Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Fourth Class

at CityLit

1. Housekeeping
A. Internet
1. We are trying to resolve the issue of the listserve.
2. Exceptionally good facilities are available in the CityLit Support Centre on the Mezzanine Level of the building. You can use the internet, access email, type assignments and print. (I think printing costs 5p.) Additional free internet access can be found at your local public library.

2. Listening Exercise
Task: We listened to three spoken word pieces by Austin, Texas writer, Ernie Cline.

Goal: Gain a greater understanding of how language works and of the devices used by writers. Introduce to you to skills used by modern professional writers. Recognise both fictional and poetic techniques.

Material Presented / Discussed:

A. The three tracks from his CD, entitled Ultraman Is Airwolf, “Pick Six,” “Curriculum Vitae” and “Tech Support” all dealt with issues ‘average people” experience everyday.
1. His characters do and say things many people wish they themselves can do or say.
2. His characters validate feelings we have all experienced.
3. He transforms the day-to-day requirements of survival (job interviews, working and methods of coping) into an exciting, funny self-affirming story.
4. He employs the device of comedy.
5. His work clearly demonstrates that our material is all around us.
6. More of Ernie’s work can be heard at: word/

B. Storytelling and poetry began as a spoken art. Eventually, humans developed systems to document and preserve these stories and poems. Using clay tablets, stone, papyrus - whatever was at hand - they began to capture language. Once the word was captured, they began to develop systems and rules about how words “should” be used. At first, the stories and poems which were preserved were luxury items available only to a few. The idea of “the plot,” or “the tragedy or comedy,” “poetic form,” “rhyme schemes” began to surface. With the invention of the printing press, the word was elevated to a stagnant, contained set of rituals performed by an intellectual elite for a worthy audience. It was separated from its origin as a fluid, living sound object . Still - the art of storytelling - lived on in the form of bards, minstrels, travelling players, or griots. Quickly changing technology eventually made stories available to all people. This is largely due in part to the fact that since the beginning of time - human beings have always needed people who can use words to help them better understand the world around them and the people in it. As a result, we are left with a myriad of options available to us as modern writers. There are thousands of rules, systems, beliefs and attitudes about how a story or a poem works best. Ultimately, we must find our own voice and way for ourselves. our own voice. Being true to our hearts is the best way to write.

C. Ernie Cline began his career in the poetry slam.
1. A poetry slam is a competition of performance poetry invented by Chicago poet, Marc Smith in 1990. It was created in response to the way in which poetry had become largely inaccessible to “the common man.”
2. Slam poetry is a movement which is growing internationally. Every year, in the United States, the National Poetry Slam is held. Cities from the United States and Canada (and this year France) send teams of 3 poets to compete.
3. At a poetry slam, anybody is allowed to sign up to read a poem. They have 3 minutes to perform an original poem of their own creation. They must not use props, costumes, pre-recorded music or instruments. Five judges are selected randomly from the audience. These judges rate the poems on a scale of 1 to 10 using decimal points.
4. In its 15 year history, a several “slam forms” have begun to emerge. (We will discuss these “slam forms” in future classes.) However, past slam champions have used poetic forms such as villanelle and sestinas. This is less common today. For awhile - the National Poetry Slam also sponsored a Haiku Slam during the national competition.
5. More information about poetry slams can be found at:
The Idiot’s Guide To Slam Poetry by Marc Smith, Alpha Books
Poetry Slam, edited by Gary Glazner, Manic D Press

3. Homework Discussion
Task: On a slips of paper, everyone in the class completed the following phrase:

People would be surprised to know that I.......

We traded slips. We wrote about “the surprising thing” as if you are that person. You must use the first person and you must use dialogue.

(Many thanks to Helena Blackmore at University Of East London for teaching me how to turn party games into writing exercises.)

Goal: Use the skills necessary to think and write creatively. Gain a greater understanding of the devices used by writers. Loosen the imagination. Recognise and practice fictional techniques. Respond to and assess pieces of of writing with sensitivity. Practice new writing skills.

Material Presented:
A. Everyone who had received the assignment and completed it read their work. We discussed the work as a group. Then, the person whose “secret” had been “taken.” spoke about whether or not the piece was accurate to them and/or how it felt to have their ‘secret” stolen. Thanks for the truly exceptional pieces prepared. More importantly, thanks to everyone for giving their classmates such great material with which to work!!!!

B. Using the first person helped to free the imagination. It served as a way of getting closer to the character because, in some manner, the writer had “to become” this person. In becoming this person, the writer had to discover some level of empathy and understanding for someone completely different than themselves. It forces us to move past stereotypes and assumptions about people who are “not like us.” It opened a door to our shared experience as human beings.

C. It is okay to take other people’s stories. Everything a writer experiences, stumbles past, or witnesses is fair game. We don’t have to write from our own experience all of the time - nor do we have to have directly experienced an event to take it and make it our own.

