Stories from Artifacts
Welcome Chocorua Writers!
I started out like any writer, with a pen and a phone pad full of beautiful paper. All that scribbling got the attention of my parents! Even so, I wasn’t sent to a writing retreat, but a retreat it was. That was the summer of 1965. I was four.
I couldn’t help it, I wanted to express myself. Eventually my vigilant perseverance to press pen to paper, paid off. And as a high school senior I got a gig with The Times Free Press in Pepperell, Massachusetts, my hometown newspaper, writing human interest stories. I was getting the scoop and shooting my Polaroid.
I went off to Russell Sage, an all girls college in Troy, NY as a first generation student — studied English, history, education, and dance. I really sent my parents for a loop when, I waltzed into their living room as a sophomore, announcing I’d finally accepted my best friend’s marriage proposal. (It was one way to get Steve to stop popping the question!) Everyone thought we were crazy! I guess we were. But there’s nothing like real life to get you really moving — and so, I walked two-and-a-half years later, a transfer student in Fitchburg State College robe ready to receive my degree. I winked at our 9-month old daughter, Natalie, who was waving happily from her daddy’s arms. Then came Steven Jr., Jillian, and Sean. Busy is an understatement! Two careers, seven dogs, 13 cats, five goats, a couple of pigs, a gerbil named, Lucky, a bunch of grandkids, 2 degrees and just 1 husband later, I am still telling stories. In the early years, when there were books and bikes and horses and goats and tractors and construction equipment and Legos and piles of laundry everywhere, we raised our family and through it all we shared lots of stories. I subbed at the school and continued to work with local kids teaching dance. Running a ballet school was one way to tell the stories that mattered to me.
Our children grew into adults, and I decided to trade my ballet slippers in for a thing called a PC, and once again, I began to express myself, this time through writing. One draft led to another and I published my first poem, A Nap with You in The Penwood Review inspired by the birth of our first grandson, Collin. In 2010 I wrote a story called Breast is Best inspired by our second grandson, Robert, which found a home in Baystateparent Magazine. I pitched lots more stories to Bsp magazine, writing monthly features. One of my favorites was Finally Forever, a year-long series on adoption following three New England families after the Earthquake in Haiti. I convinced editor, Charlie St. Amand to take a chance on running a weekly parenting column for the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.
In 2013, I entered a graduate program focusing on literacy and writing at Plymouth State University. As a working writer, I was invited to teach. The best part is watching students revise their negative scripts about writing, and begin to refer to themselves as writers. Every student writer I’ve ever met wants to be a more effective writer. Three years after setting out to earn my Masters, I’d walk in a flowing black robe and tasseled cap on a May morning while my whole family, including our youngest grandson, Steven, waved and cheered me on!
This spring I’ll work with seniors in Interdisciplinary Studies. I enjoy teaching people how to express themselves, after all, we want to communicate, not only that, we need to do so in order to survive. I believe each of us has something to say, and these days I spend much of my time listening to and observing the ways in which our stories can bring us closer and help us to realize we are not alone. Almost eight years and hundreds of published stories later, here I am getting to share just how we might find ways to tap into your stories.
Let us scribble then, shall we?
What are some of your earliest memories of writing? Expressing yourself?
When I was in first grade I talked so much that I spent the entire first month in the corner. It made me a really good listener.
So, try to remember the people who were in positions of authority, a parent, a teacher, etc. How do you think your early experiences have shaped you? Okay. Write a blurb about how you think of yourself as a communicator, a writer, a learner. Connect it to a childhood moment. (2 -3 minutes)
Mini-Interview: Pair up and introduce yourselves. Learn something new about your partner. Briefly discuss the impact of experience and attitude when it comes to expression. Introduce your fellow writer using the information you’ve gathered. You may share your partner’s blurb.
Rewriting negative scripts frees us
When I work with student writers who come into the classroom with all kinds of past experience and lots of preconceived notions about what writing actually is, (it ain’t grammar) I want them to understand that using a bit of dead reckoning to find those attitudes helps to pave the way for the writing process. We have to act like Writers if we are going to be Writers. So we begin by referring to one another as Writers.
When ya plant corn, ya get corn, so to speak. So from here on out, whether you have published or not, whether you write professionally or for your own purposes, we will respectfully refer to one another as Writers, because inside this space that is who we truly are.
Now, today, we are going to let the artifacts, the people, places, things and ideas in your past experience, talk to us. As writers we are always looking for the Big Truth. In the process, we sometimes forget that all the little things that happen, that exist around us make up that Big Truth. And we all have stories to tell. Likewise, sometimes just the thought of trying to write that whole story overwhelms us and stops us from telling the truth. We make up all these excuses. We doubt we can do it. We don’t have time. Our story isn’t worth hearing. But. We have to let go of these negative scripts that keep our muse from talking to us, and we have to be willing to simply begin. Each week I fight back these negative scripts, most writers do. Didn’t Stephen King say, starting was the hardest part? He’s right. And I love it when new writers figure this out. Or when seasoned writers come back to it. So, as Brené Brown, qualitative researcher who’s spent her life’s work collecting people’s stories, says, we have to stand alone in our own Wilderness to see what matters to us, she is absolutely spot on. And it’s in this solitude where we can take notice. That’s figuratively. We have to quiet our minds. Relax a little. But what about literally?
