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
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.
A colleague told me a story once. He had been advising the Vatican on work they were doing to scan important documents, some dating back centuries. IBM had been given the work, and they had put equipment and a team on site so that none of the documents had to travel.
Document scanning can be dreary work. Consider things like contracts, business correspondence, financial records. But in publishing and in archives, the work can be interesting. I would love, for example, to be involved in scanning documents related to the transcendentalists. They have to be voluminous, far-ranging, and rich.
Anyway, back to the Vatican. As my colleague tells the story, one of the technicians was having trouble scanning a page so that the marginalia was coming out as clearly as the main text. The technician, an American, called over one of the Vatican archivists.
“Is this important?” the technician asked.
The archivist studied the document for a moment, handed it back to the technician. “Apparently da Vinci thought so.”
The story could well be apocryphal. I don’t even remember who told me the story. It was that long ago and my connection to the colleague was thin. Apocryphal or not, though, it made a point. Sometimes the marginalia is more important than the text itself.
I mentioned my note-taking style in a recent post. Through college and into graduate school, my style was always to take voluminous notes. It helped me structure what I was hearing and it helped me remember. I didn’t even have to go back to the notes, necessarily, because the process worked so well. Over time, I became even better at creating structure as I listened.
When I look at those old notebooks now, as interesting as they might be, I am most drawn to the marginalia. They tell me, in small ways, what was going on in my life. They tell me, even more importantly, what I was thinking about, and sometimes fretting about.
- At the start of one semester, I made a note about the names of the other people in the class (“Kus, Donna, Patricia, Nikki, Chris E.,” and someone I could only identify as “Boston5.” Maybe he or she worked at the local television station?)
- In the opposite margin, I wrote down the names of several other BU professors in the program (Mager?, Kelley, Robert Davis). Maybe I was trying to figure out who my dissertation advisors might be?
I wrote many other notes.
- “Hypertext” in a circle
- “128 Bay State Road (next to Army Vans)”
- “Call Susan Morgan” (Susan was a colleague at Xyvision, the new company I had just joined as a Course Developer.)
- “EM 711” (I wrote this several times, as a reminder that the material covered in the text would be covered in more detail later, in another class.)
- Apparently one of my classmates wasn’t in class on 10/31/1989: “Chris Out Sick”
- After the midterm, I wrote the word “Papers” in the top right corner of one page. Again circled. I must have been anxious about getting things done.
- A week later I used the upper-corner again for another circled note, “Monday Nights 7-10,” then that same evening I made a note about another possible class, “EM 731, CBI, Screen Design, Human Factors, Authoring Language Programming.” That is so 1989.
- Work was clearly on my mind, though, because that same evening I wrote, again circle, “OVERHEADS FOR CALS.” This was a reference to a work project at my new employer. Apparently I needed to write it in all caps.
- (A brief aside: I was marveling at the quality of my notes and I remembered what a good lecturer my professor, Wilbur Parrott, was. I then did a search for him and that led me to an 1878 patent, “Improvement in whiffletrees” and another Wilbur Parrott, who was listed as a witness to that patent. I doubt I will end up using it, but there is indeed poetry in everyday things.)
My notebook ends with what may have been the final lecture on 11/28/89, but after a few blank pages I had faithfully recorded an informal bibliography of the five journals I should be following and then a list of books. I then have two more pages of notes at the very end of the notebook. Left loose in the back of the notebook were the slide I mentioned above and its accompanying note, the journal article, four other journal articles, and some handouts. There is also a short paper I wrote. There’s no grade on it, so I must have handed in another copy. I have to admit it’s pretty good.
Why do I mention all this? I am convinced that our own marginalia is good raw material. As mundane as the notes are, I can use some of them for germs of stories or details for other stories (see my recent entry here on this same subject). I like the thought of this student being so focused in the class, and clearly enjoying it, but then work creeping in. It’s not easy being a working student. and more students than ever are working more hours than ever.
