Creative writing workshop focused on writing a personal timeline – Press Enterprise
In the summer of 2020, Inlandia Institute Executive Director Cati Porter asked me if I would be willing to replace Jo Scott-Coe as the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop Facilitator at the Public Library. of Riverside. Out came my categorical answer: no, no, nein.
The reason was obvious. I am not a creative writing teacher. Although I’ve attended workshops for years, I’ve never taken a formal course in creative writing.
But Cati made me reconsider. And while I was thinking, I thought about what I might be able to do. That’s when the idea came to me. Why not make it an alternative workshop to creative writing? An idea of organization arises: the chronology. It could work.
You see, I’m a retired historian (taught the subject for 26 years at UC Riverside). What if I structured the workshop around the concept of chronology, using different perspectives on this theme to write assignments? This is how the concept of an Adventures in Chronologyland workshop lasting one year in 15 sessions was born.
Add COVID-19. None of the usual bi-weekly gatherings at the library. Zoom arrived, which I had just learned. Zoom turned out to be an ideal solution.
Most in-person Inlandia writing workshops work this way. They run for two hours every two weeks. The facilitators have us read short literary excerpts in class, after which we write for 20-30 minutes, hopefully inspired by the excerpt and the facilitator’s suggestions. We then read our drafts either to the full workshop (10-15 people) or in small groups to get feedback from others. After tweaking our pieces at home, we bring them back to the next class for more feedback.
Zoom created limitations but also offered other options. The main limitation: time. An hour on Zoom can be tiring; two hours of emptying. My workshop would last one hour.
What about options? On Zoom, we could do small group activities even better, without the cacophony of multiple noisy conversations operating in the same cramped conference room. And I didn’t have to limit class sizes. We ended up with about twenty regulars.
We would not consume class time with writing. Participants wrote home to prepare for the next session. Instead, the hour usually consisted of the following: 10-15 minutes of general discussion about the homework experience; 30 minutes in three-person breakout rooms, where each person read their work and received feedback; finally 15-20 minutes back together for my mini-course on some aspects of chronological writing and a discussion on the next assignment.
In addition, participants had a year-long main task: to create a detailed personal timeline. Not a brief; not an autobiography; just a timeline. Start where and when you were born and go from there until today. What different places have you lived in? When and why did you move each time? Where did you go to school? What jobs did you do? What major changes have occurred in your life trajectory? What were the most important events in your life?
My timeline was six single-spaced pages. Some participants wrote their timeline within the first two weeks. Others have spent the entire year doing so.
In addition to this, there were writing assignments every two weeks, with each essay developing an aspect of their personal timeline. Your first vivid memory. A difficult decision that influenced your personal trajectory. A past memory that conflicts with someone else’s memory.
As the workshop progressed, I asked them to try out different styles of writing about their lives. Write a story using a flashback or flash-forward. A story in which your timeline parallels someone else’s until the two story lines intersect. Reflections on an incident from your past that you now see very differently than you did then. A physical place from your past that you have revisited and found so different from what you remembered.
I liked to organize my bi-weekly mini-conferences in order to give participants ideas for doing their homework. To illustrate the ideas I talked about, I talked about books they could read and movies they could see.
Frederick Forsyth’s captivating use of side stories in “The Day of the Jackal”. Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant mise en place in the film ‘Roma’, often with a fixed camera, while letting movement in and out of its rigid frame and drawing in viewers by refusing to allow them to see what was happening just outside its limits. The movie “Rashomon”‘s fascinating use of multiple perspectives on a single event.
Final mission: write your own epitaph. You now have your timeline, but how would you like to be remembered? What would you like your unborn great-great-grandchildren to know about you?
At the end of the 15 sessions, I was exhausted but elated. And with many new friends. This workshop now has a treasured place in my personal timeline. But when Cati asked me if I would do it again, I went back to my previous no, não, and nein. It’s been a magical journey, but now it’s time for me to become a workshop participant again.
Carlos Cortés is professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside, author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time,” and a book of poetry, “Fourth Quarter: Reflections of a Cranky Old Man.” He can be contacted at [email protected]