One of the best classes I took at the University of Montana was “Montana Writers Live.” It closely resembled an author reading and Q&A that you might have attended at your local bookstore, though perhaps with more homework involved and questions geared towards aspiring writers. We received the work (poems, novels, short stories) from a local author and had the week to review it and come up with questions, and then the following week that author would come in and read their work, give advice, and students were given a chance to ask their questions. The one piece of advice that every speaker seemed to emphasize was the importance of setting aside time to write every day, or even every other day.
At the time this didn’t seem like that big of a deal, we were all writing so much for classes each day this hardly seemed like it would be a challenge. Of course we’ll write, we love to write! How hard could that be?
I get it now.
Making writing a habit, when there’s no assignment, no due date, and you know there may not be anyone to look things over and give you feedback is difficult. Regardless if you’re passionate about writing, what those authors said is true: even on the days you don’t feel like writing, you just need to get some words on the page.
Writing, like exercising for instance, can often be more motivating in a group. Both can be done in a solitary capacity, but sometimes it’s nice to get together with a group all working towards a common interest, to cheer you on along the way.
Write Around Portland is a local non-profit benefiting the Portland area with a straightforward mission: bring the power of the written word to those who may not have the resources to tell their stories, and help strengthen community through the recognition that everyone has a unique story to tell. They hold free workshops in hospitals, care facilities, low-income school districts, and treatment centers, as well as hosting traditional workshops for all.
I recently participated in their “Prompt” workshop held at Powell’s Books. For ten weeks our little group met, wrote, provided feedback, and grew in mutual appreciation for each other’s talent. The class was structured around short timed writes to specific prompts and then providing feedback for each writer. You never had to share if you didn’t want to, but the group was focused on building each other up rather than criticism (even constructive) and I found myself pushing to break out of my comfort zone in sharing. It also helped that we all understood we were working with short time constraints- our longest writes were ten minutes.
Aside from writing to specific prompts provided by our facilitator, we did a variety of other activities. My favorite was creating our own “found poetry.” A found poem is created entirely from snippets of headlines, phrases, or snippets of conversations. The key is to create a cohesive thought, something that’s yours, but using words that you’ve found elsewhere. In class we were sent out into the nonfiction section of Powell’s to find our phrases. It was interesting to see where people went: the history section, the self-help section, and cookbooks… I went to the oceanography section and as I was flipping through pages I found inspiration in the movement of the tides. This is what I came up with: *The blog formatting made it lose it’s shape, but the pieces are all still there!
Ebb and Flow
The places in which a living thing
are limited by the physical conditions it is
able to tolerate.
The rougher the wave,
the smoother the stone.
They lay down threads during the stormy season,
tethering themselves more tightly,
or retreat from rising waters.
A graceful deadly motion
washed from the land,
The tempo isn’t a standard that’s set.
How hard are they hit by the waves?
as the tide comes in
and everything changes.
Another exercise I enjoyed was taking our prompts from phrases we overheard in the store. We walked around listening to people converse with one another (at times I felt a little creepy) and then used one of the phrases we heard as our prompt. It was a little challenging as many people talk in undertones in a bookstore at night, but I overheard a young boy asking his father “You still love me right?” and his father smiled and replied “I still love you.” “I love you too.” I ended up using this for my prompt. Although I also overheard some other good ones like: “We’re trying to explain something that’s virtually impossible” “I’m going to run!” and “oh you are coming in today… we weren’t sure if you were or not.” Here’s what I came up with for the father and son:
Father settled Son into the wide seat on the train, his legs stretched straight out, barely touching the seatback in front of him.
“But when are we coming back?” asked Son.
“Soon,” replied Father, though he could not look Son in the eye as he said it.
“And then we’ll see mama?”
Father could not bear to answer, so instead pursed his lips and felt Son’s eyes on the side of his face.
“Look out the window, we’re starting to move,” Father said, leaning over Son and touching the glass.
Son scrambled anxiously to his knees to get a better view.
Father watched as Son’s eyes tracked the landscape in the reflection of the glass.
“Are we there yet?” Son asked, turning from the window.
“Not quite,” Father said.
This seemed good enough for Son and he settled back into his seat.
The pair remained quiet for some time, lost in the passing landscape and slight jostling of the car, until Son spoke quietly:
“You still love me?”
