Twelve Stories about the Nebraska Writing Project I Never Told You
These vignettes were written by NeWP Advisory Board members as part of the summer 2011 board retreat writing marathon. They are inspired by Dan Holt’s “Ten Stories about Coyotes I Never Told You,” which is part of a lesson plan published by the National Writing Project called “Episodic Fiction: Another Way to Tell a Story,” available at http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/202.
Colfax County Courthouse
While leafing through the tattered sheets displaying brown faces and aliases followed by lists of nonspecific crimes, I wonder what I could do to get myself on one of these wanted posters. I want an alias. I want to be wanted.
The police men and a secretary sit behind their protective glass and locked door as I sit outside in the tiny waiting room on a stark wooden bench which rests on the mosaic stone floor of this aging courthouse. Vasquez walks up with a pink copy of his warrant. I can overhear the crime... "open container"... and the fact that they, the powers that be, have lost the warrant and cannot answer his questions. He knows better than to argue or show his frustration.
After he leaves, I look around, looking for a window on this, the fourth floor, so I can look down on the community below. I've always loved tall buildings. "Where are the windows?" I ask the man behind the glass; the sheriff in his gray uniform with the holstered gun and movie star mustache. He doesn't seem to hear me. Then a deputy, dressed in brown, younger with the cocky smirk of a man in power with easy access to a gun, leans down toward me, eyeing my Vibram five-finger gorilla shoes suspiciously and asks, "Can I ask you what your business is?"
To be truthful I have no business here, but I reply as I have been instructed by my NeWP marathon facilitator... "I am a writer."
Oh," he says, satisfied, and he walks through the door describing the window in his office almost inviting me inside. Then the secretary offers to show me a better view off the back fire escape. She leads me through a door with a sign that says "Employees Only" into dark, narrow corridors. I think of old movies I've seen where small town police pummel strangers who can't fight back. "This used to be the jail," she says as I notice the barred windows. I trip a little and she apologizes, "I forget how dark it is." This comforts me.
We get to the door of the fire escape with the bright red exit sign hanging above. I breathe a sigh of relief. She could still push me off the top and say I jumped, but at least I'll be outside where people can hear me scream. I push on the door in claustrophobic desperation. It doesn't budge. She grabs a broken broom handle, perfect, and then pushes the door open with expertise.
I stand at the top of the cream colored iron landing looking down on Schuyler, Nebraska breathing deeply and thinking about the doors that the Nebraska Writing Project has opened for me.
-- Jeff Grinvalds
The magic of the writing marathon had struck yet again. All eighteen of us circled in Indigo books. Just a week familiar, we have decidedly shaken off the initial pretense of a grad class structure and are opening to the fluidity of the Writing Project. Travis, another co-director, and I busy ourselves arranging the space. After the final chair is placed, I sit down soaking in the surrounding communication, and catch Travis’ eye noticing that he shares the same reflective smile.
In this tight space the fourteen participants couldn’t help but interact, but it more than the limited physical landscape. They are taking random turns popcorning out of their seats commenting on book titles, comparing writing routes, and asking about pieces that would soon be read. Their faces show what their minds have not yet acknowledged. They have been transformed as a writer.
This is the beauty of writing marathon-bringing a solidified camaraderie through shared thoughts and silence. It has an amazingly resonant lure and never fails to reveal to its participants the commonality they bring and construct together. It is stunning to watch and as I sit here its power echoes within. The bond it has created in one morning is stunning. We have officially become a community of writers stepping outside our separate selves to work towards a common end – preserving our observational perspectives through our pens. We have collectively become a writing tool. One that acknowledges life through words, experiences, place, and silence, and I can’t help but wonder if Travis and I haven’t translated that into our smiles.
-- Diana Weis
I’m not a writer. I haven’t published; I don’t write every day. For every commandment there is in writing, I’ve broken it. I fear I have nothing to say. Thus, being a part of the Nebraska Writing Project is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying for me. I like the idea of being a writer, the romance of words just flowing onto the page and me basking in their brilliance. But committing words to paper is, in all actuality, work and it rarely just spontaneously happens.
