Prompts

unnamed (1)I led a writing workshop last week at Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine. I love part of the description on their website, in which it said that writers would be “telling the stories of (their lives)–in a circle of soulful smiling and laughing raving big-hearts.” It was so true. Big hearts indeed.

This is my third year in a row, and fourth year overall, leading the workshop. We had more than 20 people each day, and the format is both simple and profound. We sit in a covered pavilion on the edge of the woods with coffee, notepads, and computers in hand. I read one poem of reflection, then one poem as a prompt, and we write.

I based the prompts on a general theme. Last year it was generosity, in part based on the idea that writing itself is an act of generosity. The former coordinator, Jim Ellefson, made this point often, sometimes with the admonition from Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried: “But this too is true: stories can save us.” They can. They do.

This year’s theme was an answer to last year’s: gratitude. I started the week with a delightful poem by Alice N. Persons, “Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man.” Among many things, the poem is a celebration of the everyday, the small delights that arrive and need to be called out:

“you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship”
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs

(I have never met Alice Persons, but if I weren’t a married man I would apply to be her UPS driver. For now I will just have to read more of her poems here and in the book I bought here.)

The prompt from that poem was, “What small things move you?” I gave them five minutes. They were, as the saying goes, off to the races. (For our always-optional homework that evening I suggested “first crush” as one of several topics. My goodness did a couple of people nail that one.)

All week people produced one fine piece of writing after another. I fretted about the size of the group, if everyone would have enough time to share, if the reading on Thursday night would come together well. I haven’t read the evaluations yet, but it did seem to go even better than I could have hoped. People shared and people listened with warmth and appreciation. We did indeed have soulful smiling and laughs. The big-hearts filled the pavilion and won the week.

We had perhaps forty people attend the reading. It is the best audience you could imagine for a reading–a sea of intelligent, smiling faces, laughing at the right time, nodding in appreciation throughout, offering warm applause at every turn. I had the best seat in the house. I could see each person up close as they read. They were prepared, their pieces edited and timed, their presence in front of the microphone assured. They also channeled something they knew already but perhaps needed to hear one more time from me: a little adrenaline is a good thing. If the great Bill Russell could throw up before every game on his way to 11 NBA championships, they could welcome some butterflies and a dry mouth.

After the Thursday night reading, the final session on Friday morning is always happily quieter. We do another prompt, share some of what we’ve read, and talk about the year in front of us. We try each year to keep it going but we always have to admit that it’s not easy. We return to life–to work and homes and children and school and aging parents. Our plan this year is to produce an online journal or collection from what we have written. The young woman spearheading that effort has the energy and the drive, and I think it’s kind of cool that she will be doing it from her new home in Amsterdam. An international literary journal. We deserve no less.

For a final prompt I chose a favorite poem, “This Couple,” from the wonderful Arkansas poet C. D. Wright who passed in 2016. Just as Persons did in her poem about her UPS man, Wright uses the everyday to celebrate life, but instead of highlighting a fanciful moment, she creates an ode to a long and sustained relationship. We see the couple in scene after scene, dotted with rain, full of the mundane (“pay toilets where we sat without paper” and “our heads resting against an elevator wall inhaling a stranger”).

Any one of these images could be prompt, but I chose, “Cafes where we ate late and once only.” People leaned into their notepads and their notebook computers and cranked away. I only gave them seven minutes, but they hit it out of the ballpark once again. People took us to every corner of the country and every kind of cafe. The pancakes were good or terrible, the pies runny or perfect, the waitresses bored or friendly. We paused before taking our morning break and I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell them of the last gifts they had just given to each other but I could feel my throat tighten and my eyes sting. I couldn’t get it out. I hope they know it, though. I hope they know what a gift it is to share like that: what a gift it is for each of them and for me.

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