The Writing

People have asked me what kind of writing happens in my workshops. The short answer is, whatever the writer feels like writing. Sometimes a novelist will write a poem, or an essayist will write a short story, and I love when this happens. Typically, though, the writers (many of whom haven’t yet defined their genre) come to these workshops with something in themselves they want to get out, and I build my prompts simply to stir and evoke the writing that is crouched within the writer, waiting to pounce out onto the page and be heard.

I listen, I respond with what is good, what is working well, what to do more of, and I monitor the workshop to ensure that the responses from all the participants stay in line with creating a safe, helpful, constructive space to spark and grow a writer’s voice and style. Part of the AWA method is to respond to everything as if it were fiction or story, unless the author wants it to be responded to as non-fiction. Even then, the group works to focus on the writing–not the writer. Any of the writing below could be a part of, or the premise for, an essay, novel, memoir, prose poem, or biography–that’s up to the writer. As a workshop group, we simply focus on how the words and imagery work to paint a picture, mood, story, feeling.

So yes, I believe that you can come to a Cast Off! workshop with ANY genre or style and get something out of it.

Here are a few examples of the different directions writers have gone in, free-writing from the same prompt.

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Cast Off! Writing Workshop, Doppio Cafe, Wellington, NZ 

Prompt: Ella May Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem. Think about the places and people you come from. Think about places in terms of the objects, smells, tastes, landscapes and images that stand out in your memory of childhood. Think about people in terms of the phrases and stories you remember, or particular physical attributes or mannerisms. Follow the form of Ella May Lyon’s poem if you’d like, or take this idea in your own direction. 

I’m from those blue sky eyes

  which know the ending

I’m from the soft coloured rocks

  near the water

I’m from the too-bright loudness

  of a frightened girl

I’m from the wrong place, 

  made the wrong way,

with the wrong face

  and a dangerous body

I’m from the twirl of flamenco

  and the heel-strike on the earth

I’m from the thin whine of anguish

  and the ocean of swallowed tears

I’m from that place

  no one else wants to be

So they leave me there

  And pretend they are free

I am those bruised petals

  That naked little bird

And the towering black rumble 

  of the maelstrom

As it lowers ever closer

  and kisses my cheek

I am the silenced one

  Dripping into the day

The bright language of the stars

(By May Stenhouse McLeod – This poem is now included in the “I Am From” Project.)

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Art/Write Workshop, Aronson Gallery, Parsons School of Design, New York, NY

I focused this workshop on the Stanley knife display (regarding a stabbing that happened in a gallery at Art Basel, Miami, with a tool typically used for art-making, as well as associated with gang-style slashings) in the art exhibition, “Objects of Dissent,” and the question posed: “What seemingly safe and accessible devices or tools have been put to unexpected uses.” We came up with answers of our own, then I extended that question into the realms of literature, referencing metaphor and symbolism that uses an object or idea and twists the typical associations.

I read the following from Raymond Chandler’s symbol and metaphor-rife, The Big Sleep: “The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” 

Prompt: Choose a symbol or an object you see in this room, or anything from your memory or imagination, and twist its typical association or meaning to create a mood, theme or atmosphere. 

Here are some samples of the writing that emerged. I found myself really excited by the differences between the pieces–from each other, as well as from the art and the concepts that prompted them.

New York City pulsates with the energies of immigrants, millennials, recent transplants, tourists. All attracted to the year round lights. Everyone dancing with the skyscraper possibilities. A circular choreography that they tirelessly perfect. Jiving for the instant when they’d set the tune, pace and steps of their own lives. Dancing to not dance, working to not work, not living to one day truly live.