NeWP pushes this process with writing marathons. A marathon of any sort exhausts me and the task put forth with this is daunting: Go somewhere and write. Seems simple, but almost too simple. I question it and myself. But, I dutifully get my notebook, a black no-nonsense pen, and get in the car. We drive and stop, not quite aimlessly, and I sit on a warm corner in a town I don’t know. I’m not sure if this disconnect is a good thing or not. I know I look out of place, but at the very least, when I leave this corner, and go on with my day, I won’t see these same people at the grocery store.
I hold my breath as a man walks past me, nervous and almost fearful he will ask me what I’m doing. He is coming closer and closer, walking quickly now that he is done with his official business at the courthouse building. I know he’s seen me. If I am questioned, my answer is to be, “I’m a writer.” I know that if I have to say these words they will stick in my throat and choke me. His fast pace has brought him near to me. My heart continues to pound and I clear my throat, ready.
The man doesn’t stop, doesn’t even look at me. I’m not sure why, but my heart drops. So, I say it to myself anyway. “I’m a writer.” The words don’t stick; they come out clearly, if softly. I let my pen start to move.
When the voices cease
And the laughter fades
And the ringer clicks to silent
When the circle is formed
And the door is closed
And the paper remains untouched
When the time cop has uttered
"Good morning, let's begin..."
And the food table has
lightened its load a bite or two
When the silence cements us
And signifies that
When the fine tip gel pen
has emerged from its special
"No Students" spot
And the laptop lid soundlessly opens
When the long commute and the
hassle of parking
And the trek across campus
to the innards of Andrews is complete
When the mind has erased
thoughts of lesson planning
EQUIP creating and response-writing
And is a tilled piece of ground, ready, waiting...
When the fear of the unknown
And high expectations of greatness have faded
And it's just me.
And my paper.
And my pen.
It is then.
It is then that it has begun.
It is then that I freewrite.
It is then that I center, regroup, breathe, summon and
It is then
That I am a
-- Paula Anderson
My soul is nourished by these women who walk along the pier with me stopping to press their hands to their eyes for shade gazing out to admire the Golden Gate Bridge. Through the last ten conferences we've attended we've rock-paper-scissored to see who gets to sleep alone in a double bed while the other two bunk together. We've endured soul-bending buzz saw snoring, bathrooms overflowing with makeup, floors teaming with clothes and boots, precarious taxi rides and the grandeur of the Big Apple. We've written and shared about bad love, good husbands, lost hope, miscarriages and births, diets, dogs and diapers. We've explored administrative policy, district standards, state budgets, grants and pedagogy from one coast to the other. We've twitted, blogged, wikied and googled. And now, on a perfect crisp day, without fog or clouds, we're high on the crest of a new school year with all things discussed and deciphered--kids who are driving us crazy, ones who hate reading, those who love writing, dynamic duos and the meek on the edge. We have analyzed all this teacher topography and are satisfied with the normal chaos of our lives and now stand together having reached the peak of the hill savoring this moment in the pandemonium of the conference weak.
Nearby a couple taking turns snapping shots with a Nikon of first one than the other with Alcatraz as the backdrop, and I offer to photograph them together, "Nothing worse than returning home with no proof that you vacationed together," I quip. They laugh gratefully, pose and smile while I click. Then they offer to return the favor.
The three of us friends link arms tilt heads together and smile for the camera. The woman croons, "Oh you must be sisters." The red head starts it, and we look at each other when I smart off a politically incorrect comment, and the tall blond starts to giggle and we smile then recognizing the beginning of that insuppressible laughter that comes from the happiest, silliest, sleep-deprived part of the brain. The titters, snorts and giggles slip out and the couple looks askance at us as the woman snaps the photo, hastily returns our camera with an out-stretched keep-them-at- arm's-length gesture, turns quickly to walk away, looking back only once, clutching at her purse strap, to make sure we're not following.
