Archive for October 25th, 2009

Hotlips writing workshop

This morning I spent a couple of hours at the local Hotlips Pizza for a writing workshop. This event is held in the morning on the third Thursday and last Sunday of each month (no Sunday workshops in November or December) and is a chance to “experience the transformative power of writing in community” and to support Write Around Portland with a donation ($10-30 sliding scale). See for more information.

About twenty people attended. The structure of the workshop was that we were given a series of writing prompts and then a few minutes to write on each, after which those who wanted to could read their pieces aloud, then the floor was opened for reactions. Only positive comments were allowed — this was an exercise in energizing writers rather than improving writing. Each excercise included two or three different prompts to choose from, and we were encouraged to write whatever we wanted without worry, apology, or fear of rejection.

The writing here was much different from what I usually encounter on the printed page or in critique groups. It was all raw, first-draft stuff, of course, but everyone who chose to read what they’d written had prose that was not only coherent but sometimes brilliant. The big difference was that everyone except me seemed to be coming from a modern-fiction, slice-of-life, or personal-memoir background. Some of the pieces seemed autobiographical, others were clearly completely fictional, but there was a lot more focus on emotion, memory, and poetic language (example: “the blue sky hanging in acres above the yellow leaves”) than I have in my own work or am used to seeing in SF. My own stuff seemed commercial — plotty, slick, and facile — by comparison with the best of these. Not that this is a bad thing, but it’s useful for me to be exposed to completely different kinds of writing every once in a while.

Here, for the record, is what I wrote, with the prompts:

“On the street where I live…”, 3 minutes:

On the street where I live, there is this enormous tree. I mean, it’s really huge — you can see it on Google Maps. I don’t know what kind of tree it is (probably a maple) or how long it’s been there, but the neighborhood dates from 1913 and I assume it was there before then. I imagine it as a full-grown but still young tree on this street of fresh new bungalows, right before WWI when Portland was young and new. It was here when the Titanic went down.

“Everyone knows him as…”, 8 minutes:

Everyone knows him as Devin. It’s a name he picked for himself when he came to this place, cold hungry lonely crying, not wanting to be himself any more. It’s a new opportunity, he tells himself, but it’s still a bitch — scrambling for work, never more than half a step away from homelessness, balancing necessities against absolutes, riding the float on his skinny little bank account. Then comes the day he finds the wallet.

It’s a fine, rich wallet — you can tell not only by the smooth dark leather of it but by how thin it is. This is not the wallet of a person who has to peel off grubby singles for a cheese slice ’cause he can’t afford pepperoni. Devin picks the wallet up, shakes off a few drops of filthy gutter water. It’s stiff with cards, gold platinum turquoise ruby… who ever heard of a ruby credit card? These colors remind Devin of a treasure cave, a fabulous hoard stumbled upon in a trackless desert.

But cards mean a name, and an address, and a fancy phone with a keyboard and color screen. Devin can’t use these cards — he’d go to jail for sure. Maybe, though — maybe there’d be a reward.

Pennies from a rich man’s purse. Charity.

Devin drops the wallet with a splash and goes on to his dishwashing job.

March 22, 1942 and “Everything seemed different after…”

(For this one we all wrote a date, something significant to us, on a slip of paper, put the slips in the middle of the table, and then drew one at random. I also used one of the two verbal prompts.)

Emily sat behind the counter at the USO, a cigarette’s smoke streaming gently up from between her fingers. All around, men in khaki and blue danced, chatted with the girls, talked seriously in the corners. Tojo was on the march — the Phillipines — bombing in Belgium. No Will. No Will anywhere, any more.

Emily stubbed out her smoke and rose, plastering a smile on her face and moving out into the crowd. Cleancut shaved faces perked up, turned toward her like flowers to the sun — then turned away as they found this sun shed no warmth. Why the hell had she come here anyway? Guilt? Guilt at being the young widow of a man who’d died at home — died changing a goddam lightbulb?

Will was going to sign up as soon as he got out of school. Emily’d worried about him — fighting out there in the jungles or on the fields of France — and when he’d fallen, and gasped his last alone in his own home, she’d been snapped in half by the irony — grief and a weird sense of relief. At least he died at home, she thought, and not in some bullet-pocked hell hole in the Pacific.

But still he was gone, and she’d been left behind — a warless war widow with no gold star to show for it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to smile at the next pink shaven face.

“My favorite costume…”, 7 minutes

It’s the tie I love the best — slick silk, blue with subtle grey dots, that slips through my fingers as I twist and knot it around my neck. The shirt, too, stiff starched collar and cuffs, cool crisp fabric like a bright promise on my skin. The suit jacket’s warm weight on my shoulders, pads and layers of wool, cotton, and silk, are comforting to me — armor against a world that would tear me apart if it knew what lay beneath those layers. And the shoes — shiny leather, firm yet flexible, finge and stitches and, yes, two shiny copper pennies.

The last, most important part of my costume I don’t like so much. The clinging, imprisoning plastic of the mask, tight and pink over the green of my face. The contacts are the worst — they burn and irritate my sensitive eyes, masking the amber behind white and blue. The false plastic tongue and teeth, uncomfortable though they are over my fangs, are not as bad.

At last I am prepared.

Trick or treat.