I attended my first writer’s workshop this last week, primarily on the invitation of a kind friend whose commitment to democratizing the act writing is rare and inspiring. At different times in my life, I’ve enjoyed writing for pleasure, but I haven’t been open to developmental opportunities like this. It’s summertime, though. My schedule is a bit lighter now and if the summer months are good for anything, with their long, hot days and sultry, starry nights, it’s for exploring the kinds of new possibilities that an icy, isolating winter seeks to prohibit.
I signed in and took my seat at the nearest table, knowing that I was overdressed for the occasion after having taught all day. Between the near constant fanning of faces of all colors and ages and the awkward volleys of conversation amongst strangers, I wasn’t the only one who looked uncomfortable and out of place. Still, we soldiered on and waited for the workshop to begin. Summer is a wondrous time of year and I’m glad that we have all four seasons here in the Sooner State. On the other hand, icy winters mean that crowded community rooms at public libraries aren’t sweltering saunas harangued by houseflies whose sole purpose seems to be interrupting the creative process.
Rest in Peace, Jeff Goldblum.
After a bit of orientation from the featured writer, who told us about what we were meant to gain from the workshop, I moved tables and sat at one earmarked for instruction in memoirs. I don’t write poetry, at least not in any sort of form that I’d share publicly. The workshop offered help in a few other areas, but slightly fictionalized recollection of the past is what I enjoy writing the most, so there I sat with the other memoir writers. The first thing I noticed was that I was, by far, the youngest person at the table.
I already look five to ten years younger than my actual age. Being grouped with an assortment of sexagenarians was slightly awkward enough on those grounds alone. The feeling only increased when we started to write about a particular moment from our life that we’ve never written about. Professionally, I entertain a classroom full of unwilling participants in the wonderful world of College Composition. It took time to become good at my job and at first, I was terribly nervous in front of students. I do pretty well now at not only maintaining their attention, but also making the course interesting for all involved. Intimidation is not a feeling I’m accustomed to anymore, yet there I was, sweating profusely like I did in my first semester of university teaching.
This is an actual, unedited review of me that appears on ratemyprofessors.com
The thing that bothers me most about the review: “alot”
I wasn’t intimidated because I had nothing to write and I wasn’t intimidated that I lacked the technical writing skill to communicate what I wanted to say so that others could understand. I was intimidated that my experiences would pale in comparison of those whose lives were longer, richer, and more full of drama than my own. I’m constantly reminded by older friends and family that I don’t remember the past correctly or that I still have all my important experiences ahead of me. Those nagging voices reverberate within the hollows of my mind.
The retired doctor who led our group suggested a variety of starting points, including our origin story, a trip we might have taken, the best day of our lives, or something we regret that we’d like to change. The last thought intrigued me, as I’m quite comfortable writing about personal regrets. You might even say it’s one of my favorite, most visited topics. Like a lot of folks, I started to write, made it a few lines in, hit a mental pothole, and threw the process in reverse. I erased lines, rewrote them, erased them again, and found cleaner, clearer wording. Sometimes, I’d look at the jumbled mess and turn to a fresh page, sometimes I had decided to write about a moment of profound cultural insensitivity that I committed several years ago, but no framing device seemed to bridge the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.
The retired doctor announced that we had just a minute or two to wrap up our writing exercise before we moved to a different phase of the process. I wasn’t ready to stop and in fact, I had just settled into a groove after splashing some water on my face. As our group reconvened, I knew that I had very little to share or expand upon at that moment. So, when the retired doctor asked for volunteers, I rode low in my chair like a teenage boy who had chosen to spend his evening curling a dumbbell, fantasizing about girls, and listening to crappy party rock music instead of completing the relatively simple assigned homework. A bit like this, sans the math.
The first volunteer, a surprisingly young looking 63 year old woman who kept complaining to me about a smell in the room, relayed a charming story about her family’s origins and how she wished she was a little less like her grandfather. The table responded warmly and she seemed genuinely pleased with herself, which made me feel a bit less anxious by association. Another volunteer, this one bearing a passing resemblance to both Clara Luper and the original Oracle from The Matrix movies, shared a nicely detailed explanation of her ship pulling away from the dock on a transatlantic voyage. I don’t read a lot of travelogues, but again the act of writing it out seemed to bring a smile to her face, which perpetuated the welcoming, non-judgmental ethos of the table. People smiled, remarked that these drafts seemed like good starts, and complimented the content of the passage.
When the retired doctor’s gaze finally locked onto mine and my draft was called forth, I read what little text I had and became instantly ashamed of how simultaneously paltry and purple the prose was. Because I ran out of text to read, I shifted into a description of where I wanted to go in the memoir, which of course took much longer to say than my actual written words took to be read. I explained how I arrived at this particular moment, the immediate consequences of what I didn’t realize I had done, and the ultimate resolution of the cultural insensitivity.
Now, anyone that knows me is aware that when I’m chasing a thought down, I talk fast and I use long sentences with long, polysyllabic words. I’m aware of this and I consciously do my best to avoid it, but we are what we are at times. My mind has always outpaced my mouth and the time I’ve put into filling my mind has only intensified the pace at which words are landed upon in my mind’s lexicon, determined to be the right words, articulated, and strung together into coherent sentences. So, when I finished saying my piece and looked upon the five confused faces staring back at me blankly, I assumed that my quicksilver tongue had failed me.
As seconds ticked off the clock without a response from anyone, the retired doctor looked at me and asked what drove me to select that moment. Clearly, the response I sought was not one of mild incredulity, so I equivocated and mumbled unconvincingly about going with the option of writing about something we regret that we would like to change. His eyebrows, which lifted in confusion the longer I explained myself, signaled to me that I should stop digging a bigger hole for myself.
For the other volunteers, he had taken a moment to direct a productively critical question to the table about the draft we had just heard. I expected my productively critical question to involve something about the structure of my prose, but instead of a question, I received a general comment. He looked around the table at the others’ faces while explaining that most people don’t write about their shame in memoirs, but that it might be an interesting way to go if one had some sort of instructive parable to impart. Other voices at the table agreed with his assessment by making kind, constructive comments. They enjoyed what I had to say and thought it was interesting, but hadn’t thought to share something so personal with perfect strangers.
I know enough about writing to know that they’re generally right, but also that the process is what one makes of it. If shame is the core emotion of one’s story, then so be it. Some of the greatest comedy minds of our day, like Louis C.K. or David Sedaris, have deep personal shame and over-sharing as centerpieces of their style. I was happily surprised by the criticism. I hadn’t spoken too fast, been too nervous, or lacked an experience commensurate with what I imagined to be the required ante for the table.
If I was guilty of anything, it was over-sharing, not producing a boring, pointless story. Because I’m also guilty of a lot of other ghastly flaws, like being incorrigible, I’m going to share the story with you in the next post. Until then, enjoy this strange, dreamlike song that is perfectly designed for a gloomy day introspection.