In the summer of 2020, Katy Porter, executive director of the Inlandia Institute, asked if I was prepared to fill in Joe Scott-Ko as facilitator of the Inlandia creative writing workshop at the Riverside Public Library. My loud knee-jerk reaction came: No, now, nine.
The reason was clear. I am not a creative writing teacher. Although I have attended workshops over the years, I have never taken a formal creative writing course.
But Katy urged me to reconsider. And as I reconsidered, I thought about what I might be able to do. That’s when I got this idea. Why not make it an alternative-to-creative-writing workshop? An organizing idea popped up: chronology. It can work.
You see, I’m a retired historian (taught the subject at UC Riverside for 26 years). What if I structured the workshop around the concept of chronology, using different perspectives on that topic to write the work? Thus was born the concept of one-year, 15-session Adventures at Chronologyland Workshop.
Add COVID-19. None of the usual bi-weekly meetings in the library. Zoom came, which I was just learning. Zoom turned out to be a perfect solution.
This is how most inland writing workshops operate. They run for two hours every other week. The facilitators read us short literary passages in class, after which we write for 20-30 minutes, hopefully inspired by the excerpts and suggestions from the facilitators. We then read our drafts either throughout the workshop (10-15 people) or in small groups to get feedback from others. After we polish our pieces at home, we bring them back to the next class for more feedback.
Zoom made limitations but also offered other options. Main limitation: Time. An hour on Zoom can be exhausting; Two hour evacuation. My workshop will be of one hour.
What about options? We could do small group activities even better on the Zoom, without many noisy conversations in the same cramped conference room. And I didn’t have to limit the size of the square. We ended up with some two dozen regulars.
We will not spend class time with writing. Participants will write at home to prepare for the next session. Instead the hour typically consisted of the following: 10–15 minutes of general discussion about the homework experience; 30 minutes in a three-person breakout room, where each person will read their work and receive feedback; Finally 15-20 minutes before my short lecture on some aspect of chronological writing together and discussion of the next assignment.
In addition, the participants had a major one-year task: create a detailed personal chronology. not memorized; not an autobiography; just a timeline. Start with where and when you were born and go from there to the present. What different places have you been to? When and why did you leave every time? Where did you go to school? What jobs do you have? What are the major changes in your life path? What were the most important events in your life?
My chronology went six single-spaced pages. Some participants wrote their chronologies in the first two weeks. Others spent entire years doing it.
Following him came bi-weekly writing assignments, each essay expanding on some aspect of his personal chronology. Your first vivid memory. A difficult decision that affected your personal trajectory. Some past memory that conflicts with someone else’s memory.
As the workshop progressed, I asked them to try out different styles of writing about my life. Write a story using flashback or flash forward. A story in which your chronology parallels someone else’s until the two story lines intersect. Reflections on an event in your past that you see now in a very different way than at the time. A physical place in your past that you revisited and found so different from what you remembered.
I enjoyed putting together my bi-weekly mini-lectures to give participants ideas for doing their assignments. To illustrate the ideas I talked about, I discussed books they could read and movies they could watch.
Interesting use of Frederick Forsythe’s parallel stories in “The Day of the Jackal”. Alfonso Cuarón’s spectacular setting in the film “Roma”, often with a stationary camera, allowing movement to flow in and out of his rigid frame and refusing to allow the audience to see what was happening outside its confines . The movie “Rashomon” is a mesmerizing use of multiple perspectives on the same event.
Final assignment: write your own epitaph. Now you have your chronology, but how would you like to be remembered? What would you like your unborn great-grandchildren to know about you?
By the end of the 15 seasons I was tired but excited. And with lots of new friends. That workshop now occupies an important place in my personal annals. But when Katy asked if I would do it again, I reverted to my first number, Now and Nine. It was a magical journey, but now it’s time for me to attend the workshop again.
Carlos Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at UC Riverside, author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage Before Its Time,” and a book of poetry, “Fourth Quarter: Reflections of a Cranky Old Man.” He can be contacted at [email protected]