I admire today’s guest. I introduced Christi Craig to you last week, when I had the honor of guest posting on her beautiful blog, Writing Under Pressure. In the wake of last week’s tragic events, and with the holiday season upon us, there’s been a lot of talk of giving of yourself. Rightfully so. Giving is admirable, but as Christi’s wonderful post today demonstrates, giving offers so much more. Read on, and you’ll admire her, too.
LESSONS FOR THE LEADER
Once a month, I gather around a table with eight to ten senior citizens and lead a creative writing class. This isn’t an ordinary writing group, and these folks aren’t your typical writers. Yes, they bring stories they’ve written based on the previous month’s prompt, and we read them aloud, discuss them briefly. But, we meet for only sixty minutes in a small room. There isn’t enough time or space to dig into the craft of writing, and the acoustics in the room make it difficult for everyone to hear 100%. Yet, this group of writers teaches me plenty about the craft and inspires me beyond the page. They are proof that the exercise of writing sometimes plays a different role than telling the perfect story or creating a moving essay.
The first time I met with this group, I worried about my age and fitting in (I am two generations younger than a few of them). I thought I’d start our meeting with introductions. I’d tell them my background, list my credentials, ask about each of them and what they enjoyed writing. I planned an ice-breaker, so that we’d all feel comfortable reading our stories out loud to each other. But, once everyone sat down, the clock became the focal point. “Aren’t we going to start reading?” Someone asked. “It’s 10:30.”
As leader of the group, and as a writer in general, I got caught up in proving my worth. But, these seniors reminded me that 1) time is of the essence (senior citizens keep a very busy calendar), and 2) we’d all get to know each other as we went along. Instead of talking about writing and storytelling, we serve ourselves better, at times, by getting down to business.
They’ve taught me about the nature of writing prompts, as well. My first prompt for them ran long and wordy. I listed several options to choose from, hoping to make the assignment easier. However, I made it much more difficult. They returned the next month with stories but expressed their frustration.
I realized, then, that detailed prompts are confusing and kill the muse. My job as leader of the group isn’t to give them so many options that they freeze before they begin; I need only open the door for their stories to emerge. Now, my prompts are one sentence or less. And, I know they’re successful not by the quality of stories written, but by the responses that surround each story.
Most of the people who attend the class write personal essays. One woman is working on a collection of short fiction. Inevitably, someone shows up without anything to read. And, always, there is at least one new face at the table. Here’s where this group inspires me the most. When it’s time for the newcomer to share, the person apologizes for not bringing a story then follows with a similar response each time:
I have been here a year.
I have been here for three months.
I just moved in.
Everyone at the table smiles in understanding. You see, the heart of this group is in the fellowship. All are welcome, whether or not they love to write, whether or not they read a story. And, what happens around the table is magic. Someone reads a story about sending letters to a World War II soldier or moving into a 1940’s side by side home where the neighbor’s radio blares through the walls and entertains two families at once. Eyes light up, heads nod, and laughter erupts. Suddenly, a lively discussion breaks out. And, when the sixty minutes are over, people ask for the next prompt. They make sure they know when we’re meeting again.
I am a struggling writer, making my way slowly towards publication. Studying the craft tends to be my focus, but this group of seniors reminds me often that it doesn’t need to be the end goal in all of my affairs. They illustrate, in a beautiful way, the fact that putting pen to paper is simply a means to connect. Stories bring us together in a myriad of ways and inspire us to tell more, to listen more, to discover how we are the same, or to relate when we are different. And, that is the gift that comes from writing.
What insights or inspiration have you discovered lately?
Christi Craig, a native Texan living in Wisconsin, works by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlights as a writer. She leads a creative writing class at a retirement center in Milwaukee and a Roundtable at Redbird-Redoak Writing in Bay View, Wisconsin. As well, she is a regular contributor at Write It Sideways. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she was a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition. Visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or stop by her page on Facebook.
That was completely inspiring. What you’re doing to help bring their stories out is the best kind of giving–the teach a man to fish type. And that you give of your time and your heart, too. Wow– just loved this.
This was so heartwarming. I love that you spend regular hours with the senior community! And you captured my heart when I read that you listened, *really* listened to what they meant when they fussed over the time (re: their concern with getting to down to brass tacks rather than the planned credentials.) So much of what you wrote has great merit– keeping it simple insures the right focus, and making connections is what a story is all about. It’s all about writing from the heart, which is the most important connection of all.
Thanks so much, D.D. Not fussing over time was my first and most important lesson, for sure, and I try to carry that into my every day writing life. Credentials have a place, but the work we do carries much more meaning.
[…] Lessons for the Leader […]
Thanks, Nina. They really are a great group of people. So kind. I love hearing their stories, and seeing their faces light up.
Everyone has a story, and you just inspired me this morning, Christi. I teared up at the intros about how long they’ve been there, but love that you are helping them continue their stories . . .
Yes, that gets me every time, Deede.
You are so right that stories have long been about connecting to others, to the past, and to the universe (I’ve been reading the Plot Whisperer). The wonderful feeling of writing comes (for me, at least) that someone read the story and enjoyed it and connected to it.. It’s not that I wrote a literary perfect piece of work (as if I could, but still). Thanks for sharing your wonderful group. It sounds like one of the best ways for a writer to volunteer!
I have the Plot Whisperer in my TBR pile. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that book. And, yes, it’s such a great feeling when our stories serve to connect those around us (a short story, a novel, even a post). Thanks for your comment.
I think it’s great that you are leading a writers’ group with the “old folks.” Yes, some homes keep them very busy, and some are just busy living! I think a vague reference as a prompt is much better. This is inspirational. I’d love to start a group of my own.
Thanks, Karen. My kids call them the “grandmas and grandpas,” which I love. If you decide to start a group, I heard that Natalie Goldberg’s book, Old Friend from Far Away, is a great resource for that age group.
I haven’t had my coffee yet, so even if I’d had a recent insight, it’s been forgotten. I am insightless. 😉 But I still love hearing about these interactions, Christi, particularly since I have some idea what a bright spot it will be to many of those participants.
I’m thinking the opposite of insightful is outsightful. Just sayin’… I love hearing this, too. Enjoy your coffee, Boss.
Thanks, Jan. And, bottoms up! 🙂
I loved this, Christi. Just loved it. As you know, I have a real soft spot for older folks, and I actually got a bit teary-eyed.
I agree with Nina — so inspiring! I love your point about how stories make connections, linking us together.