Do you have a place or time of day or ritual that helps you to get started? (field response)
I do. I kiss Steve goodbye. It’s cell phone off, hair up, PJ’s on, a cup of coffee at my desk in a room filled with morning light.
Then I settle down and begin by allowing myself to do the most important thing of all — make mistakes. Lots of them. The thing is, I try to remember to be playful and not so hard on myself, (not an easy thing) that can come later. So, to enter the process of writing anything, I have to stop and notice things first. Accepting that our first draft is going to be wobbly at best and realizing that just because you started you are ahead of the writing game, is cause to feel pretty good. It takes the pressure off and invites your muse to come out of hiding.
Of course, I also have a deadline, and that helps too.
So, we have both of those things today.
Now we’re going to focus on one thing — a particular detail — and we’re going to consider.
We notice. We wonder. We drill down to get at the parts of that single detail. And then we begin to see where it might take us. We have to trust the words that begin to emerge. And we trust in the direction they are pointing. Even if it’s a direction that we hadn’t considered before.
Make a timeline of your life.
The point is to briefly note the highs and lows in your life. Use a simple line graph starting from birth. Think of a few dimensions as you build: Creative, Historical, Societal, and Scientific/technological. Now as you fill in your timeline be aware of what was happening in the world. Consider the time in which you were born, historical significance as you grew up, what were the cultural impacts and challenges, what stands out about your schooling, consider global threats, societal pressures, now think about your own achievements and the achievements of public figures, layer in challenges faced personally and collectively, talk about your first job, your work, places you visited, your health, family, friends, art, music, technology, career changes and accomplishments, marriage(s), divorce(s), loss, deaths, accidents, ups and downs, pivotal frightening moments, celebrations, milestones and so on.
(About 15 minutes)
(See the image above)
What do our artifacts tell us?
Place your artifact somewhere on your timeline. Write for seven minutes focusing on the artifact you brought. Consider all seven senses. Ask: who, what, where, when, why and how? What is your hunch about your artifact? What could it mean? What does it have to say? Try to go past the obvious. Dig deep. Consider the possibilities. You may use creative license here, in fact, I encourage you to! Come to a fresh insight you hadn’t considered before this moment.
(About 8 minutes)
Exercise on point of view and being vulnerable
*We didn’t get to this at the Chocorua Workshop, but I hope you try this on your own.
Often times our experiences are positive: wonderful places we’ve traveled, births in the family, a time when we successfully learned how to do something new and exciting — but sometimes our experiences are fraught with pain and fear, anger and misunderstanding. When this happens to us we often feel vulnerable. And being vulnerable is a tool that writers can put to good use. Now, think back to some of those negative experiences. They are stories too, and they are stories well worth exploring for obvious reasons. So, I am going to ask you to bravely step into that place with me. Not only that, I am going to ask you to step way out on a limb and keep the idea of noticing the particular, like that artifact you brought, very close. Now trust me. Make a list of times when you felt wronged, cheated, or mistreated. Maybe someone cut you off, or took something without asking, or embarrassed you or treated you unkindly. Now choose one episode on the list that is speaking strongly to you right at this moment. Visualize it. Tap into a specific artifact or image that is closely connected to the event. Let’s break up into small groups and share our stories as if we were sitting around the proverbial campfire.
(About 5-6 minutes)
Tell a story worth hearing
Let’s return to our stories and consider for a moment that we are not ourselves. I know, it sounds crazy, but as writers, we have to be able to look at the story from many angles. You’ve shared your tale and now it’s time to step into the life of the wrongdoer. This will be uncomfortable at first. Embrace it. Slip into the shoes of the offender. Become them. Think like them. Walk and talk like them. We are them. This of course, is one of the toughest things to do for lots of reasons, one, we carry this wrongdoing as part of who we are, it has shaped us in some way, and two, in order to live in the heart and mind of the one who hurt us is asking us, as writers, to become vulnerable. Doing this is going to require you to give the person who wronged you a soul, and you may even look bad in the process. That’s okay. So take a few minutes to retell the story. Be careful not be you. Write the story from the eyes of the one who hurt you. We will share these.
(About 15 minutes)
Writing workshop peer-reviewed
Talking with people is a great way to process ideas. Share your stories within a small group. Begin by saying, “I am a writer.” Read your work. Thank the reader. Notice. Wish. Question.
Return to revise your draft. Remember this is a work in progress. All of the writing we do is, and can be put away and taken out over time.
(About 15 minutes)
Prepare our brains to read aloud
Neuroscience is also at work while we do anything which requires moving and thinking. You should read your work aloud to yourself first. Using a mirror might help you to “see” yourself as your audience would. Another great exercise to prepare your mouth for speaking is to exhale outward and blow out through your lips causing them to move quickly like a playing card ticking against the spokes of a turning wheel. You can hum at the same time. Do a series of 3 before publicly speaking. Okay! You have successfully alerted your brain that you are going to be reading aloud.
Who are you as writer now? Or as a communicator? How has your attitude changed toward writing, if at all and why do you think it’s so?
Return to your first statement and see the new possibilities. Now write!!
Remember, every nugget you mined in this workshop is a gem to polish later. Revise. Revise. Revise. Relax. Have fun and keep scribbling!
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter @bonniejtoomey at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com
PO Box 1
C. Sandwich, NH 03227