I lived that life for a long time. I worked and did freelance work for each of my four undergraduate years. For the six years that I was a graduate student, I worked anywhere from 24-40+ hours per week in a day job and also freelanced. After I was awarded my M.A., I added teaching to that. For five of those years I was also married. I changed course, so to speak, when my wife and I decided to have children, so I didn’t have the added stress of being a parent. (That’s also a rising percentage of even undergraduates who have children, and the majority of parents who go to college are women.)
There are stories in there. Some of them might even end up being pretty good.
On January 15, 1987, I left my office in Bedford early, drove to the post office near my apartment in Arlington, then to the library, and then into Harvard Square to teach a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I put 46 miles on my 1984 Nissan Stanza, going from 37,418 miles to 37,464 miles.
How do I know this? I know this because I was earning some money as writing and had to keep good records. I also know because I am a bit of a pack rat. No one has to keep 29-year-old tax records. In my case, the records take up the first 20 sheets of a small notebook. There was simply too much good blank paper left to throw it away.
I still have essentially all of my notebooks–and probably nearly all of my blue books–from my undergraduate and graduate classes. For example, on November 28, 1989, in a classroom at the Boston University School of Education, I presented a single slide on the idea of advanced organizers to help improve reading comprehension. The slide was based on a 1960 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, “The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material.” I know this because I still have the slide, done by hand, and a set of notes, and a copy of the original paper. I also took well over 150 pages of notes that semester because writing so many things down always worked for me in helping to learn new things.
(The notebook reminds me that, even though I didn’t finish my degree, I was a pretty good doctoral student.)
Here’s what else I know about November 28, 1989, this time with help from the web:
- It was a Tuesday.
- It started out as an unusually warm day for Boston, with rain in the morning, then a high of 59F that lasted most of a cloudy day. Then it cleared and the temperature dropped precipitously, and by the time I got out out of class (probably around 10:00 pm) the temperature had dropped to the high 30s. The 20-mph winds, though, made it feel like 29.
- The Boston Bruins beat the St. Louis Blues that night, 5-1. Ken “The Rat” Lineseman, one of my favorite players of that era, scored twice. The game was in St. Louis, so I may have been home in time to catch the end.
- Deer hunting season began in Massachusetts (I didn’t even know we had one).
- Further away in the world, the Soviet Union continued to crumble.
- In the midst of the Velvet Revolution, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced it would give up its monopoly on political power.
- In another blow to communism, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci fled to Hungary.
To dig in a little more, I browsed the online Boston Globe through my MIT library credentials. While all these things were happening, the Globe showed what I could not recognize at the time. It was (and is) a provincial paper. Local news–murders, lesser crimes, obituaries of the minor and very-minor–outpaced all of the larger international stories. There were six stories about the Boston Red Sox, even though the season had ended almost two months before.
Why mention all this? I’ve discussed how internet research can provide wonderful raw material for writing. I recently finished writing a short story that I kind of like. It blends a fictional story with a few elements from my own past and, significantly, some events in history. The setting was 1982, and the narrator, like me, was working in the defense industry at a point when the Cold War was still very real and very scary. I remembered certain events of that time, and tracked down the details, read a number of articles about them. It brought the events themselves into sharper focus, but it also helped me understand why the character was as fearful as he was. He had good reason to be, even while many of the people around him were not.
All of this raw material can prove useful. I could base a story in that time. The main character could be based on my life as a graduate student or it could not. It could be the professor listening to the brief presentation. Maybe the professor is irritated or bored or distracted. Maybe it’s a classmate and she has something else more important on her mind. Maybe it’s someone at the Bruins game. Maybe it’s a man setting out to hunt or his son watching him leave. Maybe the man is not well. It’s his last hunt. Maybe his son is with him and is trying to come to terms with what this means.
I could write about some of those ideas without a great deal of additional research at this point. I’ve been that graduate student. I’ve been that professor. I’ve been that fellow student with something else on my mind. I’ve been at Bruins games. But I’ve never been hunting, and I never saw life behind the Iron Curtain. I wouldn’t visit Germany until 2001, when I was in Berlin and there were only vestiges of communist rule left.
