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.