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. from Riverside. My instinctive answer came out: no, não, nein.
The reason was obvious. I am not a creative writing teacher. Although I have attended workshops for years, I have never taken a formal creative writing course.
But Cati made me reconsider. And as 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 might work.
You see, I am a retired historian (I taught the subject for 26 years at UC Riverside). What if I structured the workshop around the concept of timeline, using different perspectives on this topic to write homework? Thus was born the concept of a one-year 15-session workshop titled Adventures in Chronologyland.
Add COVID-19. None of the usual biweekly gatherings at the library. Came Zoom, which I was just learning. Zoom turned out to be an ideal solution.
Most Inlandia in-person 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 to 30 minutes, hopefully inspired by the excerpt and the facilitator’s suggestions. We then read our drafts either in full workshop (10-15 people) or in small groups to get feedback from others. After polishing 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 draining. My workshop would be one hour.
What about the options? On Zoom, we could do small-group activities even better, without the cacophony of several loud conversations running in the same cramped conference room. And I didn’t have to limit class sizes. We ended up with about twenty regulars.
We wouldn’t use up class time with writing. Participants would write home to prepare for the next session. Instead, the hour usually consisted of the following: 10 to 15 minutes of general discussion about the homework experience; 30 minutes in three-person breakout rooms, where each person read their work and received comments; finally 15-20 minutes together for my mini-lecture on some aspects of chronological writing and a discussion on the next mission.
In addition, the participants had a major one-year mission: to create a detailed personal timeline. Not a brief; not an autobiography; just a timeline. Start with where and when you were born and go from there until today. What different places have you lived in? When and why do you move each time? Where did you go to school What jobs have you held? 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 timelines in the first two weeks. Others have spent the whole year doing it.
On top of that, bi-weekly writing assignments, with each essay developing some aspect of their personal timelines. Your first living memory. A difficult decision that has influenced your personal trajectory. Certain past memories that conflict with someone else’s memory.
As the workshop progressed, I asked them to try different styles of writing on their lives. Write a story using flashback or flash forward. A story in which your timeline parallels someone else’s until the two stories intersect. Reflections on an incident from your past that you now see very differently from what you had back then. A physical place in your past that you revisited and found so different from what you remembered.
I liked setting up my bi-weekly mini-conferences to give participants ideas for doing their homework. To illustrate the ideas I spoke about, I discussed the books they could read and the movies they could see.
Frederick Forsyth’s fascinating use of parallel stories in “The Day of the Jackal”. The brilliant set-up of Alfonso Cuarón in the film “Roma”, often with a stationary camera, while letting movement in and out of its rigid frame and attracting viewers by refusing to allow them to see what was going on just outside its limits. The fascinating use of the film “Rashomon” from 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 lots of new friends. This workshop now occupies a precious place in my personal chronology. But when Cati asked me if I would do it again, I went back to my previous ones no, não and nein. It had been a magical journey, but now is the 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 Intermariage before Its Time”, and a book of poetry, “Fourth Quarter: Reflections of a Cranky Old Man” . He can be contacted at [email protected]