D. Stealing facts allows you to disengage from yourself and your own perspective and move into another person’s reality. Anything can happen because there is “no real story” which is confined or constrained by your own intellectualised version of a memory. This frees the imagination to go new places.

E. Research helps a character become more believable. But - it need not constrain or limit a piece. You don’t have to communicate every single boring detail about for example: someone’s profession. These details can be used to help structure a clear picture of why the character does what he does in the context of the larger story.

F. There is never one audience. No one likes “everything.” You can not speak to all people.

G. Everyone has a deep and meaningful story. Dig deep and then deeper.

H. If you want your story to be told the “right way,” you’d better do it yourself.

Final Thoughts:

1. August Wilson (1945 - 2005)
African-American playwright and winner of a Tony Award and two Pulitzer Prizes died last week. He was an exceptional, generous, gentle and funny man.

Wilson grew up in The Hill District section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (My hometown.) In his youth, The Hill District was a thriving, self-contained Black community. It became famous for having exquisite jazz clubs. Every jazz and blues singer back in the day passed through Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is uniquely situated as a pass through point for New York, Philadelphia Washington, D.C., and Chicago. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, the City Of Pittsburgh exercised eminent domain in a fit of “urban renewal” and razed the business district in order to erect a stadium called the “Civic Arena.” It put many Black-owned businesses, night clubs and cultural centres out of business. Since this happened simultaneously with desegregation, many of the Hill district’s professional Black families moved to “better neighbourhoods.”

Wilson is the only person to have received a high school diploma from the Carnegie Library. He dropped out and educated himself after being accused of plagiarism at Gladstone High School. He was accused of this because the paper he turned in ‘couldn’t have been written by an African-American.”

Wilson went on to change the face of American theatre. He is the only African-American playwright to consistently be produced in theatres run by and primarily attended by Whites. His plays gave consistent opportunities for employment for Black actors. He is most famous for ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle,” - ten plays set in each decade of the 20th Century and the one play which made it to the screen, The Piano Lesson. (Of “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only one set outside of Pittsburgh and takes place in a recording studio in Chicago.) The Pittsburgh Cycle took him 20 years to write. He only completed the last play, Radio Golf, shortly before his death. Finally, he was generous with both his time and money to emerging Black voices. He was a generous supporter of Cave Canem ( and requested this organization be a recipient of donations in lieu of flowers.

There are numerous funny tales about August Wilson the young writer. One that stands out - in relation to our homework - is that Wilson carried a notebook around with him everywhere he went. He wrote down everything he heard in barber shops, cafes, clubs, street corners. He was recording dialogue. Years later as we look at his plays, we begin to understand why he was a master playwright. The time he spent learning - the nuances of human speech, how everyday conversations tell a story, the special individual ways people twist and turn phrases - earned him a distinct place of honour in the theatrical world.

What many people don’t know is that Wilson always wanted to be a .....poet.

2. When I was a child, there was a toy which was a thin piece of multicoloured paper wrapped around and glued to a wooden stick. Your story is like that toy.

You must pick up that bit of stick and paper and begin running. The paper unfurls and streams out behind you in a twisting, thrilling flash of colour. You run and run and run until the paper falls off.

That’s stepping away. That’s grabbing a story and letting it go.


A. You were given the following reading material from Extreme Exposure: Solo Performance Texts From the 20th Century, by Jo Bonney.

1. Laurie Anderson, “New York Social Life,” from United States.
2. John O’Keefe, excerpt from “Shimmer”
3. Anna Deavere Smith, “Elvira Evers...To Look Like Girls From Little” from Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

B. Writing Assignment
1. Choose a person about whom you have very strong feelings. (An ex-lover, a teacher, a family member, a child, a former boss, a friend with whom you no longer speak.)

2. Pick a distinct and clear memory which is charged with conflict, an obstacle, or a miscommunication.

3. You are now no longer you. The person is no longer that specific person. Changing some of the circumstances and true details....

4. and using only dialogue, write a conversation between these two people.
Who are they?
What is the relationship between the people in this scene?
What kind of history do they have together?
What do they want from each other?
Who should the reader empathise with?
5. Set the “scene.”
Where are they?
What is the weather like outside?
Is anyone else watching them?
6. Build on the scene.
How did they come to be in this situation?
How are they going to get what they want?
What is in each person’s way?
Why should they get what they want?
7. Escalate the “drama.”
What are they doing to prevent each other from getting their way?
How can they resolve the situation?
What happens?
What is going on with their bodies?
What are their emotions?
How does this show?
What is the weather like outside?
8. Find a resolution.
How do they leave this situation?
What did they learn?
Why is it important?
What are they both looking forward to next?

You may insert one line descriptions between the dialogue such as: “They rush towards each other.” or “Thunder sounds in the distance.” The answers to the above questions may be answered through dialogue or may implied in the conversation. Tip: eavesdrop on people over the next week to discover how much conversation reveals and doesn’t reveal.

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