Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Personal Essay Writing 101

Last Saturday I took a 7-hour long class from Gotham Writers Group. I wish it had cost about half what I'd paid for it, but I'm glad I went.

I met a lot of nice folks. Nobody in the class was talentless. In fact, I was very impressed with everyone's work. Some were eerily good.

It was a group of about 15 women and three men. The women were all well dressed, friendly, and generally really cool people with normal lives, jobs and families. The men, however, perhaps since they were in such a minority, seemed to be characters.

One of them appeared to have a mild disability. He was rather quiet, but not shy. He practically doubled over his desk to read aloud, and took off his glasses to do so. He spoke very softly, but wrote very poignantly. One snippet of an essay he shared with us had to do with acting out while in the hospital. He described the act of spitting up his food as defiant. I can only imagine how much time this gentle young man must have spent in hospitals, and how he must have been treated by New York City nurses, many of whom, sadly, do not have the best of bedside manners. He talked about throwing himself out of the bed, lying on the floor, wondering if anyone would help him back up, and referring to the difficulties one must endure "in the line of duty." I wish I had gotten this young man's name. I will be on the lookout for his work.

The second guy was a typical college white boy, frat-friendly haircut, black shirt and jeans, sexy strong hands and a handsome face, which was slow to smile. He barely spoke at all. I wondered if he felt disappointed in his classmates. His essay snippets were amusing, but he didn't really write from the heart. I hope he learns to plumb the depths of his feelings, although everything about him screamed sport-watching, emotion-avoiding male. I hope I have misinterpreted him.

The third guy was a Doctor with a name so stereotypically Jewish, it was like meeting an Italian named Sal Santorini. This man has a LOT TO SAY. He touched a nerve with me - he seems highly opinionated and judgmental. I thought he was a lawyer at first. Indeed, he reminds me so much of my divorce attorney I nearly asked him in the hallway if they knew each other. He is in his fifties and has lived through a great deal, and has probably been holding in years of opinions on many social issues. I think this guy is looking to spew - and I wish I had encouraged him to start a blog. Talk about a great read! From what I could see, he's a liberal in all the best ways, albeit a bit of a know-it-all. Although I find those types irritating in person, I love reading their stuff.

I had lunch with a stunningly beautiful young girl with caramel skin and shimmering pink lipstick, curly ethnic hair dangling around her shoulders. Like me, she has explored several possible career paths, including some which involved some soul-selling. She is now attempting to follow her heart. We exchanged phone numbers at the end of the class, and I'm hoping to see her again at a free workshop this Wednesday. I recognized a need for community in this gal. She has friends, but I think she needs someone to talk about writing with. Do I ever know that feeling. Maybe I can pay something forward here.

I felt very different from the other students in the class, as I got the distinct impression that none of them have ever seriously studied writing. I minored in it. I've been blogging for a year and a half, and using my blog as a workshop of sorts. I've submitted to a magazine and got awesome feedback. Plus I have a lot of experience with other types of writing. For me this class was very validating, as I got positive feedback, and was able to ask some more advanced questions of the instructor, but I didn't really feel any doors opening inside of me. That's ok, I wasn't really expecting that anyway. I did learn terms like "nutgraf" and "lede," and being a Virgo, I like structure, so I appreciated the tips on how to break down essays and analyze them in parts.

The class overall was very entry-level. In the evaluations, I suggested they hold an advanced section of this class, to address re-writes, and more sophisticated issues of essay-writing, such as how to write about an issue you are passionate about without it becoming a rant.

I'll post the first essay that I was commanded to write as an exercise. I've corrected it grammatically, but it is otherwise unaltered. Surprisingly, I had no problem pulling this out of my ass on a moment's notice. I guess I'm used to it. Isn't that just a step away from Blogging?

Exercise #1: My Name

I am named for Deirdre of the Sorrows, who, for a brief time, was Queen of Ulster. She's most famous for the lament she sang when the king, after a cunning trick, viciously beheaded her lover and his two brothers, whereupon she leapt into the open grave and burst into a keening, the death cry of Irish women, which she put into words of mourning. The king then married her. During her reign, she was said never to have spoken, smiled, or raised her head, hence, Deirdre of the Sorrows. Not long after this, she threw herself from a cliff, committing suicide in a most dramatic form, the only escape she knew.

My parents had no idea who they were naming me for - just that she was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world. I was not happy with them when I found out the story.

In high school I went as Didi, taken from "Waiting for Godot," although nobody knew this, so rather than appearing cultured and well-read, I appeared ditzy. I switched to Dee once I left home for college. I like nicknames. They make me feel closer to people.

I have grown so accustomed to mis-pronunciations of my name that, about two years ago, I began to introduce myself as Deirdre - the most common error. My name is actually Deidre, but what the hell. By the age of 31, I had become very comfortable with - even proud of - the poor woman for whom I am named. I studied and researched her, and read many accounts of her life and death.

Today, on official documents, I am Deidre, but I call myself Deirdre, the great-great-granddaughter of that ancient queen. I, unlike her, choose my fate, and need fear no kings with heavy swords or absolute rule. (This drew twitters from the class.) I have known heartbreak, but have never felt the need to kill myself as a result. I'm not the most beautiful woman in the world, but I don't need to be. My comfort with my namesake rests in my vision of myself as a more evolved version of her. I hope she is proud.

Frankly, this wasn't much of a challenge, but I don't think it was designed to be. I think it was just a way to get us started and introduced to each other.

So the conclusion is that I'm glad I took the class, since I got some good things out of it, but I wish I'd paid $75 for it, rather than $150.

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