A simple Google search for “summer writing courses” led me there. This program had previously escaped my notice, even though it had been housed at Fresno State for many years. Now the Monterey Bay campus was host to CSU Summer Arts instead.
Its mission statement drew me in: “To transform lives through excellence and innovation in arts education and performance.” Courses in music, theater, photography, painting, dance, cirque performance, and cinematography flirted with me as I looked for the writing. My heart fluttered a bit when it rolled up into view: “Memoir Writing: Explorations in Place, Memory, and Culture.” Part of the description included the promise: “Learn the craft of transforming life experiences into literary narratives.” I knew immediately that this was what I wanted and needed.
Filling out the on-line application, I had a moment of hesitation — the questions seemed to be addressed to a far younger audience. With my husband’s blessing, I submitted it anyway, along with three of my recent pieces.
The syllabus arrived with my acceptance email: two weeks of workshops with five guest artists, evening lectures and performances, and an expectation that we would perform for the public at the end. There was a reading list too: four books. I read in the interim between the end of my school year and the time to leave. The water of my tears merged with the water imagery on the pages of Lidia’s Yuknavitch’s memoir, “The Chronology of Water.” Lynda Barry’s “100 Demons” mirrored my own.
June 29 arrived, and so did I, on campus, to check in and begin. I met many people, strangers all, though I recognized our course coordinator from her Facebook profile and wisps of purple hair. Dinner at a long table in the dining hall was a first step toward getting acquainted.
First class with writers Lynda Barry and Dan Choan — she effervesced at the front, and I sat right in front of her. We wrote and wrote and Lynda kneeled like a fawn before volunteers who shared their work aloud, intoning, “Good. Good!” I demurred, still shy.
The next day a prompt about a regular walk seemed designed just for me. Four parts. And when asked to read this time, my arm darted up, almost out of its socket. I read about my walk to school: the rattlers, the coyotes, the chill at the dip of the creek. We were invited to draw images on index cards. I drew a snake, and 32 others brought my story to picture. Dan showed them one by one — projected on the screen. My story! It was magic.
I’ve been home awhile now, readjusting to my regular life, reflecting on this transformative experience. I filled two notebooks with writing and doodles, too precious to relegate to a shelf. Instead I’ve reread everything and annotated it, taping the index card pictures into blank spots, reliving the moments.
At one point, Lidia led us to write about “place,” and I gave birth to the germ that would later become my performance piece: “My Daughter’s Tumblr Feed…” As I read her new book — “The Small Backs of Children” — released during our time together, Lidia’s advice that we forgo plot and focus on image rang in my ears: Put any three images in an order and you have a story!
The poet Jimmy Santiago Baca’s prompting led me to write — for the first time — about a harrowing experience that still haunts me. I shook as I read it aloud to my new confidantes. By then it was hard to believe that these fellow memoirists had ever been strangers; we were all writing and sharing from the heart.
Jerry McGill, who addresses his memoir “Dear Marcus” to the unidentified man who shot him when he was 13, had us write about memories related to our five senses, one at a time, and about our dreams. It was his idea that we write to someone whom we had disappointed, and that led me — on the very day we were slated to perform — to revamp my performance piece, to use the second person, to address my daughter directly: “Your Tumblr Feed.” Any nervousness I felt at sharing my work in a public forum wafted away as I imagined speaking to her, instead of about her.
CSU Summer Arts celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It’s a magical place where I could immerse myself in the arts with a diverse group that came together as family in the end. (At our final session everyone was invited to choose a special animal pen from the center and then say a few words. After scooping up the elephant I’d had my eye on, I followed a spontaneous impulse instead to circle round and give each person a hug.)
This course for credit required us to submit three pages of our work, a reflection, and a grade. Here’s part of my reflection: “The writing I've done here has helped me immensely, as a mother, teacher, and human being. I'm going to keep writing, keep in touch with these many new friends, and share what I've learned with my students and my community. The units and the grade are just a bonus.”
My job now is to hold on to the magic and to keep that promise — ever thankful for this respite from the routine and the mundane, for this gift of finding new ways to write my life.
Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School.