I’m new to Nashville, I’m new to writing, and I’m new to congregating with writers in Nashville (or anywhere for that matter). Through my desperate hunt for other similar-interests folks via Meetup, I found a free introductory writing class. The objective was to have a workshop where those who might be interested in pursuing a more structured, weekly course could have a feel for whether or not it would be right for them in their writing journey.
I went. I got a feel. And to be honest, I’m not sure I know how I feel about the feels I felt. Perhaps by the end of this blog, I will have explained what went down so I can have a better idea of how I felt about it all…and so will you.
The session was held in a retirement apartment building’s lobby. So much blue-haired wisdom and quirkiness walked by me as I looked around with confusion on my face. I didn’t belong here and it showed. A kooky little lady (KLL) that had the heart of an angel – you could immediately see it in her eyes – walked up to me.
Are you here for the writer’s group? Here, we’re that way.”- KLL, pointing to the open area behind us.
I rounded the corner, past a wall of mailboxes full of inserted and forgotten keys, to discover tight quarters where this meeting was to be held. I was in my jeans, already kind of hot (Why isn’t it cold yet, Nashville?!), and was now at a plastic folding table in a cushionless 1,000-year-old chair that my butt sunk down into so far that I couldn’t get out of if I tried, alongside the most eclectic bundle of characters. Writers are eclectic, right? So in this space, they were normal? This wasn’t the set of a Community spin-off show – Community 201: The Crazy Comes Out – that I accidentally joined?
I continued to try and have an open mind, all the while trying to formulate my escape plan and excuses as to why I needed to kindly leave early. Unfortunately, the damn chair was well aware of my plan, and it held me hostage, as did my conscious. I knew it was right to stay.
Where else am I going to go? I have no life, no plans, nowhere to be other than home. Today is my rest day so I can’t even work out. And you might hurt the feelings of the people who clearly tried hard to make this a special event. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s over in four hours. You can do four hours. You got this!” – Me, giving myself a pep talk as my head screamed at me to get the hell out of this bizarre place I just entered.
THE BIG WIG
Awkward small talk carried on for quite some time with a couple of the other people.My walls shot right up when asked intrusive, impolite questions like “Is this your first class?”, “What genre do you write for?”, What are you working on right now?”, “Who are some of your favorite authors?”, and “What are you reading right now?”.
They then used other invasive techniques when their efforts yielded no results to try and connect with me, like “Are you from Tennessee?”, “Were you able to park at the front or did you have to walk a ways?”, “Did you see there are some cookies over there?”…it was terrible. I shut down. I had no desire to bond with these people, which is bizarre, as I have been in hot pursuit of some new relationships out here in Nashville, and I’m also a kickass small-talker.
“Why am I being so weird about this? Who cares what these randos think of me!” – Me, clearly in denial of my paralyzing fear of not being taken as a serious writer among other writers, no matter how “insignificant” they were in the big picture.
Finally, the leader of the session arrived. Thank God. I was wondering when the writing was going to begin. She sat down in her head-of-the-table chair and started talking. She talked, continued to talk, and then talked some more…like, a lot more. She made some good points about being creatively free and how writing is brave, how this was a comfortable place where beginners to experts were welcome, and then some other points as well that I didn’t hear because her long-windedness was framing up what looked like would be an eternal night and I didn’t want to hit my max listening capacity (a mind can only be filled with so much in an evening).
There was so much paper on the table. The demographic that led and primarily attended this group was not classified under the millennial label…more like baby boomer and whatever the generation was between boomers and gen-Xers, the generation that wears Crocs and knitted sweater-vests they found at the church rummage sale to complete an ensemble. There were fully-printed web articles, not just summary sheets of site URLs, stapled together with the page numbers hand-written in each corner. There were stacks of scribbled notes on index cards. Burdensome as the mess of sheets were, I found it to be charming. The sea of paper, and the right-hand man that continued to staple and pass out study sets that had to have been a star Sunday School student during his youth, brought me back to the days of my childhood at the Christian school – the school I went to and essentially lived at from age four to fourteen, the school that was also part of our tiny church that we were at whenever we weren’t at school – where I would spend hours copying and stapling sets for events such as this one (except the events were more Jesus-focused, usually, and this was a writing class where the word damn could be uttered, provided it was followed up with a disclaimer about how sometimes writing can incorporate cursing if it helps maintain the integrity of a character in a work).
