On the second and fourth Mondays of the month I head out to New Jersey to spend an hour with a group who are upwards of 70, 80, and 90 years of age. We sit around a table in the card room of their residence. We talk and write and read to each other, laugh a lot, and sometimes wipe away some tears.
Sometimes we listen to music or look at pictures to get us started. This week I thought my friends might enjoy a prompt from a book called Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. We’re always told to write what we know, she says, but how about if we start with what we know and build on it? LIke Emily Bronte who sat in a room and wrote with limited experience and unlimited imagination. Write about something you’ve never done as if you had.
What should we name it? Suggestions were called out. “Let’s Pretend” won. I set the timer for ten minutes, and we were off. Looking around I saw ten pieces of paper filling up with words and ten heads bent down over ten hands writing fast.
Ok. Time to read.
This group has been going for a year and a half, so many here have practice in free writing. At first it was hard to get the writing going. This particular prompt proved to be magic.
We started with B. She began to read a tale from the point of view of a child living on a farm in Nigeria. (In previous pieces she’d written about her own childhood on a farm Upstate during the Depression.) Her African characters were poor but always had food because they were farmers, much as in her own experience. Then the story took off as the parents die of an Ebola-like disease and the children set off to find a better life. They’re seized by a gang that tries to turn them into soldiers, and finally the eldest heads into the jungle to escape his captors, but his siblings refuse to join him. All in a 10-minute writing!
Next J., whose prose is always elegant and cogent, writes in the voice of an astronaut. “I have trained for two years for this day.” Much detail about the clothes, the weightlessness, the equipment, the thrill of seeing the Earth from so many different angles. Good, vivid writing. Especially imaginative since J. fears heights so much she won’t sit in a theater balcony!
E. writes such a realistic account of skydiving that we all ask, “Did you really go skydiving?” “No, but I wanted to, ” she says vehemently. I love the part about how she’s up in the plane and decides she doesn’t want to go through with it. But she’s already strapped to her instructor, the door is opened, and they’re tumbling down. How quiet it is! How she feels like a bird!
Other stories: A.,a children’s book author, writes about her fictional career as a doctor.
E., who in fact escaped from an Eastern European country the day before the Germans rolled in at the beginning of the Second World War, writes about flying in a hot air balloon and a helicopter over New York with characteristic grace and humor.
The final story by S. is the capper. “I am 5’8” and slender,” she begins, and everyone breaks into delighted laughter. “I enjoy shopping for clothes” - guffaws - “So yesterday I went to the mall. Good! They have size 8.” We’re now all helplessly, raucously hysterical, sharing in this, the most extreme fantasy yet. “I bring a lovely green pants suit into the fitting room and decide to try the pants on first. Oh no! They come up to my ankles -- too short!” A wry smile on her face above all 4 feet 11 inches of her.
“You know what it is about this class,” one of my writing buddies says. “You make us think.”
In the past year I’ve taught creative writing and songwriting workshops for high school age students at Riverdale Country School, for the Tribes Hill music collective in Westchester, for Feel the Music at the Lenox Senior Center in NYC, and at the 5 Star Residence in Teaneck, NJ. If you have a group that might be interested in a workshop or if you know about similar programs or groups where writing like this might fit, please drop me a line at email@example.com.