We are bent double now, clouds of laughter floating around us stabbed with hiccups a few tears and one small fart that sends us into deeper hysterics. Our happy, tearful eyes lock. Sisters? We're much more than that. We're Nebraska Writing Project cohorts, The Infamous LL's, and the framed picture on my bookshelf reminds me of one of the happiest moments I've had with the Writing Project.
I sat in the living room of Carol McDaniels' home with my first task as a novice member of the Nebraska Writing Project board; to read student work for publication. I felt very at home here, settling in around the Friday night conversation Carol was engaged in with her children. The “where are you going, whom will you be with, and what time will you be home” conversation that parents of young teens have as a prerequisite to the 10:00 p.m. Peace of Mind State. Two other board members, Sandy and Sarah, had arrived and we began to spread the writing out on the living room floor. So this is what first grade Lutheran students from Seward wrote about. The fifth grade public school youth showed a sensitivity that surprised me. Being new to the board, I was in a constant state of learning and realization that I was on the edge of something grand.
Colfax County Museum, Schuyler, Nebraska
Susan talks about the ways places we write about change when people nearby add their stories to what we see. And our connections to places change.
Early this morning the Schuyler Museum, the volunteer docent describes the house in Rogers, the next town over, where she was born 80 years ago. She had her picture taken with it at her last birthday to document how old the house is. Her daughter framed the picture. And we who stand and listen have new pictures and people moving in our minds.
Another elderly docent, her voice high and weak, motions to the museum pianos, upright with bright and old notes, and describes a friend who not long ago played them by ear. "Quite a repertoire of patriotic songs for the Memorial Day Celebration. But now," she says, "she moved to Lincoln. She’s losing her mind. And she’s just my age. You never know when you have to change your life."
And we who stand and listen, in varying life stages and ages younger than her 80 years, know this truth. You never know when you have to change your life. And in this small moment, this resonating truth connects our lives.
-- Mary Birky
My first day of school…
It was my first day of school—okay not my first first day, but my first day of the NeWP Summer Institute at UNL. I hadn’t officially been on campus in—ahem—several years, and while it had changed so much, it really hadn’t changed at all. Newer. Bigger. Better. Improvements, renovations, beautification projects dot the landscape from east to west and north to south on the campus. New skyboxes, a couple parking garages, and brand new dorms now framed the perimeter. But, the bell tower still chimed at the top of the hour, the mammoth still stood guard at Morrell Hall, and the circle drive east of Memorial Stadium was still badly paved with red brick.
As I neared Andrews Hall, I reached into my pocket, removed a single white piece of paper and checked and double checked the room number. I easily found room 14 on the newly carpeted lower level of the old building—easily one of the original campus buildings built back in the 1880s. I took a deep breath. The course information—equip, inquiry, overnight writing, peer feedback, adequacy, inadequacy—filled my tired mind as I found an empty desk on the far side of the circle. A daily agenda and Natalie Goldberg quote greeted me from the whiteboard. And FOOD! Thank god there was food! But, somehow unsure that that table of treats was meant for me, or perhaps waiting for an invitation, I hesitated.
After checking to be sure the coffee was on, Robert worked his way around the small room welcoming each “student,” and then in his most soothing and professorial voice, he began, “Greetings, gentle people…”
And so it began. I poured my heart and soul into my Summer Institute, but quickly found that our pens, our writing notebooks, and all that delicious food created the force that binds NeWP Teacher Consultants young and old, still.
-- Carol Mertl
That elevator in Andrews Hall, it’s pretty rickety and very slow. It’s small and dark and old. Very old. But the books have to be hauled up and down from the third floor to the basement and back again before and after NeWP. Sometimes it’s hard to catch the elevator as there are “career” workers remodeling on the second floor at present.
After the Nebraska Writing Project one afternoon, we manipulate the book-laden carts onto the elevator and three of us are on our way up to the third floor in old Andrews Hall to return the two ton carts of books to a safe place. We’re talking about the class, all enthusiastic, until the floor gives a jolty bounce and we realize we are stuck in between the second and third floors. I look to see what the weight capacity is and blame myself. I look into my cellmates' faces. I pray that it won’t plummet downward in the next few minutes.
