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.

Where You Been?

IMG_1025 Funny you should ask.

Since starting my daily writing practice last November, I have only been interrupted my illness and insomnia. I could be slightly wrong, but my memory tells me that I was sick for a few days back in the winter. Then I have had a couple of nights where bouts of insomnia messed up my sleep enough to not allow me time to write in the morning before work.

Then the last two weeks happened.

First I taught the writing workshop at Ferry Beach. I knew the focus I would put into the writing group would take me away from my writing. It seemed like a good tradeoff though. I would spend an hour or more each day preparing for the workshop, then I would be in with a great group of writers, doing powerful work, for 2 ½ hours each day, for five days (and another hour on the first day of the workshop). To say it was time well spent would be a disservice to the time we spent together. It was an incredibly powerful week. It was an honor to work with everyone there.

Then I got home. On my first days home, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of last week, I wrote. In fact I was doing some research, which feels different from putting my hands on the keyboard, but it’s important work. I am going through my father’s VA records. I am tracing his story from his first psychiatric episode as the war in the Pacific was winding down to his suicide 35 years alter. I have had the records for 25 years, and had read through them, but this is the first time I have gone through them systematically. It’s a profoundly sad story.

On Tuesday I got sick. I always heard summer colds were miserable, but I don’t remember having one and had always been skeptical. I am no longer a skeptic. Starting at about 2:00 on Tuesday—sitting through my third demo of the day of our mainframe-based warehouse management system—my throat caught fire, my nose opened up, and I felt feverish and achy. I left early, went home, and went to bed.

Sometime around 2:00 on the following Sunday, I got up from the couch and puttered. I did some paperwork. I cleaned the kitchen. I went out to the garden and weeded a little. I sat in the shade for a bit. I helped a bit with dinner and cleaned the kitchen again.

So here I am, Monday morning after my little bout with misery, back at the keyboard. It feels good.

I have a few projects in front of me, some small, some large.

I am going to go back into the novel one more time before I take the next step of sharing it with a couple of friends in work. They are both publishing pros who have been around trade publishing. They both have editorial eyes. They both know the business. They both like me but will be honest with me. I am terrified. So I will go in, read through it, do a bit more development, and then share it.

I am doing the research on my father and might take the bold step of going to a reunion of his bomber group from World War 2. They are meeting in Wichita in September. If there are a couple of guys who knew my dad, it’s going to be worth my while. If I am serious about developing something like a memoir, I shouldn’t pass this up.

I have a few stories in progress.

In going through my files, I found a short story I wrote more than 15 years ago. It’s actually not bad. I was able to scan it from the print, clean up the text, and reformat it. I then took a pretty good ax to it. I hacked it down from 4.993 words to 2,551 words. I felt like Hemingway. I also reworked some of the details and took out some stilted dialogue (I was always so bad at dialogue and think I am a little better now.) I kept the gist of the story.

As I have been rereading my new stories, I realize some of them run long, perhaps much too long, so I have been working with shorter forms.To that end, I wrote a 1,438-word story. It’s gothic, really, inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Mastiff,” which was featured on a recent New Yorker podcast. Sometimes Oates is masterful, and the story is brilliant. I challenged myself to write something in the style. I kind of like what I have come up with. I have parked it for a couple of weeks and will work it again. I might try on a few different endings and see how they feel.

I have another story that is likely going to end up as just an exercise. It’s a tale of a man passing through life and encountering an old friend again and again. The old friend starts on a downward path at a young age, and the man progresses through a middle-class life. Each encounter is short but (I hope) revealing about both men. I like elements of it, but don’t think it will turn into anything good. It’s already very long and I think the story is only partway told. At one point in the writing I thought, damn, this is a novel. Maybe it is or maybe it is the germ of one.

The last story features the protagonist from my novel, Scott Burke, causing trouble in New York City again. It’s a small prequel to the novel. I want it to suggest why things went so wrong for Burke. I also want it to stand on its own as a story. Maybe it’s just an exercise. Maybe it’s material I can add to the novel. I’m not sure yet. I do like writing in the voice of the novel, though.

