By Lindsey Wojcik
“I am limitless.” Repeat. “I am limitless.”
With my palms together at heart center and that mantra seared into my consciousness, I beam with gratitude as I think about the opportunities that life in New York City affords me. Tonight, the city, specifically Bryant Park, offers me the power of exercising my body and mind with a one-two punch: 60 minutes of yoga followed by a 90-minute writing workshop, both led by respected teachers in the craft and free in lesson and inspiration.
The sun’s rays trickle through the clouds as I move through Sun Salutations on Bryant Park’s lawn. In Downward Dog, I catch a glimpse of the New York Public Library’s backside through the trees. The famous lion statues, arches, and pillars face Fifth Avenue, so from this vantage point I only see the building’s sprawling white marble that spans the length of the park. As I move through Chaturanga Dandasana to Upward Dog, my gaze lands on the spire of the Bank of America Tower and the sky’s blue hues that reflect off the windows on the tower’s sleek neighboring office building, 1095 Avenue of the Americas.
Each skyscraper, framed by the park’s trees through various yoga poses, are reminders of the “I am limitless” mantra. By the time my hands arrive yet again at my heart center and I greet my neighbor with a cheerful “namaste”—a signal that the yoga practice is nearing its end—I am rejuvenated and yearning to exercise a muscle I have not stretched in a long time.
Yoga ends just as the Word for Word writer's workshop gears up in the Bryant Park Reading Room—and room is a loose term. The Reading Room is not as majestic as the nearby Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, which is currently closed for renovation, but the spacious room is merely a cluster of Bryant Park’s round green tables and folding chairs under an eggshell-colored tent that is branded with the words “HSBC” and “Reading Room Bryant Park.” Chairs spill into the outskirts of the tent, and it is there I find a seat near a under a tree near the speaker system. I am hoping I am close enough to hear the lessons that the workshop’s facilitator, Alex Steele, president at Gotham Writers Workshop, will deliver.
Creative Writing 101. “Creative writing can include fiction and nonfiction,” Steele explains. Tonight, the class is filled with aspiring writers of all skill levels that will explore creative writing through a series of exercises. Here, I will be bold enough to share some of my unedited exercises—and advice from Steele—with you. Class begins promptly with a writing exercise.
Exercise No. 1, part one: Write down an extraordinary or unusual event that happened to you.
I passed out on the N train during my morning commute.
Exercise No. 1, part two: Write down an extraordinary or unusual event that is partially true or completely made up.
I passed out on the train tracks just before the train pulled into the station.
Steele then calls on volunteers from the group to read their statements. One man says he was falsely accused of stealing jeans from a store. His second statement is that he fell asleep on the train and woke in Coney Island. Steele asks the students to decipher the true statement. My guess is Coney Island. However, the fact is that he was falsely accused of stealing jeans from a store.
I realize my written statements are too similar. Had I volunteered, the other students would have easily figured that my first statement was the truth. Though, determining fact from fiction is not the point of the exercise. “We all have lots of good stories to tell,” Steele says after three more volunteers read their statements. “These stories can come from our past or they can be made up.”
How can we gather and process ideas? Through the powers of observation and imagination. “Writers observe the world more closely than most people,” Steele says. “We carry notepads around with us or utilize the tools or apps through our smartphones to take notes.”
This is true. I always have a notebook on hand, and I have a dozen half-written, unfinished ideas scribed in my smartphone’s notes tool. But how can writers learn to develop their power of observation? “Keep your eyes open,” Steele says. “Don’t spend all of your time looking at your phone when you’re out in the world. You’ll find so much material.
“Observation applies to the past. Play the past like a movie, and you’ll draw upon memories that you didn’t even know you had,” Steele says. “Observation also applies to feelings and thoughts, which is very fertile ground for ideas.”
Steele offers up a quote from Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
With that, we’re on to our second exercise of the class, which is to practice the power of observation. Steele invites us to pick something interesting in our surroundings, observe it, and write about it.
Exercise No. 2: He leaned over and put his hand on the small of his partner’s back. His eyes darted towards his opponents at the opposite end of the table as he whispered something into his partner’s ear. With the swing of a red paddle, the lightweight white ball soared across the green table. Plink, plunk, and over the net waiting to be swatted at by a blue paddle at the end of the table. Another plink. Another plunk. And the satisfying volley of the evening’s game made him hungry to score.
