Our tutor Faith was back teaching my writing class this week, which was great. I enjoy her teaching and her classes and her insights. The initial discussion was around how much writing we’d completed during the week, and I didn’t have the courage to discuss how the 10th anniversary of the quakes had really depressed me this week, and how I struggled to do much of anything at all.
We started out with a free writing exercise, starting with the words, “The last time I cried…” In the free writing exercise, we should just write and write and write. No editing, no stopping, and if we ran out of steam, take a sentence in the piece, any sentence, repeat it, and keep writing.
Mine was a very personal piece about the last time I cried: counselling on Wednesday. It discussed some of the things that made me cry, and more importantly, it spoke to how on a hot, sunny, late summer’s day I can feel so very isolated and alone. When we went around the room, some of my classmates shared theirs. Towards the end, Faith looked at me and asked if I wanted to share mine. I nodded no: too personal, too raw, too emotional.
From that piece, we needed to take one sentence, use it as the opening for another piece, and work on that. I took the line about it being a hot, sunny, late summer’s day and me feeling dread. Expanding on that, it went into the jumble of counselling, physical depersonalization symptoms, and stumbling too close to my true feelings. That morphed into a more surreal description: me being underwater, facing upwards, seeing the sun dancing on the water, but I can breathe, and the deeper I breathe, the closer to the surface I get.
For those of you who are swimmers or really familiar with pools, at certain times and in certain lights, you can get close to the underneath surface of the water and see fragments of yourself reflected back at you. It is strange but cool all at the same time. So I mentioned that I got that close to my true self, that kind of event horizon of water and air, and my reflection is naked, staring back, smirking, when another hand grabs his, and he turns away from me. I end up sinking again, and then I repeat the first line as the last line.
Quite a few of my classmates seemed impressed, or even stunned, by the depth and rawness of the piece. After all, it was autobiographical event-wise in my life. Some of the people in my class are swimmers or surfers, and they really connected with the water imagery and that experience of seeing yourself reflected in the underneath.
An aside: when I get anxious or nervous, I tend to speed up my speaking. And I did both times I read my work, even though I thought I was going slowly. Something I need to work on.
The lesson of the day started. We were concentrating on how concrete nouns (thing you can touch) make a really good story. I’m of the opinion that concrete things can “ground” the reader into your story and be more willing to go along with the tale you are telling.
We also have to be very selective about the adjectives we use with those nouns. For example, we spoke about “a forest”. A “dark forest” or “leafy forest” really doesn’t add much to the description. Why is it dark? Most forests are leafy, so that is redundant. But what about “a pine forest”? Or “a birch forest”? I argued that birches are long and slender, white, and they remind me of Russia in the wintertime. It may hold different meanings for different people, but adding words to the phrase “a birch forest” like “with its silvery trunks” and “is skeletons” makes it clear: “A birch forest with its silvery trunks is skeletons” provides a vivid picture of the forest in winter. It can set the scene. Are we going to talk about death in this piece?
I did also say that I felt verbs could do a lot of the heavy lifting — that’s a phrase I picked up in a previous writing course — and I think we kinda got corralled back into talking about nouns. Maybe verbs are for another lesson.
We were assigned the task of writing about the classroom we were working in: four or five sentences. The room, like many classrooms around the world, is somewhat blank and sterile. (Faith won’t like me writing about it in such abstract terms!) But I decided to focus on some concrete parts of it. The cartoon faces etched into the pinboard. The carpeting reaching up part of the wall, meeting the pinboard. The square windows leading into a hallway. The large dominating whiteboard at the front of the classroom. The group of scissors emerging from odd angles at the front of the room.
That was the one they liked the best. The description of the scissors. (Disclaimer: how I described it above is now how I wrote it. I’m keeping the writing in this lesson private so I can possibly use it later. Once it’s published, it might not be accepted in a later piece.)
We went around the room, reading our pieces, each was somewhat different. It was such a delight to hear how many different people wrote so many different things about the same room. Faith liked a few of our descriptions, which was great. Hannah (my fellow American) did an amazing job. I am envious of her talent. Actually, I am envious of many (if not all) of my classmates’ writing abilities. They each bring things to life, and I find myself wanting to write like each one of them.
Alas, I am stuck with myself. Ha!
Our next task was to take what we had written and make it into some sort of narrative or scene description. Hannah could write something different because she had done such an amazing job. I focused on the blooming metaphor I’d captured in with the scissors. My writing focussed on the corner of the room where those scissors were: a pile of completed workbooks; a clock on its back; the carpeting up the walls; the mushroom-colored pinboard; the blank space below the word “IMPORTANT”. I tied that all into a description about a classroom like a forest, and, of course, I used a lot of action verbs to, well, do that “heavy lifting”.
Again, we went around the room to read our pieces. Interestingly enough, many of my classmates wrote about the room in a negative way. I’m not bagging that but I understand that vibe. The room is boring, very cookie-cutter, and it doesn’t exactly inspire learning.
But I wrote about it from a different point of view. Like a forest, a classroom is a place of both life and death. You walk into a forest and see all the growth around you but also can smell the rotting leaves and see the odd tree here or there at an odd angle, dead. The stream may be flowing, but the pond may be stagnant. A forest is an odd mixture of life and death and everything in-between.
A classroom can be that way too.
Faith asked me to expand on that idea.
Working in education, I said, we know that a classroom can be a place to make a mind grow and become strong. But a classroom can also be a place where we can kill a person’s ambitions and want to learn. And I think that became a very powerful metaphor.
(As a side note: Hannah wrote a hilarious piece from what I’d like to think was a cynical kid’s point of view. It was excellent. Definitely would love to hear more from that character if she goes further with it.)
Towards the end of the class, we were asked if any of us wanted to share our homework, that poem from the first lesson that I kinda screwed up. Pen shared her numbers poem, which really was a moving account of her and her daughter’s journey from the UK back to New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a good mixture of fun, light things and dark, sad things. She really did an excellent job on it.
Zoe also shared her work. She said that she wasn’t done with it quite, but I also felt it was good the way it was. Some of the numbers, she interjected, weren’t exact, but as Pen added, did they need to be? Couldn’t the poem be, in fact, made up of some numbers which were approximate? I have to agree with that.
I didn’t have the courage to share my piece. I had rehearsed it a million times, but I was aware we were running out of time, I was getting really mentally tired, and I could feel the depersonalization teetering to the point of tipping to activating, so I kept quiet.
That was my writing class this week. I am super enjoying it and I am looking forward to next week!