(By Odellia Lucius)

Shags came in wearing his new peacoat. New in quotes, as he’d actually picked it up from an Army/Navy Surplus sale for ten bucks–a fact he could not stop talking about, telling anyone in earshot, even if they hadn’t said a thing about it. It seemed authentic; stiff, heavy and worn, the navy hue faded to dull, dusk blue. The buttons were tarnished green-gold, not bright as when the coat’s original owner–probably long dead from battle, PTSD, a heart slumped and weary, the gnawing of malignant tumors, or just a regular old mouldering away in a nursing home stinking of meds and stale crackers–had finally groped them open, removing the coat for the last time. Still, it looked good on Shags, giving him a staid look of distinction he hadn’t really earned in his trust-funded twenty-five years.

(By Leslie Fierro)

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And from another Art/Write Workshop, exploring the show “(Under)Represent(ed)”, Aronson Gallery, Parsons School of Design, New York, NY

Prompt: You’ll see that a couple of the works in this show use the letter form (“Dear Primo” and “Dear White People”), and yet every work is, in a way, engaging in a one-sided communication, reaching out for engagement and response. Try using the letter form, and write to someone or something in the artwork, or to someone or something triggered by the artwork. You can also use the journal from, writing a sort of letter to yourself, or have an imaginary character write a journal entry or letter.

Dear Weight of Ignorance,
It seems odd to be writing to you when you are always with me but it feels important to get observations about our relationship onto paper. I am hoping that doing this makes understanding us better, will provide some much-needed clarity.
I am the Deep South and I am the shallow understanding. You are what’s left of my never-ending search for what is True – and it is my desire to lose the weight of you that brings me here. We have come so far, through so much. I have lightened your load by battling on the ground, inside classrooms, in back seats, and on the lawn outside of the Houses of Religion. You are the fuel for my fire and the source of my shame and you are so very heavy. But I am not as quiet as I once was and you are losing weight every moment.
(By Laura Hay)

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And here are various responses to various prompts, from the Cast Off! Writing Workshops at the Jalopy Theater, Brooklyn, NY

Prompt: Close your eyes, and just focus on the silence in the room. What does the silence sound like? How does it make you (or a character) feel? What do you find yourself (or your character) filling the silence with?

“She’s what now, 84?” my cousin Jack says. I can hear him doing the calculations in his head. I’m surprised he doesn’t immediately know his mother’s age. “She’s lonely,” he says. “She’s lived in that house for forty years. It’s a museum.”

I grip the phone tightly. I feel badly. My Aunt Ruth – lonely? I always thought she loved solitude and silence. “I love living alone.” I can hear her telling me that twenty years ago. “I love living alone in the country. I couldn’t live in the city like you do.” I’ve always envied that she had the ability to be alone. In the fall, she would spend long weekends at our family’s summer cottage in a remote part of northern Ontario. Occasionally she’d bring a boyfriend – someone she met through the personals or online – someone who was mostly inappropriate – guys who were boring, not that bright. I never knew why she dated them. I would have liked to have been closer to her but she always rebuffed my attempts to spend time together. She always said that she was busy, content in her solitude.

Me, I ache with loneliness. Since my divorce and since my kids have left for college, I’ve tried to learn how to find strength in silence and solitude. And that morning after talking to Jack on the phone, I lay in bed and looked at the light, still dim, coming in through the curtains and listened to the silence. No cars, no neighbors talking on the stoop, no homeless people rifling through the trash cans. I tried to still the noise in my head. That’s the hardest silence to find. Usually, I try to still that noise with more nose – podcasts, music, Netflix, cafes, But this morning as I try to find silence inside myself, I think about my Aunt Ruth. I’m taken aback at the idea that she’s lonely. She never did much to reach out or welcome company. Not like me. But I wonder about me. I’ve made such a virtue of being able to withstand solitude that I wonder if I invite company. Later that morning, I pull out my computer and send my Aunt an email. “How are you?” I ask. I feel so vulnerable reaching out but I remember Jack saying, “She’s lonely.” I think about how she’s spent so many years trying not to let anyone know that she’s locked everyone out.

(by Kathy Moore)

I scrape the depths in cool, cerulean quiet.
Pry from myself the source of doubt and drag.
I sound my voice for words and wrecks to mine,
And fathom forth, unmeasured and unmasked.
And fathom ever forward toward the past. 

