about a writer I know

Frank Book 3
Frank sat at the edge of my class near the door, a row behind everybody else.  That wasn’t unusual; in the space of a classroom – churches and restaurants too – lots of people feel more comfortable sitting at the perimeter of the room.  And in the Continuing Education realm, people enter the class with all manner of experience with writing groups, often no experience at all, so it’s not uncommon either that some folks rear up like a deer in headlights when I provide the structure of the lessons, particularly the story circle which makes up the latter half of every class. 

The story circle, in which the writers read aloud the product of the past week’s labours, can cause fear to strike down like lightning.  It’s like having to give a speech but WORSE!  You’re being asked to share your art.  Your baby.  This thing you’re compelled to make even though you feel like a big fake and it’s all folly and if you share it with other people everyone will look upon you as the ridiculous fraud you feel you are. 

When learning of the story circle aspect of the class, Frank pretty much said, “I’m not doing that.”  His face said it first and he upheld that decision his face made for the rest of the twelve weeks. 

Of course I’m not going to force anybody to read their stories.  I know of that fear.  I know of that wanting to hold my creations close to me where I know nobody will hurt them and ridicule them and look upon me with pity and say “Look at her, sad thing, thinks she’s a WRITER.” 

But I also know what it feels like to release my art to a supportive family, and the importance of doing that in the creative process – how it builds in one the courage to try new, reveal more.  I held out hope that Frank would change his mind because it’s never failed that each class does become a family, always generous with encouragement and support. And it never fails that I see the gratitude and sense of exhilaration washing over writers when they have shared a piece.  I hear it in their sometimes shaky voices, see it in their often trembling hands as they hold their pages; I feel it lingering, palpable like heartbeats, after the last sentence has been delivered.

One day Frank thrust an envelope at me – it contained a stack of memoir stories from his childhood.  “They’re just a bunch of crap” he said, “but will you have a look?”  It was a memoir class and I think he was hoping some of them would do for the assigned writings.

They were so not crap.  The stories were engaging and lively and full of movement and the memoir writer’s goldmine – “moments.”  They reminded me of one of my writerly heroes, Roddy Doyle who has so beautifully captured the perspective of a child.  I’d been reading them on the subway that subsequent week and met up with my sister after work one night for dinner on a patio, and handed her the stories to look at while I visited the restroom to freshen up.  She shared my enthusiasm for them and read some of the passages aloud in character as we sat there waiting for our salads.

My reaction to the stories wasn’t enough to convince Frank to read any of what he still called “crap” in class, but he did eventually concede to have one of his peers read aloud another story of his.  She was a beautiful and elegant orator, and read his story with reverence.  And even though she was so different from Frank, so far from his personal aspect, when she finished the group let go approving outbursts and applause.  That remains a seminal writing teacher moment.

Another of those seminal moments occurred recently when Frank showed up on Facebook with a professional photograph and images of his published book, Our Land is the Sky – a series of stories about a family of crows he wrote for his grandson, which I had enjoyed in their draft stages.

He sent me a copy of the book and that up there is what he wrote inside.  It represents a validation of all the reasons I work to encourage people to tell their stories, even though I have to do it outside my day job, and sometimes I complain about having to read yet one more story.  That up there is the payback.  Riches.

Keep telling the stories Frank, I know there are a lot more in there.

And if you have a little story lover in your life, why not put the stories about Jimmy Fastwing under the Christmas tree?  Click on the images below to find out where you can get a copy. You won't be disappointed.

Frank Book 1

Frank Book 1

6 Comments

  1. Reply
    Steve capelin December 14, 2011

    Beautiful Jenn. As a former teacher of little ones and then tertiary ones I always get a kick from knowing that something of what I shared made a difference. I can see it sometimes in their work or I have the chance to employ past students on creative projects and experience it first hand. But to find that one, older than oneself, has been touched must feel wonderful. It’s not all about the young ones.

  2. Reply
    Jennifer December 14, 2011

    Well I am passionate about adult/continuing education – but I guess that’s a conversation you and I have had. I love teaching in that venue because of the range of people I get – from 19 to 90. The 90 year old (incidentally the beautiful orator who read Frank’s stories) had much to teach us.
    I think all I needed to share with Frank is some enthusiasm for his work. And maybe some “stop using so many adjectives” kinds of advice. But if he wants to give me credit for that, than I’m accepting with a boatload of gratitude.

  3. Reply
    Susannah December 16, 2011

    Wonderful! What a lovely thing to know that you helped someone find their voice and tell their story. Well done you! and well done to Frank too. 🙂
    PS.I love his book cover design.

  4. Reply
    Jennifer December 16, 2011

    Oh, make no mistake about it – he already had his voice. I suppose I helped him make up his mind to use it! And it certainly felt great, as it does with so many others.

  5. Reply
    Selma December 19, 2011

    I am so pleased for Frank. It is such an achievement to get one’s work out there and I love the idea of the storybook about the family of crows. Comngratulations to you, Frank and also to you Jennifer. You are obviously an excellent teacher!

  6. Reply
    Jennifer December 22, 2011

    Thanks Selma, my bird-loving friend. I don’t know about “excellent” teacher, but I am an “enthusiastic” teacher.

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