Seeing Red

Writing from Real Life

For some time now I've wanted to write a memoir. Or something memoirish, based on real life experiences - say, short little vignettes about my travels. Or what it was like to battle Breast Cancer. I love reading memoirs (Wild being the most recent), and every time I do, I think, "I could do this!"

So I enrolled in a 4-week workshop at Grub Street, a nonprofit writing center that welcomes people of all levels. It is, in fact, the second largest independent center for creative writing in the U.S. (The Loft in Minneapolis is the largest), and I first learned of it from my author friends, Crystal and Jane).

The workshop I'm taking, Writing from Real Life, is taught by Judah Leblang, a local teacher, author and storyteller. There are twelve of us in the class, and over the course of four weeks we'll learn how to structure memoirs and personal narratives based on our own experiences (as Judah says, "If you've made it to adulthood, you have lots of material!").

We had our first class this past Sunday night; it was at Grub Street headquarters in the beautiful old Steinert Hall building on Boylston Street (we're up on the 5th floor, but be sure to read about the abandoned music hall in the basement). Judah kicked things off with this quote from author Jean Rhys:

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.

To me, Rhys is underscoring the idea that storytelling is central to humanity. That is why so many people choose to write, and so many choose to read. We talked about how it is the small details of life that make us human, and how the power of detail is central to writing memoirs and personal essays.  We also discussed the difference between a memoir and a personal essay - the former is often a chronological telling of difficult personal experience that leads to wisdom/meaning, and the latter is a lighter riff on a singular topic. 

Lastly, we ran through a few writing exercises where Judah (or fellow classmates) gave us a prompt (a topic or sentence) about which we had to write for 5-20 minutes. And then we had to read our work out loud! Nerve-wracking. But the whole idea is to create a "safe" environment for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and drawing on the energy of the group (it reminds me of yoga practice, in that sense).

Most important is getting into the habit of writing on a regular basis. Our homework assignment for this week is to compose an 850-word piece on leaving (a person or a place). We'll see where that goes...

PS: Today is my parents' 58th wedding anniversary - a remarkable feat and surely a great fodder for a personal essay!

Mom and dad


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