Finally, I have some follow-up from the workshop. We all agreed we want to keep the ball rolling in the 51 weeks that pass between workshops. We’ve tried various things in the past. A Yahoo group. A Facebook group. Email. Nothing has really caught on yet. So I am going to craft and propose something to this year’s attendees, and then take it from there. I am thinking something like a weekly note, with a prompt. We are also talking about doing a Google hangout once a month, and me providing a prompt for that. We shall see. I hope something works. It was a magical week. An incredibly productive week. Fifty-one weeks is a terribly long offseason.

The Internet of Memories

001When I was finishing the draft of my novel in November and December, I made a fruitful discovery. I had decided to place the action of the novel in September 2008, when the world economy was collapsing. It had a direct effect on my protagonist, who loses his job, sending the rest of the action into motion.

I was writing this novel in fits and starts, starting in the fall of 2012, then 2013, then finally bearing down and finishing the draft in 2015. At each of these stages, I was four, then five, then seven years away from the details of the story. My research led me to the Internet. What was happening on September 8th of that year? On September 15th, and so on? There was a great deal I could read to remind myself of the events, both major and minor, of those traumatic weeks.

Then the Internet proved to be even more of a treasure trove. My protagonist is a Red Sox fan. How were they doing then? Their season would disappoint–I remembered that–but I did not remember precisely how it disappointed. I had him follow some games on television while he drank in bars, then I had him go in person to a game that ended badly. Baseball-Reference.Com told me exactly how it ended badly. That then led to a key scene.

Delightfully, I decided I could use the actual weather from those days. He was outside a lot. What was the actual weather, and how would that shape certain scenes? So rather then decide I wanted him to get caught in the rain, I started his day, and then looked up the weather, and discovered he would get caught in the rain. Then what would happen? The process led to some twists I enjoyed, others that I struggled with, and others that I wrote around. When you are 6’2 and 240 pounds and middle-aged, getting caught in the rain is different from being 5’8 and 145 pounds and 23 years old.

Which leads me to this ticket stub.This was a time when my family and I still attended a fair number of Red Sox games, usually five or more a year. Careful readers will note it was the year the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. It was an inter-league game, mid-summer. My younger son would have been 11, my older son about to turn 13. From the date, I can tell that it is likely the game I chose–close to my birthday and Father’s Day.

It was not a good day for the Sox. They lost, badly, 9-2, trailing 7-1 after the top of the fourth inning. Bronson Arroyo got shelled, and Nomar, Ortiz, and Manny went a combined 3 for 12 with a single RBI. It was unseasonably cool for late June, only 63 degrees when the game started at 1:26, but it was very humid. There had been a brief shower just before noon. We would have been getting in the car by then. The boys were old enough that we would have driven to the subway, then taken it the rest of the way into the city.

Did we have a good time? I honestly don’t remember, but even though I hate the Red Sox losing, I still love being at Fenway. And those were great seats, maybe 12 rows back from the field, behind the visitors’ dugout. We didn’t know the Red Sox would win that year. On that day, they were five games behind the Yankees for first place in the division. Indeeed, it would get worse. They would start the next week losing three games in a row to the Yankees, falling 8 1/2 games behind with the third loss, in a game Nomar famously sat out while Jeter made a gutsy play, falling into the stands to catch a fly ball.The Sox lost in 13 innings. Nomar sat out the entire game, and by the end of month he was traded. The rest, as they say, is history.

I actually remember the trade more than the game. We were on vacation, on the Maine coast, and I bought the local paper, saw the headline. My boys and I stood on the porch of the main building at Ferry Beach, trying to absorb the news. It felt like they had traded Nomar for a bucket of balls, two guys–Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz–we had barely heard of. Nomar was the face of the franchise–there he is printed on every ticket stub that year, throwing across his body in that unconventional style so many of us loved. My boys had his autograph on balls. He had talked to them. But we were on vacation, and as upset as we might be, we were enjoying ourselves too much to really be troubled.

So the Internet tells me many things, helps me scrape certain details together, but others are lost of course, lost to memory, the passing years, bigger things shaping what we remember and felt about those times. My mom died earlier that year, and my siblings and I splintered even more. I found more connection, more solace, in both church and Ferry Beach. I remember the hugs at my mom’s wake much more than I remember most anything else from that year. I remember sad days and nights of business travel, hotels in distant cities, landing at night after a long trip. I remember my last moments with my mother, then visiting her church, sitting through a mass that I knew meant a great deal to her but little to me. Those things I remember, and remember deeply. They will stay with me for my whole life, even if that Red Sox game is lost to memory.