And climb the stairs to the beach...

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Based on a True Story

Last spring I decided to take a creative writing class. It was a bad idea. I do love to write and have been writing off and on, poetry and prose, most of my life. It's an outlet for me and it feels like I am being creative when I am writing. But this class really was pretty exclusively for writers of fiction. When I signed up for it I was thinking that all types of writing  are  creative so I figured I could learn something. What I learned was that writing fiction makes me very uncomfortable and I have no imagination whatsoever.

Our teacher is a published author but she wouldn't tell us the pen name she used for her novels. She has also written a series of historical books for kids for which she did use her own name, Lisa Wroble.

 She was an interesting woman and probably a good teacher, but I was not one of her success stories.

The structure of the class each week was that the teacher had us write for 10-15 minutes based on a planned exercise, share the results with the class and then she'd offer suggestions based on technique that is currently used in published works. For example, the omnipresent narrator is no longer popular in modern novels. (Did you know that? I didn't.)

The second half of the class was dedicated to reading aloud to the class either a homework assignment using some scenario we had been given, or read something that we had been working on. I don't even remember what I wrote for any of these assignments. I only know it was very discouraging for me because I always wrote about something that actually happened and the teacher would comment that it was really a memoir.

The class was held in the evening at a high school and consisted of about 10 students. Our ages ranged from 17 to late 70s. There were two 17 year old boys who were students at the high school during the day.  They wrote  about vampires and dark fantasy. One of the boys did write something interesting about the face an old man saw in a mirror, but he lost me when he started talking about parallel universes and time travel.

There was one middle aged housewife who wrote about snakes who lived in the yard and had all kinds of interaction with children. She had a blog, too, but rather than writing as herself she wrote as some alter ego who was catlike and called herself  Lady Carmen. Another younger woman was writing a mystery about a woman who was escaping from her abusive husband. She prefaced her first night's reading by letting us know it was somewhat autobiographical, but mostly fiction. That night's tone was pretty somber.

Another 50 something  woman wrote about a cross country trip in an RV with a large multi generational family, which could have been very entertaining, but she had so many characters and had them stopping at so many points of interest on various trips that it got very confusing for her audience and she went away that night with quite a few suggestions.

Then there was a man from India,  about 75 I'd guess, who was a retired programmer. He had been working on a novel for a decade and was basing the main character on his father. When he read his excerpt aloud, I am sorry to say, I could barely understand him.
However, I was able to determine that his father was a spy and there were some veddy, veddy dangerous things going on all over Great Britain.

The first of the exercises Lisa gave us, was that she had us pick an object from a bag and write a description of the object, write about who owned it and what it meant to that character. I picked some Mardis Gras beads. Whaaat? All I could think of writing about was drunken women pulling up their shirts at that parade shouting "throw me some beads!"  But I didn't write about that. I probably should have. I just wrote some stupid thing about a little girl finding them on the street.

Another exercise was that the instructor read us a description of two people dancing at a wedding. We had to write as if we were wedding guests watching them and describe what we observed and make up a story about these two people. I don't remember what I wrote, probably because it was boring. One person wrote a whole scenario about how she,  the wedding guest, knew that these two were having an affair. Another wrote some elaborate murder plot connected to the couple and involving another guest at her table. Some of them were quite imaginative and some were as boring as mine.

These exercises sound like they might have been fun, but we had to write these things on the spur of the moment very quickly and I failed miserably! What the others wrote was sometimes pretty good and sometimes kind of inane. But everyone was having fun with these exercises. Except me. I seemed to be the only one who hated them and usually never came up with any ideas until time was almost up. The teacher seemed to understand that I was not a fiction writer and she was okay with me dropping out after 4 of the 6 classes. For the next week's class, the teacher probably had them all write scenarios about where I was and what had happened to me.

One of the things I do like to do is to find old newspaper articles from the late 19th or early 20th century and write about those stories. That interest began when I was looking through an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings my great great grandmother kept. It is fun researching some of the real characters in the articles and finding out what became of them in the end. I did a story in the  genealogy blog I used to publish called  The Hunt For Henrietta about a woman, Jennie Lind Lewis, whose  husband left her a few days after her wedding. They actually put that in the local newspaper! I was able to hunt down some details and put together what had happened to the bride. One of the groom's  descendants read the story and wrote to me telling me where he finally wound up and I was able to write the "rest of the story".

I found an article about a half-uncle of Ed's who was a Civil War Veteran who took care of all the military horses after the war and I wrote a two-parter about him. And from an article I found about an ancestor of mine who years after the Civil War voluntarily stood guard while President Grant lay dying in the last months of his life in a cottage in New York. He was a loyal Union Army Vet who revered his old Commander and that was a really interesting story.
Grant's Family outside the cottage where he spent his last days.
These stories came out of just a few paragraphs and some followup research and to me that's the fun kind of story to write. Don't you always find it more interesting when something's based on a true story?

In fact, I have begun to search for some new stories in some of the newspaper archival sites I frequent for upcoming blogs. So far I have come across the story of a man who insisted on having his three sons arrested because they had tied him with ropes to his bed and left him all alone in the house, according to the captive. The fact that a month prior they had also had him committed to an asylum could make it an interesting article to research.

Another story I came across was about a woman who buried her adult daughter named Annie Dunn after she was found dead from consumption on the side of the road in late October of 1892 in Lowell, MA. Her mother and a friend went to the funeral home but her mother couldn't look at the body and her friend identified it. However, a year later Annie reappeared, alive and well. Of course her mother thought she had seen a ghost and, well...
...I know there is a story there.

Anyway, I think I will have some fun with some of these old archival stories as well as just writing about everyday things that happen all around us. Creative writing? Hah! I couldn't make some of this stuff up!

Have a great day everyone,

1 comment:

  1. That class sounds like so much fun. My imagination is out of control and just in reading what you wrote I have like a dozen stories itching to come out! I took a class like that once but never continued with my outrageous story writing.


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