Every august for the past seven years the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center sponsors a four-day writers’ retreat. Anyone may attend, but typically only women do. Each day the group writes in a different genre: renowned author Faye Moskowitz teaches memoir, visual artist and poet Miriam Mörsel Nathan teaches poetry, and I teach fiction.
After attending the summer retreat, participants are eligible to join the ongoing writers’ workshop that meets every six weeks at the JCC. In the workshop, participants are free to write in whatever genre they want. We meet in a small conference room off the main lobby, the backdrop the hum of a vibrant JCC on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve organized carpools for our kids, rearranged work schedules, and sometimes braved snowy roads to be together. We always have a minyan — usually a core group of eight and a revolving crew of four or so more. I’m the teacher, and my biggest challenge is squeezing, into two-and-a-half hours, enough discussion time for everybody’s manuscript.
The success of our workshop hinges on the fact that our four-day summer retreat is mandatory. It quickly forges a sense of trust and belonging, freeing members to write about intimate things: domestic violence, loss of loved ones, or small forgotten moments with children or parents.
The women in our current group range in age from 30 to 80, and they’re an interesting mix: a visual artist, a social worker, a scholar, a journalist, a physical therapist — we even have an ex-C.I.A. operative. What’s most community-making, I’d have to say, are three ingredients: We’re largely Jewish, we’re female, and we share a drive — whether through poetry, memoir, or fiction — to tell our stories. Some in order to publish; some to preserve family histories; all to experience firsthand the healing and redemptive power of shaping an experience into a narrative.
Here’s how I teach the workshop. In each session I explore one element of the writer’s craft — say, “engaging the senses” — after which I assign a correspondent five-to-ten minute exercise — say, “describe a family recipe.” Prompts like these generally yield potent material which students then continue to work on at home, turning rough starts into more polished pieces.
During the High Holidays, I ask the group to write about forgiveness, en exercise that builds character-development skills (and generally spiritual ones, too). One woman, a retired executive who initially intimidated me with her husky voice and razorsharp wit, wrote a piece about her troubled relationship with a sibling. When I suggested that she then write the same piece from her sibling’s point of view, the exercise cracked her open like a walnut. She not only began composing from a place that transcended old hurts, but her subsequent work presented richer characters. Each session, at least one student will exhibit such a breakthrough. Sometimes an exercise will pry open a memory, and an entirely unexpected piece comes into being.
Another element of craft that I teach is “paying attention” — how a writer goes outside of herself to better observe the particulars of dialogue and setting. This is actually a take-home assignment — I ask students to visit a favorite haunt, as though for the first time, and eavesdrop on a conversation. They then write a scene about the people they observed, using the details they’ve gathered to establish setting. One woman in the class, a gentle soul, insisted that she had failed at the assignment because she felt too guilty to eavesdrop. She offered in its stead a stunning poem addressed to a little boy whose photo she’d encountered in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was thrilled. I wanted her to respond to her world; it didn’t matter how she did it.
After the brief initial exercise, we spend the balance of our time critiquing each other’s submissions. I lead the discussion, following the guidelines that we established at the retreats. We begin by pointing out what’s working in the piece. (A writer can’t revise a piece if she doesn’t know what to keep.) We then ask questions about the manuscript and/or offer ideas for revision. We are decidedly not a therapy group, and our comments address the submission as a piece of writing. That said, someone might suggest fleshing out a character, and the act of trolling for a good quality in a neglectful parent or of searching to pick up a hard truth about an idealized loved one might inspire a real-life epiphany.
The environment we’ve created for developing our narratives creates a community like none other I’ve experienced. We’re multi-generational. Younger women borrow insights from older ones, and mutual enrichment is keenly felt. In the course of six months, our youngest member gave birth to her first child and our oldest died in her sleep. Bonding cross-generationally is one of our group’s signature strengths and irreplaceable comforts.
And then, of course, there’s the Jewish piece, which surfaces organically and consistently in our writing. I’d say that our exploration of Judaism is no less core than if we’d embarked upon a trip to Israel or studied Torah.
At the end of the day, the sturdiest thread that ties us together, though, is that we know each other’s stories: the ones we tell often, and the ones that live beneath them.
Michelle Brafman teaches creative writing at George Washington University. Past winner of Lilith’s Fiction Award, her short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices 2009.