Saturday, June 07, 2014

Protocols for Writing Groups: What did Ernest Hemingway say to Emily Dickinson?

Some years ago, working as staff with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project (a chapter of the National Writing Project), I concocted three skits for teachers in the summer institute to read aloud as models for "dos and don'ts" for their writing groups. The skits have been useful ever since, though I think English majors will appreciate them most.

with Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, and Gertrude Stein
ERNEST:  This is a good place to meet.  It is a clean, well-lighted place.
EMILY: And quiet!  Nothing to hear but the buzzing of a fly at the window.  Good choice, Mr. Hemingway.           
ERNEST: Ernest.  But, Miss Dickinson, you can call me "Papa."
EMILY:  It's "Emily," please.
GERTRUDE(sarcastic) Oh, please Miss "Emily Please," someone is hitting on you.
EMILY: (to GERTRUDE) We haven't met (extending hand) I'm nobody.  Who are you?
GERTRUDE:  Gertrude Stein.
ERNEST: (snickering)  You can call her "Big Mama."  (pause)  Or "Butch."
GERTRUDE(to ERNEST)  Anyone who tries to outrun a charging bull is an idiot.
EMILY:  Oh, dear.  We seem to have begun on the wrong foot.
GERTRUDE: (to EMILY)  Read something to us.
EMILY:  Oh, I couldn't.  I've never shown my poems to anyone.
GERTRUDE:  Every writer needs readers.  You're trying to communicate with others, or else, what's the point?
ERNEST:  Listen to Butch.  She's right.  Do you want to end your life with a trunk full of poems that someone tosses out with your old underwear?
EMILY(blushing)   Oh, Mr. Hemingway -- Ernest!    Well, all right.   I didn't make any copies for you.  But it wouldn't take long.
EMILY:   It's just a little something I dashed off.
ERNEST:   Just start.
EMILY:   (reading)    "Because I would not stop for Death  /  He kindly stopped for me.  / The carriage held but just ourselves  / and all eternity."
EMILY: I'm afraid that's it.  I'm stuck there.
ERNEST:  Sounds like your stream of consciousness kind of ran dry.
GERTRUDE:  So, let me get this straight.  You're fantasizing about Death like he's some kind of blind date picking you up?  You need to get out more, girl.
ERNEST:  Yeah.  And that word "kindly."  Adverbs are prissy.  I wouldn't use "kindly."
GERTRUDE: (to ERNEST)  Who cares what you'd do?  You're not the one writing it!
EMILY: (dismayed, hurt)  So, can anyone give a suggestion how to -- proceed?
ERNEST:  Have 'em both go to a bar.    (Shooting a look at GERTRUDE.)  That's what I'd do.
  • Questions for writers beginning a writing group:
  1. Where will you meet?
  2. How can you learn to trust each other before you get into the business of reading each other's work?
  3. Is Gertrude right to forbid telling "what you would do?"

with Will Shakespeare, Sue Grafton, and Carl Sagan
WILL: (reading stage directions and lines from his draft of a script)  So, a messenger comes in and says to MacBeth, "The Queen, my Lord, is dead."  And MacBeth is all distracted by the upcoming battle, and so he says, "She should have died hereafter.  There would have been time for such a word tomorrow" -- and then he pauses, thinking about the implications: "Tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace, from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.  And all our yesterdays light the way of fools to dusty death.  'Tis a tale told by a nincompoop"  -- I'm not sure about that word -- "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
SUE:  Wow.   Oh wow.   What did you think, Doctor Sagan?
CARL: Sue,  I think you might have to let Will partner with you in your alphabet series.  You know, "M is for Murder Most Foul," or maybe, "T is for Thane?"
SUE:  And in that last speech, I like all the foreshadowing in the word choices!  There's "creeps," and "dusty death," and "fury."   You just get a delicious feeling that the body count is about to rise!
WILL:  Forsooth, 'twill indeed.  MacDuff's wife and all his little chicks -- whacked! -- in one fell swoop!  And then MacDuff is going to decapitate the villain.
SUE:  Excuse me, Will.  Aren't you forgetting our rule?  The author can't speak until everyone has had their say.
WILL:  Oh, right.
SUE:  Now, I also liked the way you made Banquo into a kind of detective, and just when he figures out who did it, then he's the next victim.  I didn't see that one coming!   Carl, what about you?
CARL:  I was fascinated by the weird sisters.  Are they really telling the future, or are they just putting the ideas in MacBeth's head?  It's a question with cosmological significance.
WILL(trying to restrain himself from speaking)   Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm!
CARL:  You know where it says, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" are all "lighting" the "road?"  It's a great image of the space - time continuum, with billions and billions of yesterdays leading inevitably to the present.  But of course, then, we have to wonder:  Do we have free will to alter the course of time?  Did MacBeth really have a choice?
WILL: (covering ears)  La - la - la - la - la - la!
SUE:  Carl, it's like I said with the witches.  Of course MacBeth had a choice!  If he didn't, well , there there's not much point in reading the story, is there?
WILL:  That's just what I mean.  Without choice, it's a tale that signifies nothing!
CARL(gently)  Remember our protocol.
WILL:  Damn the protocol!  'Od's bodkins, shouldn't I get to explain my own work?
SUE:  Now, Will, are you going to step out on stage to explain it every time someone puts on your play?  If the audience isn't getting your point, don't you need to know that now?
CARL:  You don't want people to have to read little footnotes for every other word, do you?   (pause)  Well, do you?
WILL:  No.  (abashed)    The rest is silence.
  • Questions for a writing group to consider before starting:
  1. Is it important for the author to read aloud?
  2. Should the author take part in the discussion of the work?
  3. Should the discussion be regulated in any other way?  (e.g., "Praise Question Polish," or "Bless, Address, Press...")

with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Mitchell
EDNA: Gwendolyn, I did what you suggested.  I shortened it, a lot.  In fact, maybe it's too short, now.
GWENDOLYN:  Real cool.
MARGARET:  Oh, Edna St. Vincent!  You didn't cut out the parts about all your young beaus, did you?
EDNA:  Well, Margaret, now they're sort of implied.
MARGARET:   And the dancing!   I love a cotillion!
EDNA:  There's an echo of that.
GWENDOLYN:  Well if Margaret will stop bemoaning drafts that are gone with the wind, I'm ready to hear your new one.
EDNA:All right.   (reads)  "My candle burns at both ends  /  It will not last the night  /   But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends / It gives a lovely light."   (awkward silence)     The end.
GWENDOLYN:  You go, girl.
MARGARET:  Well, I must say, that just takes my breath away!
GWENDOLYN:  That first draft, it was all right, with those men, and the drinking, and those snooty women, and those parties.  But then Margaret here, she says -- what did you say, Margaret?
MARGARET:  "Frankly my dear, it sounds like you're burning your candle at both ends."  That's what I said!
GWENDOLYN:  Now see what a little metaphor can do?  And I like the difference between "oh my foes" and "ah my friends."  You say so much with so little!
MARGARET:  Well, I think we should go out and celebrate!  What do you think, Edna St. Vincent?
EDNA:  I'm always up for a party.   But, Margaret, did you bring anything for us to read?
MARGARET:  Now I'm embarrassed.  Mine is nine hundred and seventy-five pages!  And I still can't find an ending for it!
GWENDOLYN(sighs)  For you, I'll make time tomorrow.
EDNA:  That's right.  You know what they say.
EDNA:  Tomorrow's another day.
  • Questions for a writing group to consider:
  1. Should writing groups have homework?
  2. How does a writing group end?

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