Awake the motor grimacing its gears.
I’ll safely stow the shanks and paring knives,
Make slack the sheets round tight around our years,
And cast the mud-sunk moorings from our flight. 
And cast away to milk-drunk, gibbous light. 

(By Leslie Fierro)

Prompt: Fresh, warm doughnut holes (yes, literally!) doused in sugar from Dough Bakery. “The smell and taste of fresh doughnuts undoubtedly brings up specific associations for everyone. You may be reminded of a certain person, place, event, or time in your life. Go ahead and take a deep whiff of these doughnuts as they’re passed around. Better yet, grab one and dig in! It’ll make your writing better, honest! 🙂 Go toward those associations, and, mining your memory or imagination, write about where the smell (and/or taste!) of these donuts took you.”

Uncle Riley lived with Aunt Doris in a small ranch style home, in a subdivision filled with identical small ranch style homes in Euless, Texas. Useless, Texas they always joked. We would visit them every Thanksgiving from the time I was about 6. I loved going there, Riley had a big easy laugh that filled their small house and Doris was always telling funny stories. But best of all, every morning I would wake up to the smell of donuts and laughter. Their house in the morning was full of friends and neighbors I didn’t know, stopping in for a cup of coffee and a donut, the perfect recipe to enable a six year old to eat his fill of donuts.

Even at that age, I could tell that Uncle Riley and Aunt Doris played by different rules. Unlike my parents they smoked in the house, they drank beer (always cans and always Coors) and they told what I presumed to be dirty jokes. I of course didn’t understand these, but I could tell by the quick glances in my direction, and the shouts of “Riley!” which were quickly followed by a smile and a stifled laugh. They were a bit “backwoods” as my mom would say but they were always nice to me and they were always fun. The normal rules didn’t apply in their house. An unending buffet of donuts for breakfast served in a hazy smoke-filled kitchen amongst all the neighbors would never have happened at my house.

We visited Riley and Doris nearly every Thanksgiving, and though some of the details changed, the experience was always the same. In the later years, I was even starting to get some of their jokes and contemplating sneaking one of those beers.

The Thanksgiving I turned twelve, things were different. As we pulled into their driveway I noticed Uncle Riley smoking on the porch without his ever present can of Coors Banquet Beer. He greeted us with a small but that huge laugh seemed smaller somehow, weaker. Doris would spend lots of time talking about how she had “Found Jesus”. My Dad once made the old joke that he “didn’t even know Jesus was missing”, this was met with an awkward, cold silence.

Aunt Doris turned a small guest bedroom into God’s Room. Full of cheap religious pictures, candles and doily covered tables. For some reason, that room was always the coldest, saddest room in the house and I found it terrifying. I was no atheist, but devoting an entire room to God seemed like an incredibly strange thing to do. Why did God need his own room anyway? But worst of all this new found religion had crowded out all the fun and energy and warmth that was there before. Their house was now a serious place. A cold place. A quiet place.  My former refuge from the rules had turned into a church.

After that trip, we visited less often and eventually stopped going altogether. Looking back on this now, what troubled me the most about the experience was the total lack of an explanation. This shouldn’t have surprised me. My family simply doesn’t discuss things, I could show up to dinner with a face tattoo and my mom would pretend not to notice for fear of being rude. But why did they change? Someone, maybe God, had snatched my funny, warm Uncle Riley and Aunt Doris and replaced them with cheap religious statues. Now, 30 years later I still have no idea why.

(By Ryan Hunter)

Prompt (having just read a passage about the light of glowworms, from John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos): Think about a particular quality of light, either natural or unnatural. Is it warm, cold? Where is it? How do things and people look in that light? Does it make things look more beautiful or uglier than they really are? Does it stir up any feelings? Write about this light.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It truly is a marvel. The lights twinkling, the cold air kissing exposed skin, the promise of sugar, of hope, of celebrating the simple act of being alive and loving those around you.  The carols, the nostalgia, hot cider warming your throat, relief, albeit it temporary was finally here. The happy family sitting by the tree, the roaring fire warming them as the presents wait beneath the tree.  And fa la la la la la la.