That’s when it hit me: this place reminded me of back home. Not just California, but home home. The hometown where I first learned syntax trees, how to play French horn, and that weirdos are people, too. My heart’s judgmental edge wore off a teensie bit as I heard my mom’s voice inside my head, reminding me to always have a soft heart toward others.
I also then imagined my mom – same mom, different voice – being equally as critical and observant as I can be, each with our differences to keep things spicy. She would know exactly what was going through my head as I sat at that table. The inarticulable WTFness that my perceivably-stoic sweet face hid to well…she would’ve been laughing on the inside. The image of this then made me laugh on the inside.
As a coping mechanism to handle my present torment, I allowed myself to pretend she was in the room with me. It made me feel less bad about my disdain for my current hell and helped me see things through her eyes. She would’ve LOVED this group. In fact, she would have fit right in. Her loving heart and everyone-counts positivity would’ve rocked their socks. She would’ve been having a blast, probably the hit of the night, both in interacting with the other people and seeing me take the essence of the evening all in.
SALT AND PEPPER
There was a nicely-assembled spread of food on the desk table right behind me. Someone had obviously made a day trip to Costco. Assorted cheeses and Ritz rounds alongside them, giant sodium-filled chocolate chip cookies, dinner rolls, and every other go-to Bible study meeting potluck-type snack-only spread one could make. I passed on the pre-margarined rolls, skipped the cheese as I had no idea who had sliced it (nor did I know the sanitary conditions in which it had been prepared prior to making its way to the table), and headed straight for the sugar-packed, Crisco-loaded cookie.
A little later – during a break – a casserole made an appearance. At first peek, I thought I saw marshmallows and mini pepperoni slices on top but it could have been my imagination. I had no desire to look again, but after seeing some other people’s plates that were less nose-up-in-the-air about an everything-in-one-pan concoction, I saw some spaghetti noodles. So, I’m guessing it was spaghetti casserole and pray to the good Lord that there were not mini mallows in it. My organic-centric, free range egg-eatin’, diet-concerned self wouldn’t go near the stuff. My mom, however, would’ve probably loved it. Maybe even encouraged me to take a bite to respect the person who made it. Since my mom wasn’t there to make me do that, I rationalized in my head that the most respectful thing to do would be to let someone else eat my portion, rather than me eat it and gag, then hurl, in front of the group.
Everyone took out a pre-assembled packet – a good seven hours into this four-hour session – to begin an exercise that involved everyone in an attendance (12ish). We were to build a character based on the checklist provided to us. The list was a fill-in-the-blank person profile where basic headers like Name, Age, Profession, Family, City, etc. were left open and as we went around the table, each person got to decide the answer for that particular element. Fun!* We constructed this elaborate, complex, yet everyday fella as a group, and got into a simple breakdown that was most profound: the character’s public self, private self, and secret self (I Googled this and feel like I might be the only person who’s never heard of The Johari Window). It was interesting because despite the fact that we were all jointly creating a fictional character together, you couldn’t help but think about your own self when it came to the questions; the character was a combination of us all.
The point of the exercise? Writing is vulnerable, and without exploring all these elements of a character you have created, and your own personhood, the story you make will be thin, weak, and that storyline will fail because of the lack of attention and backwork to create complexities.
For me, in my own application to my writing needs (the reason I went, it’s all about ME), I realized my own work starts off weak and then overshares as it progresses, or at least is the case in my novel-in-progress. And the main character in the book is me so it would serve me well not to be truly vulnerable in my own self-construction on paper if I want to create a non-crappy, pathetic excuse of a novel that makes me look like the awesome person I am.
