I was going through my notebooks tonight, mining for seminar notes to review for my prelims. I found an errant page in one of them, from a creative writing workshop that I gave last semester at a homeless shelter. I must have picked up the wrong notebook that night, and this page was nestled in with pages and pages of science history notes... Just waiting. A reminder.
At the beginning of each workshop night I asked the writers to clear their minds by sweeping their day onto a page; timed writing, pen to paper for 10 minutes. Just describe everything you saw, I said. Everything that made an impression on you, even if just for a moment. Don't think. Just write. Don't make it fancy, just get it out, don't worry about order.
We wrote a lot of lists. It's a good way to prime the pump. When they wrote, I wrote, with my watch set next to the notebook. There's no date on this page, but here's part of my list exactly as it was:
a woman with gray hair
rows and rows of books
lots of cars
the cat, asleep on the corner
of the bed
the lady next door taking out the trash
the world moving
around my car
the radio, glowing dials
a busy sidewalk
a child's face
running behind a stroller
the old guy in a baseball hat
a plastic bag wrapped around the mailbox
nothing in the mailbox
After the ten was up, I asked them to pick one thing on the list and dig into it for another ten. I wrote:
...the child is wearing jeans, and a huge smile, and a red and white striped shirt. He has absconded with his own stroller, hijacked it right out from under his mother's nose. Now he's running as fast as he can, pushing it through the library and squealing with laughter, the world's youngest car thief. His eyes crinkle up into little parentheses of joy. He's so happy his whole face is trying to dance. He looks at me and bursts into a fresh shriek of laughter. I wonder what he's thinking. I wonder if he's thinking the whole world is celebrating his liberation. I sure am. I laugh back.
It goes on, but that's the part that's really important. Here's why: joy. Pure, simple joy. Steal the stroller and RUN with it. That three-year-old kid was the captain of his ship, and he knew that he didn't need any better reason to be absolutely delighted with himself.
Maybe that's all any of us really need.
For the people in my workshop, writing - finding a voice and using it, expressing, documenting their unique existence (and recognizing it as worth documenting) was an empowerment. A source of something important that had been missing. I encourage anyone who loves to write and can more or less run a room to think about volunteering as a writing workshop leader - at a homeless shelter, retirement home, battered women's shelter, elementary school, a prison, etc. e2 is full of people who would be damn good at it.