Father looked down to Son with a small smile.
“I still love you.”
“I love you too,” Son asserted, nodding his head once in affirmation and turning back to the window.
“After all we’ve been through,” Father ruffled son’s hair, “Of course I do.”
Son continued to gaze out the window.
One last exercise I enjoyed was using photos along with the prompts we were given. I got a photo of a group of graduates tossing their caps into the air, with the prompt options “the smell of smoke” or “with nowhere to go.” With ten minutes on the clock I had to make one of those work with my photo and this is what I ended up with:
It was the first day of the rest of our lives. But I mean, it’s all downhill after gradation, right? That’s when true life really begins. You’ve spent the last twenty years of your life preparing to walk across the stage when your name is called only to get to the end of the platform and find you have nowhere to go.
I look to the people surrounding me and realize I’ll probably never see them again. They aren’t really my friends, they’re just people I absorbed information with for a few years. Information that I hope will be useful, but god knows it probably won’t be.
The strangest part of these weighted thoughts is that despite their heaviness, I can still feel a lifted excitement. I’ve been jumping in this elevator all day- weightless in all the potential greatness to come, in all that I’ve accomplished, and in all that I may accomplish, yet still pulled down.
The sensation is unsettling, but intriguing. I don’t want to step off this elevator; I don’t want the doors to open, to lose this feeling of weightlessness. Because I know that when I step out, when I step off this podium and take my seat to listen to the speeches of those who studied more diligently than I, I’ll truly feel the weight of the rest of my life.
Prompt was easily the highlight of my week. I wasn’t super outspoken in class (high school or college) so I made it my goal to share more often than passing, and in doing so I gained confidence in the idea that I have ideas worth sharing. I really hope that I can continue to carve out the time, even once a week, to put words on a page. They don’t have to be full stories, or the attempt at a novel, but the simple act of writing is liberating. I think Prompt really reiterated that when you sit down to write, short snippets are just as valuable as complete stories. Ideas become things. I am incredibly thankful for my classmates, our facilitator, Powell’s, and Write Around Portland for the experience and encouragement.
For those who are interested, here are a few more prompts that I wrote to, keeping in mind that they’re unedited and written in either two or ten minutes time.
I’m taking back:
I’m taking it back. I’m taking it all back. The blurred photos taken in shaken laughter, the off key ballads sung along winding roads to nowhere, and the quiet mornings where we both lay awake, but pretending to sleep just to have a little more time in that moment. I wasn’t to take it all back. I don’t want to share those memories with someone who littered them away as we walked. But as much as I want to take it all back, as much as I need to take it all back, I can’t. We can’t take back moments. They become memories before we get the chance.
In the quiet:
In the quiet she found her peace. The earth was hers and she could dance in her own thoughts. She believed people needed to learn to live in a noiseless world. Not completely, but enough to be able to enjoy the contrast, to make the sounds beautiful. To fully appreciate the noise, you must know the quiet. To find peace in the chaos, you must embrace the silence.
It gives birth:
Wandering along the riverbank I approached the worn wooden bridge with heavy boots. This was my thinking place: where the small stream trickling through the forest flows to the salty canal. When I was young I would walk along the rocky path to watch the salmon fight their way into the forest. Legs dangling between the slats of the bridge of the bridge, I watch the fish suspended in the river, fins slowly sliding back and forth, preparing for their next push upstream. Though the river still gives birth to the salty sound there are no longer salmon to root for. I’m not sure when they stopped coming, though I never did. Pulling on my boots and patchy knitted hat all these years later, I watch the river flow. I cast my thoughts out at the top of the stream and watch as they pass under the bridge and drift out into the sea.
That was the day:
Remember the first time you met my parents? When you offered to help my mom by getting a vase from the basement, tripped down the stairs, broke the vase, and had to get six stitches in your chin? That was the day I knew I wanted you in my life forever. You knelt on the dimly lit concrete floor, holding your shirt to your chin to keep the blood from hitting the floor and willing the antique to piece itself back together. As if pushing the ceramic pieces together could be enough to make them whole again. I swore as I saw the blood but you seemed more concerned about staining our basement floor rather than the fact you needed medical attention. Later at the hospital, when you finally cried, it was over the vase, and today when I trace the small scar, giving you your second smile, that’s the day I think of: the day I was certain you were the one.