My closer boosts my confidence, making me eager to share my observation with Steele and the rest of the class. However, sitting near a tree on the outskirts of the tent camouflages me, and, alas, I am not called upon. Deflated, I half-heartedly listen to the musings of the chosen volunteers and perhaps I miss valuable lessons on observation.
Steele moves the lesson forward to the power of imagination, an attribute I feel I lack; thus, I do not practice creative writing often—much to the disappointment of some friends (ahem, Daniel Ford) and even myself.
“Imagination can mean pulling ideas out of thin air or probably relating it to something that you’ve observed in real life,” Steele explains. “In fiction, imagination has to seep deeper than what you’ve observed in real life. Put two people you know into one character or imagine a place you’ve never been. Sometimes you want to let your imagination run amok.”
How can writers think about topics to write about? Steele prompts: “Let yourself play with ideas, notions, and things you’ve observed, and see what happens.”
Steele draws on the inspiration of Albert Einstein to propel the class into its next exercise. “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
For Exercise No. 3, we’ll start with a title using “the” plus a noun and writing a story that matches the material. Steele asks for sample nouns from the class and accumulates a list: The Sea Cockroach, The Horse, The Statues, The Dog, The Carousel, The Playground, The Owl, The Rickshaw, The Foster Home, The Reading Room, The Chewed Up Gumball, The Attic, and The Parachute.
The exercise requires us to chose a title, start writing a story, and see where we end up. We’re given roughly 10 minutes to explore the title, and develop a setting and characters before Steele asks volunteers to share with the class. I am daunted by the task. Imagination is not my strong suit, but I attempt the short story as people around me write furiously with their pens in notebooks of all sizes, while others quickly pound away at the keyboards of their laptops.
I stare blankly at the title I’ve chosen: The Parachute. Moments pass before I prompt myself to write anything before time is up. Bravely, I will share those words with you:
Her lip quivered as she leaned through the open door, gazing at the distance between her and the green and brown patches of land she would eventually rest her feet upon once more. The sun beamed in her eyes as the wind wailed against her face. She trembled and agonized about the leap she had longed to take when she turned 30. “Am I too old to do this?,” she thought. Then, she remembered the certified instructor strapped to her back was older than her, and it made her feel weightless. She grabbed the man’s hand as a signal that she was ready to go and soared into the sky. The fall felt freeing, though she knew the feeling was fleeting. She closed her eyes, soaking the feeling in before being jolted upright by the tug of the parachute.
The Parachute is not something I want to share with everyone, and, full disclosure, it has since been tweaked. Steele listens to a half dozen volunteers and gives notes on the positive attributes of the quickly scribed stories:
- “Bring things to life with words through the senses.”
- “Sometimes you can write a better story if you don’t think about it and say, ‘here’s a title,’ you can let it flow.
- “If you want to write a complete story, you need to learn the craft. Writing great stories isn’t simple, but these are great starts.”
- “Everyone is unique. Find out what your story is. What’s your story—something that no one else will write?”
A volunteer with a timid voice grabs the microphone, readying herself to share her story, “The Statues.” An ambulance speeds down 42nd Street, wailing its sirens midway through her first sentence.
“Hold for sirens,” Steele requests. “I want to hear this.” The woman pauses and continues on after the noise dissipates.
However, before her story ends, another ambulance whisks by. “Hold for the sirens,” Steele requests once again. “The suspense is killing me.”
The sirens fade toward Seventh Avenue, and Steele asks the woman to resume. A beetle falls from the tree above me, landing on my notebook, startling and distracting me just as the sirens had. I swat it away and listen to Steele’s critique of the woman’s story—another positive review. Steele reminds us: “Your imagination will get you everywhere.”
As he wraps up the class, opening the Reading Room to a few questions, it starts to rain. Logic tells me to leave before the storm consumes the city’s sidewalks; yet, I stay for a few more words of wisdom.
“Writing prompts are a great way just to get you going,” Steele says. “Go outside, look around you and observe something that will get you started. Read a newspaper. Pick a person you don’t know, observe that person and write.”
Someone asks about the best way to build a writing stamina. Steele replies: “Find a time that is most productive to write. Writing is like exercise, the more you write, the better you’ll get. Write everyday.”
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