Wednesday, April 29, 2009

writing all over town

So as you may recall I have three writing groups (I stopped going to the fourth, the first-Friday-night German-English very large group (25+) that meet and discuss already-written things).

The three I still go to are all ones where we write while we're together. And then do different amounts of reading out loud and talking. 

There's my every-second-and-fourth-Saturday-afternoon group, at Ostkreuz, which is almost exactly on the complete opposite side of Berlin from me and takes me about 45 minutes to get to if I hit everything right with one bus and two fast trains. There's my every-Friday-morning group at a place called The Coffeeshop which is an hour's walk or a 17-minute bus ride from me, and there's the every-fourth-Wednesday-night group which is a maybe 25- or 30-minute bus ride away.

So last week, unusually, all of them happened.

On Saturday, I went to Ostkreuz. There had been some online back-and-forths about who was coming. The previous time, I went and no-one else showed. The time before that, there were two of us. The few times before that, when I had been unable to go, there was also sometimes one person only. So we talked about it online, and then one person besides me committed for Saturday, two others said they might come, and it ended up being three of us: me, Jana, and Yana (both of those are pronounced the same). Jana is 20, pale-faced, jet-black hair, majoring in classics at the university, writes fan fiction and serial scifi and has chat rooms where she does timed writing with people on the weekends. Yana is between 40 and 50 I'm guessing, esoteric and does things like teaching creativity workshops, and she's been the one who's driven the group, proposed writing exercises, really kind of made us move forward - she's also the one who has been there alone a time or two.

This is the group that started up in November during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, 50,000 words in 30 days). And so we always had an MO that involved getting together and just writing our own things first - we still do that. I don't have an ongoing writing project right now so during that time I brainstorm, try to generate ideas, make lists, think up things that need to be worked on. And then we do writing exercises. And it turned out that Yana has been feeling kind of put-upon, she brings all the ideas and, she said, sometimes other people were just shooting them down. And I guess there was a meeting that I had missed where other people said no thanks to all the ideas she brought forward, and finally they did no writing exercise at all. And so she wondered why she was coming. And had been "forgetting" the meeting, she said, probably also for that reason. She said for her, writing together was the whole poing of getting together like this.

And Jana said the whole writing exercise thing, doing something suggested by someone else, was weird to her. So I asked her why she likes to come to the group - she said, to talk about writing, talk about what we're doing - but also she said she does want to do the writing exercises, they're just a stretch and unusual to her. (Nobody asked me why do I like to come to the group and I didn't volunteer, but for me I think it's also very much both - I did tell Yana that I have really appreciated the writing exercises she has brought, especially the narrative one where you start with a person and a routine and then you tell a story linked with "because": "because this happened, then that happened; because that happened, then the other happened, etcetera" - it's very cool and interesting and generates a lot of plot and took me in a whole other direction. // And I also very much like the conversations with the others about our writing.)

So then I asked Yana if she'd rather I proposed an exercise, and indeed she did prefer that, and I proposed one I'd found online for my Friday morning writing group where I have the function that Yana had been having here: write a story with dialogue where nobody ever says more than three words at a time. (Actually, I proposed three different exercises and we kind of meshed them and frankly, I am not right now remembering what the others were.) So we did that, and then I had to leave but they stayed to pursue some of those ideas more.

And then Wednesday night (which was the 5th Friday of April, not the 4th, but it was moved back this week) was completely different! I had told my every-Wednesday-night play-reading group, of which I am currently in charge, well in advance I wouldn't be there on that Wednesday night [I left them with copies of a play], and off I went to Begine, the women's cafe on Potsdamer Strasse, and got off the bus in a drizzle and there was Rita standing outside, with her kind of frizzy pink-on-top-of-white/gray hair, and we chatted a while. There was actually more of a threatening drizzle than a real drizzle, and it was also kind of clear air and some sun (does that make any sense?) and she said that inside the cafe it was dark and musty and smelled like smoke. So we hung around outside for a while, and then we saw Anna-Katharina, a kind of cool-looking put-together woman who was there last month for the first time, and finally Ellen, the 28-year-old youngster woman who runs the thing, showed on her bike, with what looked like some wild-and-crazy wraparound long-low loin cloth and I asked her about it and she said it was just a piece of cloth wrapped around by herself that way with a belt because she was bored with her clothes that morning. I do things with cloths, but that I had never thought of.