Score! This hadn’t been a waste of time! I learned something.
*This is an actual exclamation of excitement; this is not sarcasm.
“This is all leading somewhere, and when we reconvene, you’ll see where.” – BW, with giddiness in her voice that made me a little eager to see what she had in store for us, beyond another several hours in uncomfortable chairs.
We got a break! After 47 hours of this 4-hour session, we had a second to check our cell phones and shake out our legs a bit. It was just long enough for me to take a quick get-me-outta-this-place Snapchat selfie to a dear friend (A friend who doesn’t have a fun nickname like most everyone else I write about…sad day, I should make one up. She deserves one!) that I knew could see my pain and fill in the rest in just a 10-second Snap, find the pencil I had dropped hours ago into the abyss-chair, and make a trip to a restroom. It was like I was temporarily released from my jail cell, and for a brief second, I could see the outside world from the yard, or whatever the correct prison terminology is in this setting. I’ve never been to prison but I imagine it was similar to this place.
Once everyone was seated, BW welcomed us back and made sure to publicly thank KLL and her son* for cooking the casserole for everyone, and for making these other little treats that I never ventured to try.
“I wanna let everyone know that once I have my second surgery, I’m gonna make some jewelry to sell, and the funds are going to go right here, right to the writing group. And you know, this group has been so great for me and my son…and I just…” – KLL, a little untimely, due to commotion of everyone getting back to their seats, announcing a heartfelt plan that was only half-heard by the group.
KLL’s announcement was clarified for those not directly in earshot, and it was at that time that BW teared up. If I could remember the exact words of BW’s response, I’d document them here, but the sentiment of the moment is not easily forgotten.
I looked at BW. I looked at KLL. I looked around the room. I, too, became overwhelmed.
Here I was hearing my mom’s voice, pretending she was in the room with me to experience this, and now I was witnessing someone that full-on reminded me of the lady my mom could very-well be in 30 years. If anything, I know she’d be BFFs with a similar type of lady. I was awakened to the beauty of this bizarre, hodge-podge assembly. It only took a billion hours (maybe just three if you’re going by atomic, rather than what-it-feels-like, time) for me to figure it out. And just like that, I felt much more open. Good thing, too. Acting was up next on the agenda.
*Her son was kind of hidden for a while by the dude’s head that was next to me so I didn’t get a good look. He also disappeared for a while, which at this point was revealed that he was preparing food for the meeting. I saw him in full at this time. TALK ABOUT HANDSOME. EESH. I may join future classes just so I can see his lovely face again.
The character dude we had just built, along with some ancillary people in his life, was made for a purpose. It seems that he was, in our hypothetical scenario, getting married. This bit of information was revealed to us after he was created, and after our ever-so-needed break. We, the class attendees, would all role-play in a grand event in this dude’s life: the toast at his wedding. Each character attending the wedding would give 1) a toast in the public self voice, and then 2) in the private self voice, to share what they really wanted to say. This character was divided up between two different workshop attendees. Given that I was new and quiet, I wasn’t surprised when I was given a public self voice of a straight-forward character. I wrote my speech in classic, generic tone and sprinkled in my subtle and complex add-ins (which, by the way, I don’t think anyone picked up on, which made me sad) to craft a well-written speech. I felt confident in my speech. Well, I felt confident until it came time to give the speech. Maybe I was scared of what might come out?
I’ve given countless speeches in my life! Why was it, then, that when it came time to give my speech in this I-couldn’t-care-less-about-these-people-and-their-opinions-of-me setting did I freak out?! My heart was racing faster than it does after a PR on Fran, my hands were shaking like I just finished a Xopenex treatment, and my cheeks were on fire.
This speech wasn’t a speech: it was an act. I was a character. I’d never played a character, unless you count playing a quiet, stand-still angel during a human video to Carman’s the Champion on stage at youth group, and fantasyland is not my strong suit. Despite the paralyzing terror of my two-minute actressing, I actually enjoyed myself. Perhaps the make-believe exercises of creating a fictional personality, and also pretending my mom was there to experience the madness around me by my side, set something free in my head? A creative side I’d yet to explore? It felt amazing. And though playing a part, I found a chance to really play myself. Though if I did have to pick what actress I was most channeling there in the moment, I’d go with Jenna Fischer. I was very okay with that. At this point, I could have crashed and burned and I would’ve been okay with that because I was one of the last people to speak. This meant leaving for my home and real food I could actually stomach was just moments away.
It finally ended! Five actual hours later (an hour over schedule which, surprisingly, was less than I anticipated).
After everyone gave their acting speeches, BW gave a closing statement on everything we had discussed and what that meant in relation to our individual writing ventures. She did, of course, go over what an actual course might include, and also provided an overview of other workshops in the making for the future. Knowing I’m as poor as a churchmouse, am unable to make it to the gym more than twice a week, and was not jiving AT ALL with the vibe of this group, I tried to sneak out and not discuss further paid, regularly-structured interaction with them over my other, normal activities. But, of course, BW caught me, right after asking another class attendee if professional acting was a part of their background (it wasn’t).
“And you, too.” – BW, calling me out, as if to include me in all the wonderful acting compliments she just gave the guy who was also appearing to make a bee-line for the exit.
“Me? Oh, no.” – Me, thinking this woman was crazy and just looking to get me interested in her class.
She must’ve been talking to the invisible person in front of me. That’s the only way she could be looking at me.
“Yes, you have…a…a presence, a uniqueness. You should join our future drama workshops. And I also coach a couple actors in Los Angeles over Skype. You really haven’t done any acting?” – BW, continuing on to praise me on my show-stopping performance from moments ago.
I couldn’t help but take her praise to heart. She was, after all, a big-time writer for some long-standing television shows, and spent a lot of time in Hollywood, so she did have a frame of reference that deemed her credible to make such claims.
“Me, an actress? A performer? I guess I have been a musician for most of my life, and I love talking and telling stories, so perhaps those things did blend together in an actress-type role!” – Me, in my head to myself as I rapidly accepted her assessment of my talents.
Before I let the stardom go to my head, I recapped the last trillion hours that I spent in this class, considered the source, considered my surroundings, and took it with an appreciative grain of salt (if the word appreciative can be added into this idiom).
I thanked BW for her complimentary reinforcement, for taking time to teach those less-skilled and experienced than her in the ways of writing, let her know to keep me on her mailing list, and inch-by-inch scooted myself across the invisible you’re-now-in-the-foyer area so I could be on my way. I left the wackfest, empowered with a strong sense of self and kickstarted creativity that I knew could only be fueled outside of this place, and went on my merry way.
I think I now know some things, including how I feel.
- I know this blog could use some workshopping for a more cohesive, well-written observational piece, and it could use some synonym swap-outs (could I have said the word “character” any more?), but if I wait until its perfect, I’ll never ever share my experiences. I need to share my experiences. At the very least, document them.
- I know that I am often hindered in life, and in writing, by fear of vulnerability and too much honesty. I prefer my safety walls, the ones I have built over time that actually need to be torn down if I’m ever going to do something spectacular.
- I know I’m a better writer than I allow myself to believe. The fundamentals that were wiggled into the evening madness made this very clear to me. I need to own my writerness.
- I know that I miss my mom more than I thought I would living out here in Nashville, alone. She thinks I’m right up there with Taylor Swift (her insane words, not mine), and in her eyes, I may as well be a famous Hollywood starlet who writes novels, albums, movies, whatever…”I’m Mellie Parkway and I can be anybody and do anything!” is what my mom would make me recite throughout my child and, in some cases, still does in present day.
I feel thankful that I stuck it out, for all cazillion hours, and learned nothing at all about what I had hoped I’d learn, and everything that I needed to learn. I’m probably no less crazy than anyone from that night. We’re all people, each with our own story to tell. And aren’t the crazy stories the ones we seem to love the most?
I guess that’s how I felt about the writing thing I went to that one time; it feels good to now know this.