As you know, I recently relocated from New York to Virginia and as is the case when most people move, I was looking for new opportunities to meet people, especially since I miss my evenings at the coffee shop with my old writer group and mostly communicate with them via computer. Luckily, I found this amazing place: The Visual Arts Center of Richmond. My sister took pottery-making there and also learned the art of glass fusion—cutting and melting glass to form dishes and decorative wall art. She’s subsequently taught me this skill and I happily spend two days a week at her studio creating beautiful things. This photo is of one of my recently completed projects.
Anyway, to my delight I discovered that they offer writing classes! Some on poetry, one on writing short stories, one on crafting narrative and even one on how to get published. “WAHOO!” I yelled to my computer screen. And so I signed up for the last two and attended the first meeting Wednesday night. The class consisted of ten wannabe writers and the instructor, who holds an MFA—youngish, maybe forty, and wonderfully enthusiastic. I felt a little out of my element as no one has written much of anything, even the instructor, so when I confessed I’d written four novels, there were too many wide eyes for my comfort level. But, what the heck, you can always hone your craft and I’m sure there is much to be learned from this lovely group of new people who share my passion and excitement for the art of writing. Perhaps I’ll even find a new writing group or a writing buddy with whom I can share a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
This was a new experience for me because I’ve never taken a formal writing class before, being mostly self-taught and attending the occasional writing conference. Although I wrote a post on writing prompts, I’ve never actually been in a situation where I was given one by an instructor. She asked us to write about a family story that has become legendary. I wrote for the allotted twenty minutes. It was hard writing under pressure! I was the only one who brought a laptop, knowing I wouldn’t be able write a lick longhand anymore and the rest of the group quickly admitted they wished they’d brought theirs.
I wrote about a time when my dad cut school, more to escape the daily beating he got because he had to travel through the Irish neighborhood to get to school and they didn’t take kindly to the Italians. Thus was his life in Hell’s Kitchen. His cousin convinced him to hitchhike to Long Island so they could earn some money caddying for rich guys. And yes, my dad scored big with The Babe, himself, and went home that night with more money then he’d ever seen in his entire life.
People volunteered to read. Some were great, some not so much. I didn’t volunteer because, well, I was really nervous. When everyone who dared had read, some said they didn’t have enough to read, all eyes turned to me. Okay, now I wished I hadn’t shot my mouth off about having written four novels. I feared they expected something spectacular, and I wouldn’t be able to deliver.
The instructor asked me how I felt about what I’d written. I admitted I was anxious about reading because I’d never, ever, read a first draft aloud to anyone and as I read, my voice bespoke my anxiety. We shared thoughts about the story and she asked if I wanted to take the story further. I said no, saying it was just an anecdote. We talked more about writing in general and then moved on to reading and discussing some interesting handouts.
Here are the highlights:
- Two excerpts from the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. The strange title? In the author’s words: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.” Going to B&N today to check it out and will let you know my thoughts next week.
- Getting Started. (Chapter 1) Where the author suggested going back in time and writing down as many childhood memories as you can. Often this is a good place to find the inspiration for beginning your novel. And in fact, that is where I began. The death of my brother when I was five, he was four, had long lingered as a fascination about what might exist on the other side of death.
- Shitty First Drafts. Her advice? All writers write them and that’s how you wind up with good second drafts and terrific third (or tenth!) drafts.
- Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing
- The Story Spine by playwright Kenn Addams: A tool for creating well-structured stories.
- An excerpt from How Fiction Works by James Wood on character development. You can find it on Amazon.
- An analysis of the short story “The Country Husband” by John Cheever.
Lots to absorb and I left invigorated, having met some lovely people and thrilled with the opportunity to talk and share thoughts about writing. The group embraced me, even the instructor said she would love some help on writing dialogue and plot as I admitted to the group that those were my strengths whereas description was my weakness. They were all very interested in how I’d crafted my novels and I will be more than happy to share.
I don’t start the class on publishing until November, so stay tuned for more on that. But for now, I’m back in the writing circle of real live humans! And hopefully there will be some coffee and wine drinking in the very near future.