Every Tuesday morning I walk into the General Store Café and set up my books and timer on a round table in the back room. Joyce and Vance have kindly given permission for me to run a workshop for writers back there, during a time when the room is closed and mostly quiet. We are a motley crew—among us are retirees, engineers, moms and dads, several Ph.D.s, a rock and roll musician, a musical theater actor, a nurse, a patent attorney, and a practicing Santa. What do we have in common? A devout adherence to the practice of writing. Every week I give a prompt or two, and we write. And write. Sometimes I have a hard time getting people to STOP writing. Sometimes I just let them go.
I like to call it a Writing Insurrection. Because there is something powerful released, something that was waiting to come out into the open and take charge—and because more and more people are doing it, in Chatham County workshops and elsewhere, in my workshops and others. How do we survive hard times, fractured lives and communities? We write. Sometimes we write together.
The results are always surprising. To paraphrase The Shadow: “Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men?” Well, the page knows. Because one of our writing rules is confidentiality, writers feel able to release the deepest parts of their hearts. Because we are careful to nurture tender writing, writers gain confidence to express more and more.
A couple of months ago I gave writers a prompt that had an interesting result. We had been mostly writing about our own lives. This time we were going to make something up. We were going to write fiction. Fiction! How do you do THAT?
The assignment follows. You can try it at home—or at the General Store Café!
Prompt: Wander at a café and find a person who catches your eye. Describe this person in detail. Then make up a problem for him or her. See what happens next. Write in third person, present tense. Write for 12 minutes.
Here is what one writer wrote–first draft, right out of the chute.
The Girl in the Yellow Hoodie
By Sandra Gabor
She’s walking toward the ladies room just now. She has on a great yellow hoodie – hood down, of course, because she has beautiful long, dark honey-blond hair, not totally straight, but without curls. She is drawing a strand of it across her face and putting into her mouth.
In her job as a nanny, she cares for two-year-old twins, Ayden and Ellie. They are rambunctious and can sometimes be a real trial. But the active, ever-challenging twins are not the thing that’s causing her to chew her hair while heading for the General Store Café’s ladies room this morning. That kind of trouble can only be caused by a man, as any mature woman knows instantly when she sees tresses being gnawed.
This morning at breakfast, her boyfriend said, ‘What’d you do to these eggs? They’re hard as rocks and the bacon is, too.”
All of a sudden our girl in the yellow hoodie is in trouble. Sandra went back to this story and kept going, exploring the troubles of the fictional nanny. Sandra’s voice—a wise, often witty, sometimes sardonic voice—came to her aid as usual. But this time her writer’s mind got “caught” in the web of invention. How cool is that?
Good writing seeks to delve into what lurks in the minds of men and women—our own minds when we write memoir, the minds of characters when we write fiction. It opens the heart to the swirling, confused, troubled, joyful minds around us. At its very best, it teaches compassion.
Writing can be an insurrection of the hearts of men, and women. Who knew?