Tuesday, June 26, 2007

40 Writing Women!

Walking into a room of 40 women, I was rather uncomfortable. Who would they be? What would be their skill level? Would they be so far beyond me I would feel inadequate? Or, heaven-forbid, would they all be housewives who “thought” they could write, but really were only re-creating the next mind-numbing romance novel? Would the typical weirdo be there? The one who thinks they can write, but cannot string together a sentence, much less than a pleasing one? Or the one who cannot share their work because it is so brilliant everyone will want to “rip it off”?

Within the first 10 minutes of the workshop opening they had us writing. We had to spend 10 minutes writing a scene in the third person about riffling through a drawer while telling our audience something about our personality.

After the 10 minutes, we went around the room. Stand up, announce your name, which course you were signed up to take, a little bit about YOU, and your writing experiences. Then, read the 10 minute exercise to the rest of the class.

“Ho-boy”, I thought to myself. This could be REAL painful. The room held a mix of women. As they introduced themselves and read their exercises I realized my fears were unfounded. Some of my co-attendees were younger than me, a substantial number were older. Most were professionals; a few even had writing based occupations. Newspaper reporter, magazine editor, writing coach, published novelist. Some were the dreaded English teachers. Surreptitiously I wrote their names down and promised myself to never sit next to them. I knew my scrawling mess of comma hording and bad spelling would be too much for their angry red pens to resist.

As they eagerly or shyly stood, I realized they all were here for different reasons. Some have been attending for the last 11 years. It’s their yearly vehicle maintenance stop, except for writing. Some, like me, were seeing if they had any good licks – and were eager to learn about this thing called “writing”. Others were here to try a different genera, and others were attending just for the fun and for themselves. Multiple times the phrase, “gift to my self” was used.

When it came my turn I realized I was the only single woman in the room, so far. Or at least, never married woman. Inside I cringed a little. Would all the talk during breaks, and all the stories, once again turn to husbands and boyfriends and children? Would I be on the outside looking in? Swallowing my nerves, yes even I get nervous from time to time, I read my introduction. Part of it was autobiographical, part was pure conjecture – used to just make the story more entertaining. As I read, there were laughs and guffaws.

The moderator said she felt like she knew very well who I was after that little introduction. A bit of comedian, a cusser, and sensitive to other people.

Here, I’ll let you be the judge.

Flying into the room Mittany looked around. “Damn, damn, damn”, she said out loud. Nowhere could she find a drawer the right shape to stash the item clutched tightly in her hand. She took a step towards the couch … “Nope, it might fall-over if she put it between the cushions”, she thought. “Besides, it might spill.” Red-hair swirling around her face – her blue eyes snapped with impatience.

Knock-knock-knock, came the persistent sound. She evaluated the bed, but it wasn’t high enough to shove the item under it. Besides what if they ended up in bed? The whole time she’d be worrying about it poking through the bed-springs or breaking.

“Mittany, darling? Aren’t you going to open the door?”, called Chris.

With one last prayer she pushed aside the window curtain and shoved it there. Of course, she wasn’t thinking about how the drapery was concealing the sliding glass door to the balcony and ocean view beyond. Smoothing her hair she walked to the door, and cracked it open. A big smile formed on her face. There stood Chris. Handsome, smiling, and quizzical. Stepping into his arms they kissed cheeks, chuckled nervously and then backed away from each other.

“Come on in”, she said stepping aside to allow him entrance. Walking into the hotel room he peered around.

“I expected you to be drinking” were the first words out of his mouth.

“Who ME? No, no. I don’t NEED to drink”, Mittany claimed with a sly grin.

“But surely you WANT to drink, you shouldn’t stop just because I’m here”, he said in a kind voice. “After all, it IS a Friday and you’re done with work. Surely you’d be drinking if you were at home?”

Looking guilty and wondering what he’d say, she stepped toward the concealed balcony. “Wanna look at the ocean?”, she quizzed.

“Sure. Are you changing the topic on me?”, Chris asked.

“Not really”, and as she drew the curtain back, there sat the bottle of wine.

“I knew it, you silly goof”, he said with a chuckle. “That’s the Mit I’ve come to know and love. Now quit hiding, let me pour you a glass, you silly, silly, girl.”

Here are the things they learned about me, and I learned about this little piece.

Most first time writers start with dialog. It’s the hallmark of a first time effort. *sigh*

But I did complete and end the scene in the time allotted. People knew I traveled, I cussed, I liked to poke fun at myself, and I’m a risk taker. All from that little piece.

What did YOU learn about the main character from this piece?

Next we broke into our respective groups. The fiction group would spend the first day talking about introductions and opening stories. Specifically, after we’d done the writing exercise we’d look at each story for:

  • Narrative hook
  • Character
  • Tension (contrast)
  • Conflict
  • Setting

We’d also establish where in the story these two items were determined:

  • A contract with the reader (What story are you promising to tell them? Have you made a promise? Do you keep it?)
  • Point of authority (When do you believe the character? When do you want to know more about them? Are you willing to follow them? Do you trust the character can tell the story?)

Our prompt was to re-write the story of Little Red Ridding Hood.

Rolling her eyes, Cinnamon Tart let the words from her Mom wash through her ears. It was clear “her” plans and those of her mother were going to collide. She had the perfect day all mapped out. It started off with lazing under the tree with her i-pod and a book.

And here was her Mom. “Now as soon as you finish breakfast, get your shower and get dressed. I’ll have lunch packed for your grandmother and you an drive it over to her.”

“But Mom … if I go over there – I won’t get back in time to meet up with Jenny before my riding lesson.”

“I know you two text messaged each other all last night. Jenny can wait until AFTER the lesson to hear about the new kid who left a message on your Facebook Wall”, Mom said completely dismissing the importance of the written word.