Anyway, we did finally eventually go inside because everyone thought it was too loud outside, and we sat by the window and had the lights turned up and the music turned down, and the last person who showed up was Petra, a smallish woman who I found somehow offputting in her looks, though her writing seemed to go in completely other directions than I might have expected. And we did our writing exercises, suggested by Ellen, and this is the part I wanted to say that was so very interesting, especially contrasted with the experience with Yana.

Ellen often has us do this thing where she brings a book, opens to a page, closes her eyes, and points to a word or a sentence and we use that as a starting point. This time we said no, we'll choose our own words, and the five words that the five of us chose were, if I remember, something like fingernails, embalming, bathtub, daughter, and [??? - can't remember the fifth]. And we said we'd write a story using these words, but three of the five of us ended up not using embalming after all, and Ellen said something about repression (we did all write darkish things where there was more than a strong hint of death). And that gave me an idea: I said, how about we choose five words and *don't* use those five words - we can think about them, the way you think about elephants when somebody says now don't think about elephants - in fact we should think about them, but just not use them. I thought this was actually a potentially pretty interesting exercise. And Ellen completely nixed it. And when I said sort of laughingly to Anna Katharina, who had just come back from the bathroom, that Ellen didn't like my idea, she said yeah, I suggested an exercise that she didn't like either (that must have been when *I* was in the bathroom).

So we went on to other things, and I started thinking aha, Ellen doesn't really want to push too deep or too hard here with these writing exercises, now does she? And more than that, Ellen *really* doesn't want somebody else to be in control of anything, now does she!? So it was an interesting realization, especially after Yana was feeling annoyed at the opposite thing, that she was put in charge of things and not let off (though as I think about it, what she was annoyed about was that while she was in charge, people were just rejecting her suggestions - and that made her not want to be in charge all by herself).

And then Friday morning, even though it was May Day, a complete holiday in this country, and even though my family was home and my mother-in-law was visiting and we were having a family party in the afternoon for Felix's birthday, I did have my Friday-morning group. I had written the previous Sunday to everybody (there are five of us total, though one hasn't come in several months) to see if people wanted to meet Friday. Only heard from one, Sharon, about Tuesday, and she did want to come. I was trying to figure out our family logistics and hadn't responded to her and Thursday she wrote to say well, are we? So I called the Coffeeshop to see if they were open the next day and they were, and I discussed it with my family, and I wrote back to her and the others and said yes, let's do it - and who besides Sharon is coming?

Nobody answered. (Friday morning then one person answered, M.-E., who has not come in several months, to say she couldn't.) Friday morning I went off. Caught a very empty bus by the skin of my teeth, went down to a very empty downtown, went over to the Coffeeshop and found it closed. I was lightly dressed for the warm weather that was supposed to appear a couple hours later and sat on a cold marble thing in the (again) threatening drizzle outside the Coffeeshop for about twenty minutes, and was planning to leave by 10:30 if nobody showed when Sharon showed, bless her heart, at 10:20. [Turned out the Coffeeshop was on holiday schedule and opening at 11, which they hadn't mentioned the day before when I called to see if they were going to be open. We left a note with somebody who had just come to open up, saying that the others should call on my cell phone if they turned up.]

And we went off to a different cafe, and actually had a very good meeting. We did a haiku exercise from a while ago, and the three-word-dialogue exercise again (Sharon hadn't done either of those before), and it was just the two of us, and I was very glad I had gone. (Later I went home and there was e-mail from Meg that she'd sent at 10. Anna never did say anything one way or another.)

We'll be in Berlin for three more months, and I'm starting to think about what I am going to take away from all of these writing groups. I'm so glad I've been doing this. I've really got to hunker down for my editorial deadlines and I'm not sure what that's going to do to the writing. My Friday morning group has talked about doing an all-day writing retreat on June 21st but I'm starting to think it might be me doing a bunch of preparation and nothing coming of it. So I have to think this through - try to avoid that fate but maybe we can have a really nice writing day anyway and I can figure out how not to spend lots of time and energy ahead of time?

No comments: