fall. She has the personal essayist's quiet gift for the telling detail. Her short pieces about life in the 1940s, and today, are exquisite charms. I've encouraged her to write more. She arrives with a bulging notebook, questions about revision, and that look. You know that look? The one which says, everything I take in, everything I see, think about and observe, is getting filed away and may show up somewhere, sometime, on the page. That look which says I'm listening, but I’m also already somewhere else, way inside my head, working with words, playing with phrases, intrigued by ideas. I love that look in a writer. One day I feel certain I will be reading her pieces somewhere other than at the library. Or maybe not; she is not so much interested in publication, as much as she is excited about working on her craft (huzzah!).
I like to think I helped at least that particular group of writers that morning. But maybe not Participants Five, Six and Seven, though: the grumbling old gentleman who wanted to talk (and talk and talk) about his poetry (any why he refuses to write it down); the woman who writes archly conservative political rants and felt ill treated when submitting to newspaper editors; and the self-published author of four romance novels hoping I could to interest an agent.
It had said on the flyer for the class, all writers welcome. And while it was fleetingly tempting to pass over the demands of this second group, I take it as a challenge to find something to offer everyone. So at the end of the session, I invited the elderly man to recite one poem – and he had us all laughing and nodding. I suggested to the political writer that she research right-leaning websites and tossed out the names of two to get her started. As for the romance writer, I directed her to a few agent resource sites and advised against sending copies of all four books along with her cover letter.
Sometimes, even weeks or months later, I hear from participants, which is almost always terrific (except when they ask me to edit 50 pages for free). But mostly, silence is okay too. I just take it to mean they are all busy writing. That may be just an illusion I use to keep myself going. That's okay too.