Writing Prompts in Santa Monica

Last weekend, I took part in a one day, memoir writing workshop in Santa Monica, California. I was walking the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland with my sister, Susan, when I saw the email about the workshop. I read it, thought about it, mentally set it aside, then thought about it some more. I later mentioned it to Susan with the caveat that I most likely wouldn’t sign up because…well..you know… this and that and all the other things that I mentally began to stack up excuse by excuse, forming a wall.  Susan’s response was, “Why wouldn’t you?  You could stay with Grant and Katie (my son and daughter-in- law who live in LA) while you’re there.  Again, why not?”  
Her words echoed in my mind for the rest of the day while I quietly paced off the kilometers to our next stay. Later that evening, while seated at a pub in O’Connor’s Guesthouse in Cloghane, Ireland, I venmo’d the money to the facilitator and thanked my sister because she was right.  Why wouldn’t I?  

On the morning of the workshop, Grant drove me to the house in Santa Monica where the workshop was held. We arrived early, something Blackman’s are known for, so drove around the block a few times, something we are also known for, then sat out in front of the house until my watch said straight up 9:00, knowing that I’d likely still be the first one there, which of course I was.

On the way over, Grant had mentioned how cool it would be if there was someone from one of the Zoom UCLA writing classes I had taken. I agreed. It would be very cool and although I had taken four Zoom weekend intensive classes with two different teachers, it was highly unlikely. The UCLA Writer’s Extension Program is big and so is Los Angeles, but I liked that he was thinking about it.
“If that happened, and it won’t, I can guarantee you that I’d remember the writing but not the writer’s name,” I told him.

I turned around to wave goodbye and Grant gave me a “thumbs up, you can do it” gesture. It was wonderfully familiar, only I had been the one to say goodbye in my memories and he was the one leaving with the backpack slung over one shoulder.

We met in a small guest house in the back of one of the participant’s house. As we were finding our places, a woman seated across from me got my attention and said,
“I know you! I was in a writing class with you last February on Zoom.”
I instantly knew who she was. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered what she wrote.
“You wrote about your dad dying, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,” I said.
She told me her name and remembered some of the work I had shared, but also not my name.

Once the facilitator began, giving us an overview on the day’s events, the woman seated next to me said something and I was so struck by the familiarity of her voice that I looked at her and mentally cropped her from the shoulders up — the size of the Zoom screen I looked at for eight hours a day, for four consecutive days, and realized I knew her. And just like the other woman who I had made a connection with, I also didn’t remember her name, but I remembered what she had written because it was so memorable. I was dying to say something to her but the workshop had began and I realized I’d have to wait until our first break. I thought about sending her a note, but thankfully set that idea aside. To be called out in a memoir workshop for note writing would not be something I’d want share with my son when he picked me up and asked how my day went.

When we had a break, I blurted out to her that I remembered her from a class on Zoom over a year ago (a different class and a different teacher from the other woman I had connected with). It felt like a secret I had been holding and couldn’t wait to share. I told her I remembered her writing, but not her name. Her eyes widened and she started laughing and grabbed my arm in a gesture of friendship and connection then told me she never thought what she wrote would surface again and here we were. I reassured her that what happened in the Zoom room stayed in the Zoom room, but she had left the whole class in suspense as we never got to hear how her story ended. Her story was unique and explicit in the way she wrote it and due to privacy, even though I’ve not given her name, I’ll have to leave it at that. We’re close in age (or kind of, I think) and connected as easily in person as we had in the Zoom classroom almost two years ago. I felt like I had formed a true friendship with her by the time the workshop was over. Out of the eleven people in the workshop, including the teacher, I knew two people and was the only one who had traveled outside of the LA area. Maybe LA wasn’t as big as I thought? Grant was right about the Zoom connections and I was right about remembering their writing but not their names.

There was also a Ukrainian woman in the workshop whose family had been on vacation when the war broke out and flew to Mexico instead of going home. She and her husband and their two children ages 4 and 6, walked across Mexico and crossed into the United States at the border in Tijuana. A family in Santa Monica sponsored them and she learned about the workshop because the facilitator’s children went to the same school as her’s. She wrote her prompts in Ukrainian and when we read our writing aloud to the group, she read her pieces in Ukrainian. I was awed by the fact that none of us could understand a word of what she was saying, yet still leaned in and wanted to hear more. The content of her writing was revealed in her emotions as she read her words, none of them familiar, but the tone of her voice and her pauses were. She translated a few of her pieces that she had written, but I found I got just as much out of them hearing them in her native tongue. When asked if she would return to Ukraine, she said she didn’t know and wasn’t sure there would even be the Ukraine she knew to return to.

The first five minute prompt we were given was to write about something that we had brought with us to the workshop, metaphorically or literally. I thought for a minute then chose my backpack that carried my supplies for the day. I wrote about how the backpack that had held water, snacks and rain jacket while I walked the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland a few weeks ago, now held my lap top, a notebook, pens and a jacket. I also wrote about getting out of my son’s car, with the same backpack slung around one shoulder and seeing his thumbs up gesture as I crossed the street to the house where the workshop was being held. The reversal of roles did not go unnoticed for the both of us. I had experienced it before, many times, but I was the one driving the car and he was the one with the backpack. Remembering my writing prompt, one woman asked when the workshop was over if my son would be picking me up and told me she loved thinking about him asking his mom how her day went and if I learned anything. I told her yes, he would and I’d have the benefit of his wife, my daughter-in-law, joining him. As predicted, he asked me how my day went and if I learned anything and rather than get the answer of “it was ok…” that I got so often from him and his two siblings, I had a much better answer for him.
“You were right, Grant. I not only knew one person from my Zoom classes, I knew TWO! And I was also right. I didn’t remember their names, but I remembered what they wrote.”

I’m a participant who takes notes and follows prompts then closes my notebook or shuts down my lap top and moves back into my life as a person who writes daily and signs up for workshops, but who doesn’t call herself a writer. I call myself a gardener and amateur landscaper who gives up every August, a baker (who has logged far more failures than successes), a painter, who has worked out countless emotions with paints on a canvas and has painted over just as many, and knitter whose stacks of unfinished projects continues to grow, but never a writer. I just can’t seem to add the r and turn the verb into a noun. I’m not sure why that is. One of my Zoom connections that day came into the room empty handed — no notebook, no iPad or laptop, but only had her phone. When the writing prompts began, I noticed she wrote everything on her phone and with only her right thumb. Thinking she may have forgotten to bring a notebook, I offered her paper and a pen. She explained to me that she always writes on her phone and had written 250 pages of a memoir, all on her phone, that she transfers daily to a word document.
“But wouldn’t it be faster to write in a notebook or on a computer and a lot easier on your thumb?” I asked her.
Her response was that she didn’t consider herself a “real writer” and opening a notebook to write felt like a “real writer” to her. Opening her phone on the other hand, and sending an email to herself, rather than going the more traditional route, got her off the hook of calling herself a “real writer.” Something she wasn’t ready to claim.

“I’m just sending emails to myself. It’s not real writing in a “writerly sense,” so there are no expectations,” was her explanation to me.

Her writing, by the way, is beautiful and memorable and deserved every page in a notebook. After all, I had remembered the writing of this writer who didn’t really “write” in a traditional sense, but not her name. At the same time, I understood her logic as I never have called myself a writer, even though it is something I do daily and with the tools of a writer — pen, paper, laptop and not my phone.

When I closed my notebook at the end of the workshop, for the first time, I felt like a writer — a writer who is beginning to form a community and ready to claim the title. Also a writer whose son was waiting for me in the car and was anxious to hear about my day.

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