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.
The Burlington Skyway is part of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway linking Hamilton (west) and Toronto (east) with the Niagara Peninsula. A good portion of my family lives on the Niagara Peninsula and thus, I'm quite familiar with that bridge.
Well, not so much anymore. Some years ago when I lived in Windsor, I visited my brother Jeff and sister in law Carol for the weekend, and on my return home, suffered a panic attack at the top of that bridge. It was a nasty experience; it was all I could do to get me and my car to the other side, where I could pull over and stop and get out of the car drag some oxygen into my lungs. And plan my way up the side of Hamilton Mountain – the only way that would point me to Windsor (home).
Now, those of you that live near real mountains would laugh at the thought of this being called a "mountain." "Hamilton Mountain" is really part of the Niagara Escarpment (one of the world's Natural Biosphere Reserves), where the earth juts up in a line leading from the Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula down through to that watery wonder, Niagara Falls and into western New York.
But my point is not to discuss what people call a mountain in southern Ontario. My point is, that having come across that bridge once in a sweating, hyperventilating, shaking mess, the idea of then having to drive up the side of that "mountain" with the view of the city of Hamilton at the bottom of a breathtaking earth-slide below me, was terrifying. It took about an hour's convincing, and eventually I did it, making my way home to Windsor, stopping along the way about six times (over what is usually a three and a half hour trip) to collect myself after some minor highway overpass or other.
I'm pleased to tell you that, adjacent to the Burlington Skyway, (the thought of which still causes my palms to sweat), lies the older Burlington Lift Bridge. The Lift Bridge might only take an extra two or three minutes (getting off and back on the highway) to get onto the Peninsuala, but one does risk reaching it when a ship is coming through between Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbour, and waiting out the "lift" of the bridge while a ship passes through.
People travelling with me might find this an inconvenient hold-up. Me – never wanting to ever experience any sort of panic attack ever again – doesn't mind waiting at all. Turning off the car and watching a ship pass through the narrow canal is Zen-like. Even on those days when my family is waiting for me on the other end. After all, we all know I'm eventually going to get there.