“What’cha making for Grandma?”, Cinnamon Tart asked – knowing her mothers propensity to combine God awful food stuffs together and pass it off as “good”.

“There’s some leftover cottage cheese – so I thought I’d chop up that red jell-o into small chunks and mix them together”.

“Ewww!, Grandma won’t want to eat that!”

“Then there’s some leftover grilled chicken thighs. I figured those and some American Cheese should be plenty.”

“MOM, that is totally gross. Fake plastic cheese, greasy pieces of hard to eat cold chicken and something that looks like gambling dice and curdled milk mixed together? You’re just saying that because you really want ME to make something for her, don’t you?”

The moment her mom smiled Cinnamon Tart knew she’d stepped into the trap. “And can you make enough of whatever you’re going to create for me and the ladies at the Rose Garden Club?”, her mom sweetly asked. Sweet like saccharine, Cinnamon Tart thought.

You see, it was no secret who the true cook was in the family. Glancing at the clock she knew she better hurry. Within two hours she had the meals ready to go. Diced roasted chicken breast combined with cranberries and pecans in a champagne vinaigrette. The quick rolls echoed the cranberry theme, peaking out of the yeasty goodness now cooling on the counter.

Now YOU tell me. Did I meet the above goals? When/where did you feel you wanted to know more about this story? Is my character believable? Where’s the tension? What kind of story am I promising you? Do you think I can deliver? What do you think is going to happen when this character meets the wolf? Do you want to read more?

Today’s class focused on “Penetrating Character” and it had two parts. In the first part we began reading the first 3 pages of everyone’s current works. And in the second half we did a free write of our characters free write.

As we discussed each participants work, we were to look at:

  • Scenes
  • Thematic strands
  • Imagery
  • Dialogue

Plus consider the points from the day before. Did the opening scenes meet those reader expectations?

It was a great 3 hours – and we got through six of the 13 manuscripts. Tomorrow we’ll do the rest. I’ll be in that group. I was glad to be in the second group, because I realized I hadn’t correctly formatted my first 3 pages. Ever the perfectionist, I’ll make sure everything is right tonight.

Precluding today’s writing exercise we read a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Chronicle by Robert Olen Butler, author of “Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”. In says writing a story should be developed in the same way actors are taught with the “method School” of instruction. He says the only way to tell a successful story is to determine what your character yearns for – and then make sure every detail of the story and character supports that yearning.

In the free write section we were asked to close our eyes and ‘meet’ our character. Talk to him/her. Ask them for their first memory as a child. What did the character want to tell you? We had 5 minutes to be with our character – then 10 minutes to write down the memory.

I was excited about this particular exercise because I’d been asked to write something in dialogue from Josiah’s youth. And I really struggled with that directive. I just didn’t feel like I knew his childhood language. Here I was receiving another chance to discover him as a youngster. Here’s what Josiah told me was his first memory from childhood:

It was a washed-out blue sky day. A hawk was circling up there. It was the first time I stopped to think about how things worked. I mean, at first it was his beauty and the patterns that I observed. The lazy figure-eights, how he was making designs in the sky – and not using his wings to move. He was just drifting. I envied that he cold go so far, so easily.

And then I thought about those wings. He caught a lower current and I could see him tipping from this side to that side. As he came even closer – the feathers on the ends of his wing span weren’t all moving in one accord. Each had a separate job to do. And his tail – his tail was working too. Directing how level he was keeping horizontal to the earth. I bet I starred at him for a half and hour.

Suddenly at my knees I heard a buzzing. It was one of those great big lumbering bumble bees. It seemed so awkward compared to the elegance of the hawk. Yes he was flying too. “Hey? Why does that work?”. I think it was the first time I wanted to tear something apart and examine it. They both flew, but they were made differently. The bee wings attached to the body – and they didn’t sweep in great arcs. The were so rapid up and down they hummed. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew that bee could never fly where the hawk went.

God. How can God make some many different things that work the same, yet don’t? The hawk wing was totally different than the bee wing. I wanted to make them suddenly. I started looking around the meadow for some feathers. But the bee didn’t have feathers. Its wings were like paddles. So I picked some Aspen leaves off a tree. And I tried over-lapping them and making them push the wind. But they were wrong because there was no body. I was so frustrated. How could I make a body to attach them? Maybe looking at the shape of the bee I could ball up some yarn?

They totally got that Josiah is an engineer – and they thought this was a very telling first memory. It will be interesting after I read my first three pages tomorrow if they think this is the beginning of his “yearning” and if everything in this childhood memory rings true to the adult he became.

What do you think? You’ve read a little bit about Joshia. Do you think this is him at a young age?


tp said...

Sooo glad you are enjoying the class ! Bravo for you - you met the challenge head on - and succeded !

tp said...

Once there was an old lady
who lived in a house,
She had two dogs who lived
in their own house in the yard.
One dog was jealous of the other
and thus she barked every time
she was locked up.
The old lady hated barking dogs,
so she went tearing out to collar
the barker - but in her haste, she tripped over the sprinkler head. The old lady went flying, face down on the sidewalk,
the young dog couldn't figure out why the old lady was all of a sudden so accessable.
The old lady was bleeding and the young dog was trying to console her. The old man came rushing out the door, because said sprinkler was too high. He had said he would lower it - when ?
Blood, puppy love, scared old man, thus was the scene observed by the neighbor girl who is 5 !
The old man heaved and heaved and
finally got the old woman back up on her feet. The old woman came into the house to was up and see what the damage was,
but it had looked worse than it was.
However, the next day the o.w. was soooo sore from being pulled up,
she could hardly walk, get up, or sit down.
So -- said o.w. decided it's better to let barking dogs, bark !