I can even keep mining this material for now. I just picked up my mileage log for 1989, turned to a page. On November 7th I drove to Computer Mart of New Hampshire and then returned there on November 9th. I remember Computer Mart as the go-to place for Apple Macintosh repairs. Clearly something had gone wrong with my machine. It had to have been stressful for me. I was at a new job since late September, I was taking that class, I was a newlywed. They were champs, apparently, for getting the computer back to me in two days. Still, that was a long drive, 115 miles round trip. I left work one of those days, picked up the computer, and drove home. I could write about that.
A couple of months ago I did an exercise based on character development. It was based on a comment from Kristen Wiig during a Marc Maron podcast. She talked about embodying a character by starting with their physique and any idiosyncrasies they might have. It was a great point and a great exercise.
I have been in a fallow spell recently. I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of writing each day, and have been getting in less time and distracting myself more even when I am at my desk. I have been a bit frustrated with the stories I have been producing lately. They seem flat, meandering. So a writing exercise seemed like a good idea.
I worked on this one over two days, perhaps putting in 75 minutes in total. The challenge–put four people, in different times, in the same place. I chose Fenway Park.
It was a first, one that he had picked and not her, but Jimmy—who set them up—said she loved the Red Sox. He had been to a game with a few people and she had been there, drinking beer and screaming her lungs out. Jimmy said the screaming was always a good sign. It meant she would be good in bed.
He bought the first round and they clicked their plastic cups together. “To baseball,” she offered, and he nodded. She had deep brown eyes and he just then noticed the deep purple streak in her brown hair. It was a good look.
Fenway seats were built for 1912 people, short and much thinner. He was 6’2 and 240 pounds. It was hard to make his leg not touch hers, but after the third beer she didn’t seem to mind and after the fifth beer she kissed him while the crowd sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He smiled into her kiss.
Brian couldn’t help tabulate all the money. He was an account after all. $85 each for four tickets, $40 for parking, $64 for the hot dogs and cokes, $14 for the two ice creams for the girls. Four-hundred-fifty-eight fucking dollars and the girls hadn’t watched the game for a minute. Katrina kept asking him when they would leave and saying Mr. Whiskers was missing them. At some point, Big Papi hit a home run. Brian only noticed because it didn’t land that far from them and everyone went scrambling for the ball.
Back in the day, when he and Nancy were first married, they would come to a few games each year. He could get tickets for $18. He would watch every play, keep score, banter with other guys sitting nearby. Nancy was still in graduate school and some nights she would read for most of the game. He didn’t mind; he even liked it. He wanted to be absorbed in the rhythm of the game.
One game, back when Boggs was still playing, Brian had been charting the whole at bat. Boggs got to 3-2, and then started spraying foul balls. One, then three, then six. Brian had played through high school and he marveled at Boggs’ bat control. Brian couldn’t have done that even once—stare down a 93-mile-an-hour fastball, flick his bat, and send the ball slicing into the stands. Some people say they would give anything to hit a homer over the green monster; Brian would give anything to foul balls away at will like that.
On the twelfth pitch of the bat, Boggs slapped at a ball and it came screaming at Brian. He stood up at just the right time, dropped his scorebook, and snared the ball with both hands, just as he had been taught. It hit the pad of his left hand and Brian knew it would bruise, but he didn’t care. He stood for a moment. He knew he might end up on television. Jerry Remy, the color commentator, liked to highlight when a fan made a good catch. Sometimes they even replayed them. He could ask some friends later if they had seen him.
He sat down. Nancy smiled and kissed him, and the guys around him slapped his back, told him it was a great catch. He was glad it was a night game and there were no kids around. There would have been some peer pressure. “Give it to the kid!” “Don’t be an asshole!” But there were no kids, so he turned the ball over and over in his hand. He picked up his beer in his left hand, welcomed the cold against his stinging palm. It would be a good bruise.
There were worse ways to spend your retirement. Too many of his friends sold their houses, moved to Florida, and had been golfing ever since. They all told Jerry he would hate each winter more and more. One buddy, Tim, even sent him the real estate section from the Miami Herald. He had scrolled across the first page in red marker, “Come on down! The water’s fine!”
Jerry wrapped up his law practice one spring just in time to take a job at Fenway as an usher. He had always loved Fenway; why not go to every game for free? He knew it wouldn’t be like that—he would be busy helping and talking to fans. It took him a while to get used to being on his feet so much, but then he found the right shoes.