We can hear the workers on the other side of the door and debate banging or calling for help. We timidly bang. One of the students breaks out in a bit of a sweat, feeling claustrophobic. There is an emergency phone. He picks it up. The operator answers like she would like to connect his call to someone and this really isn’t an emergency. He describes that we are stuck and she promises to send someone to help us. I’m not sure how long we stand in that elevator with all of that reading material, not reading, but I don’t see any of us riding the elevators again for the entire project with two carts of books and three people in one small rickety elevator.
We are four Midwestern teachers, too cheap to pay for university parking, too wise to chance our luck with getting a ticket. After tacking on an extra 30 minutes to a one hour commute, we meander through neighborhood side streets until we find a spot. Experience has taught us well; we pause for brief quiz to ensure more than one of us will recall the street name. One obstacle remains—crossing the train tracks over the parked railroad cars. If we have arrived too late, we'll be stuck waiting for a moving train to pass and bear the embarrassment of being late to the reading of the word that ceremonially begins every Nebraska Writing Project Literature Institute meeting.
We pass backpacks across the hitch and climb through, working as a team with a few other more traditional and spry young UNL students who manage the hop with a little more grace and ease. Just as Teri, straddling the rail car connector, is about to swing her leg over, the train lurches to life. We make a collective grab for her and pull her to safety. Hearts racing from the near mishap, we all walk a little shakily to Andrew's Hall where we relax into Ted Kooser's Delights and Shadows.
-- Laura Miller
It was the first read-around of the 2006 Summer Institute. I’m sure I had some raging cold because I remember being late back to the classroom after running upstairs to down some cough syrup, remember the pain of trying not to cough during other people’s readings. I remember that I had read my poem about a transformative sushi experience and that I was feeling very proud of myself. “The Buddha, the Laguna, and the Spicy Tuna,” I think I called it.
But what I remember most was my friend reading her story about her miscarriage. I’d read an earlier draft of the story and responded to it, so I knew where the story was headed and I remember feeling such empathy and tension for the whole room of people who were hearing it for the first time—that whole dramatic irony thing we love to teach our students about. I was nervous for them, nervous for my friend, and nervous for myself because I am prone to bawling my eyes out at Nebraska writing Project read-arounds.
I remember how one of her group members sat beside her, gently rubbing the back of her shoulder as she talked. And as we all sat there trying hard to remain composed, I remember feeling that we were bearing witness there together, lending her courage through our listening. I remember feeling the whole moment open up then and expand beyond the dark basement classroom and the fluorescent lighting. That class wasn’t just a class anyone-- not even just a NeWP Institute. We had achieved for ourselves that which we always hope our students will have: a community of writers, writing into the world to see what we can teach and learn together.
-- Susan Martens
I am driving past the small crowd standing in front of the same Planned Parenthood building I pass nearly every day. But on this afternoon, the crowd of spectators gathered out front catches my eye, distracting me from the road. Men and women, even some children, stand together in a line waving signs that reflect that group’s opinion about what is likely happening inside. They gather hoping to change the mind of anyone in the unfortunate situation of having to enter the building that day. I am sorry for those needing to pass the human wall to enter, and wonder what they must be feeling at this moment. The words of a poem begin circling in my mind—a poem I need to write.
Instead of hoping to remember the words until I get home, I scramble though my purse searching for something to write with while trying to keep my eyes on the road. Finally, a red stop light. With relief, I am able to locate a wrinkled scrap of paper and a pen. I use those few moments to press pen to paper against my thigh, now able to write the words that represent the thoughts organizing in my mind. It was the beginning of a poem that seemed to be writing itself.
This is something participants in the Nebraska Writing Project Institute I am attending talk about—really noticing and noting a seemingly everyday event as an opportunity for writing.
Before the light turns back to green, I write, preserving the moment with words I can go back to at a later time. This is something that happens to others, something I have never experienced. As I sit at the light taking the words from my mind to the wrinkled paper I previously discarded as unimportant, I realize for the first time, I am a writer.
-- Kim Larson