The expectations for the holidays were in place and playing out as to be expected.  As if to honor the promise of the season, there was a dusting of snow.  The air was cold enough to require a scarf but not so cold that it hurt to be outside. Tourists were lapping in the saturation, dragging the wheels of their suitcases and trying to be chipper. There were an abundance of life-sized plastic nutcrackers dressing the holiday windows of restaurants this year. Perhaps there was a clearance sale  in some warehouse nearby.

The vendors haggled a bit more aggressively at this time of year. The tree. THE TREE sparkled but was overshadowed by the sale neons lights  calling for shoppers to gather their last minute baubles and beads at the booths gating the tree like the Sphinx demanding money instead of riddles.

A school group stood.They were awkward and cold. Even their teacher began to wonder why they’d come. Jared mumbled that he heard there was a proposal at least once a day there.  Rachel asked if they could see one? Can we see one now? Sam wanted to know how much longer they would have to stand there in the cold, watching all the artificial merriment. The rink was being cleaned and the next set of skaters stood by the stantion anticipating what was soon to come.

There were angels here but there were no angels here. Row upon row of angels twisted from wires, lights assembled and attached by a former Riker’s prisoner who was appreciative of the paycheck  the but had long ago abandoned the Christmas spirit for the Christmas reality. Christmas is for the wealthy only. Most kids these days know better than to ask for much.

The Legos everyone wanted now with so many impossibly specific parts and brand name emulations  were no longer affordable. And really, most people would endure fifteen minutes with their families to shovel down some microwaved mashed potatoes, trash the floor with wrapping paper and get back to their screens as fast as etiquette deemed permissible.

I was standing there too. Taking it all in, on my way home from work and wondering just how much longer I could take it. Take this. Any of it.  

Four days earlier, a pipe bomb had upset the commute and this new normal, these delayed trains and shrugged emoji conversations left me wondering where beauty remained.

In every quest on the hero’s journey, the protagonist reaches the abyss, the place from which there appears for just a minute to be no return.  The reader knows that the hero must just dig a little deeper and find that last ounce of energy, or the magical sword to fend off the enemy. The reader knows that at the end of the chapter the hero will have overcome, and will have changed, just slightly. The reset prepares us all for the next quest, the next challenge. But what if Christmas simply couldn’t be conquered? What if all the money in the world was still not enough?

There was a trash fire burning nearby and in just a few weeks time, the streets would be littered with Christmas Tree Cadavers, the kids would tire of the new plastic, the nerf guns would break and the bills would start to ring in the new year.

And so I stand here surrounded by it all. Soaking in this twinked bath of oblivion.  I’m waiting for you knowing that you won’t appear..  I allow you the 15 minute standard tardiness that we jokingly call your carribean essence.  You can’t be here.  You won’t be.  You aren’t the treasure that the hero receives to carry on in this quest. You are like Santa. You are an act of faith, a false promise, a birthday candle. You are just a memory. If I am being really honest, you are my creation. You are something I have made. You are my art.  My figment.

And I am standing here staring at THE TREE  and all the symbols dangling from it. I see twinkle, I feel glare.

I see desperation.  We need to capture a moment and say that it was perfect,  we must upload a filtered image to snap for our friends. We make it better than it was so we can pretend it was ok to begin with.

The motion blends into stillness. The collective air turning to an exhale.  If I squint my left eye at just the right angle, I am not even here at THE TREE.  

Perhaps, this season, I will stop wearing my glasses,  I will take them off.  I will turn out all of these lights, these spot lights, these festive leds, these street lights on automatic timers.   It’s so bright here that without trying I see halos instead of horns, I  hear carols instead of cacophony, I  taste sweet instead of sour.  I see time no longer passing, the hint of wind as at last in this great Yuletide I  can  finally fade to black.