The drunks bothered him, though, especially the young ones. Big, burly guys would do beer run after beer run, bringing two at a time back to their seats and quaffing both in half an inning, returning for more. He watched a guy drink 14 beers one day, and he probably missed a couple when he went under the stands for a few minutes to help a big crowd collect a few straggling kids.
On a Friday night a young woman—a girl really—appeared next to him during the third inning. She reeked of booze and her hat was askew. At first Jerry couldn’t understand what she was saying but she kept repeating it. “My friends,” she pointed up to the stands where a few girls were waving. “My friends dared me to give you a blow job under the stands somewhere.” Jerry couldn’t help but look her over. She was blond, tall, and thick with pendulous breasts. He blushed, turned around, and walked away. He heard the cackles from the stands, “Ow! Shut down! Don’t let him say no, Hailey!”
Jerry walked to the end of the section, turned to the field, grabbed the banister, and held on.
She couldn’t tell if her father was enjoying the game. “You OK, Dad?”
He turned to her, smiled. “Never been better.” He picked up his coke. Sipped it. She watched his throat work at swallowing, saw him wince.
Who knew all the things that would come at him after his diagnosis and then the chemo? The hair loss of course, the vomiting. But then he started to bloat and his skin had bruised to the point that they had to transfuse him. He was dizzy for most of the day, exhausted. Of all the things, she wasn’t ready for his irritability, but he clamped down on that after a couple of weeks. He was too nice to let others around him suffer.
He had always loved baseball, though, always loved the Red Sox. One of her first memories was of sitting on his lap in these very seats. They had been in the family since before she was born, but he had been coming less since the divorce a few years ago, letting friends buy them and enjoy the view. This was the first game he had been to since he got sick.
“Watch the game, sweetie,” he was turned to her again, smiling that warm smile despite his sagging cheeks and the yellow in his eyes. “They’re a great team this year, they really are.” He swallowed. “Just think, most of them are as young as you, out there playing that game.”
He turned back to the field and she saw a tear well. He sipped his coke again and pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes, putting his face in shadow. It was a sunny day and he had always been careful that way.
As I’ve organized my office to my liking over the last year, I’ve surrounded myself with books, manuscripts, vinyl record albums, and the paraphernalia and ephemera of my life. I have things from long ago (my graduation tassel from high school) and from the recent past (rocks from my favorite beach in Maine). I have stand-ins for objects that would be far more evocative if they were the real thing–an Edgeworth tobacco tin (the brand my grandfather smoked)–and objects that become more real every time I pick them up a time-worn photograph of my mother when she was young, beautiful, and the world, as they say, was her oyster.
My desk is crowded, and I could clear it up, but I like the prompts that surround me. In no particular order they include:
- A statuette of Socrates that has been on my desk since college
- Three of those beach rocks, each just a bit too large to fit in the palm of my hand
- A toy-sized Louisville Slugger
- A replica of a .50 caliber bullet, the same one my father would have fired from a B-24 during WW2
- A replica of my father’s 13th Air Force patch
- Two harmonicas, neither of them played well since high school
- A matchbox-sized mobile home
- A matchbox-sized Pontiac Fiero
- A hockey puck
- A stack of photographs
- A stack of baseball cards, all featuring Red Sox players
- A stack of baseball ticket stubs
- A Christmas snow globe that no longer works
- Two small plastic army men
- A postcard from the Hemingway House, Hemingway petting a cat
- A stack of letters from friends, written when friends wrote letters
- A picture of my son’s 6th birthday
- An airline ticket stub that took me from New Orleans back to Boston
- The dust jacket from Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, disembodied from the book
- A stack of five running logs from the five years I was an active runner in my 30s and 40s
- A button I wore to watch my high school’s hockey team win the state championship in 1976
- A piece of hardwood that someone whittled, maybe even me
- A wedding picture, my wife looking beautiful and me looking goofily happy
I have many more within arm’s reach, but these are a good start. I’ve had a productive year of daily writing, and I haven’t used any of these yet.