(By Lauren Davenport)

I leave his words hanging in the piss and gasoline soaked air while the river slobbers all over the rocks and broken bottles, smashed cans of Sparks (blue, orange, black), used condoms, dead birds and whatever the hell else is floating or sunk or smashing into the banks of the East River.

The raggedy edge of his bandaging catches the moonlight; a stray, gleaming string of it whips the bridge of his nose so that he swipes and scratches at it in between drags on his Lucky Strike. I watch the smooth, unbandaged side of his face reflect back the light off the rippling water, and the embers of his cigarette glowing a little homage to the rising sun we’re allegedly sitting here in wait for. 

It’s all so beautiful. I can almost sift through the shit of the day and the piss and gasoline soaked air to smell the fish that must be down there, too. The plankton. The wet rocks, wet earth. Primordial smells. Creation smells. I can almost smell happiness, here, if I let myself.

(By Leslie Fierro)

Dear Blake,

When I arrived, I did as you suggested and went straight to the beach. Leaving my duffle bag by the steps, and my shoes and socks beside them, I rolled up my denims and took the steps down to the beach. It was late in the afternoon and it was just beginning to cool down from the heat of the day. The sand warmed my feet as I headed for the boy and girl busy building a wall and moat to defend their castle from the coming assault of the rising tide.

The boy, skinny and sharp eyed, swatted the long blond hair that his mother refused to cut from his eyes. His name was Jamie and he was a great digger for a seven year-old, tossing sand with great abandon, using the pint Chinese Tupperware container his mother had given him in lieu of a shovel. The girl, Trix, also skinny with blond hair her mother refused to cut, was a year and a half younger than her brother. She wore a bright yellow sundress decorated with sea horses and red haired mermaids. She was furiously building up the sand castle walls while her sib dug desperately, as the advance guard of the ocean lapped within inches of their moat.

Thus far, the two of them were too engrossed in their work to notice me. Their Mom’s back was to me as she smoked a Parliament and gazed into the ocean. I began humming a tune from a cartoon show and got nothing. I hummed louder and the kids finally looked up. “Uncle Marty!” they yelled, almost in unison. They scrambled up and ran to me as their mother, in her black one piece, turned, saw me and scowled. She ground the butt of her cigarette beneath her bare heel.

I put down my pen. I’d finish the letter later. My thoughts drifted, as I enjoyed the ocean breeze blowing my way.

I remembered what Robin had confessed when we’d had that fraction of a night, just less than two hours. He and she had walked the length of the boardwalk, stopping for Khorr’s frozen custard ice cream cones. They’d stopped, their cones leaking onto the metal railing that looked out onto the sand, the ocean and the dark sky with its few tiny pale stars.

For a small eternity they listened to the muted roar of the ocean as its waves burst onto the beach. Then she turned from the stars a she’d been scanning and looked into my eyes for the first time that night, and said: “I feel this longing. I feel it so much and I’m so scared at the same time.”

I touched her. Her arm. Tanned with soft yellow hair that I brushed with my fingers as I caressed her arm down to her fingers.

I looked into her brown eyes, mainly her right eye because I can only swim in one eye at a time, and decided whether to say something stupid or nothing at all. Robin shifted slightly, as if to turn her gaze back to the ocean, but I stopped her by kissing her. She kissed back, her arms reaching to twine around my neck, as my arms fiercely gripped her to me.

This was what she longed for and feared. Me, I was dissolved into the moment. There’d be other moments to figure out what had just happened or to remember.

After our long embrace, we found ourselves a bench. It was one of those wood and metal ones where you could move the back forwards or backwards, depending on whether you wanted to look at the sea or the boardwalk shops and honkytonks.

We sat listening to the jangling sounds of the pinball/ski ball parlor as we juggled our emotions. Before long we had to stand again for the long-short or short-long walk to her bungalow….

A dozen summers later, Robin wore a red tank top, tight black pants that clung to her ankles, and heeled sandals that laced up her ankles, the kind a Greek Goddess wore when she deigned to descend to earthly shores.

(By Mitch Drach)

 

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