Non-Micro-Writeup of Micro-Memoir

providenceathenaeumorg Once again, we were gathered in the beautiful lower floor of one of the oldest libraries in the United States, sipping wine among the stacks while sacrilegiously eating pizza slices and delicious crunchy little chocolate chip cookies off the Egyptian cabinet that once held Napoleon’s “Description of Egypt.” But this was a guilt-free evening. The Providence Athenaeum may be stately, but part of what has kept it open and serving Rhode Islanders since 1838 is its commitment to engaging the public, which it does regularly through events like weekly Friday salons and various readings and tastings. They’ve gotten to be pretty relaxed about guests with the munchies. This was last Tuesday, and the Athenaeum was co-hosting “micro-memoir!”, a writing workshop designed to encourage creativity. The mixture of people around me, from elderly patrons to a middle-school kid, were here for the fun.

I know, I know; it’s about time the Providence Daily Dose covered this event, given that Dose contributor Matthew Lawrence is the event’s co-presenter and founder and this was my third attendance. Matthew’s organization Not About the Buildings teamed up with the Providence Athenaeum to offer micro-memoir! in the spring of 2010, and as it enters its third year the collaborative event is more popular than ever. Matthew informed me the event has been awarded a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts grant, so there will definitely be more workshops (yay!). The schedule isn’t yet set for 2012, but when I asked if the Athenaeum will host a spring micro-memoir! to match the May events held the past two years, I learned they’re exploring the idea of holding the next event in a school. The Dose will follow up on that in the coming months.

Meanwhile, I skirted crowds of college students, professionals and retirees, taking an unobtrusive seat under my imaginary reporter’s hat. The clipboard on my chair said I’ll be reading 14th tonight, meaning I’d get to enjoy a dozen or so stories before providing my own. After the Athenaeum’s Director of Programs and Public Engagement Christina Bevilacqua thanked various members, volunteers, and sponsor Yankee Travel for the event and Matthew plugged Not About the Buildings’ upcoming “Regret-In,” a marathon reading of William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow at the Athenaeum on March 6th, poet Karen Donovan took the podium. As former co-editor of Paragraph magazine, Karen is an expert on writing in short form (I learned a new term from among those Karen listed: “Twitterature.” Cute, right?) and gave everyone some micro-memoir writing tips. She also revealed a new format tonight: instead of sealed envelopes at each chair containing the mystery word we’d write about as in past workshops, we’d each receive a number to correspond with one of the mysterious white boxes on tables at the front. Each box contained an object, and as Karen explained, objects hold an affinity for us. Tonight, we were being asked to encounter our objects without language, then create a story from the memory it invoked. We dutifully, silently arranged ourselves around the five tables according to our random assignments and smiled nervously at each other as the boxes were lifted one at a time to reveal the oddest assortment of things: a potato, a softball, a key, a Jack of Hearts playing card, and a pile of beach stones. We had thirty minutes from first encountering our object to completing our memoirs. Twenty minutes into that deadline, a bell would chime to let us know we had only ten minutes left to finish writing, count to be sure we were under 200 words, and edit to strengthen our pieces. The room filled with #2 pencils furiously scribbling on our matching lined notebook paper, and before we knew it the bell had rung twice. The half hour had flown by, and it was all I could do to stop erasing and editing (I wish there was a YouTube video of the test scene from the movie Summer School: “C…C…C…C….” to illustrate) as my more obedient companions dropped their pencils and went to check on the cookie supply. Those of us who wished to read their pieces – for which two hours were set aside – could add our names to our randomly assigned numbers. Nearly everyone in the room turned in slips with their names.

After a short break Karen turned evil. I’m sure she’s a very nice person in general, but she decided it would be fun to choose names randomly rather than go by assigned numbers. Thus, instead of being 14th to read, I ended up first. Totally unprepared (like all bloggers, I of course rarely emerge from my parents’ basement into light of day), I got up with a face as red as my shirt and announced I’d had the playing card. Then I stumbled through something that began, “It was Vegas, and we were doing it wrong” about a semi-disastrous trip in 2003 where all the attractions seemed to be broken or closed. Luckily, the crowd was awesome and laughed where they were supposed to, so I survived a public reading yet again. Thanks, micro-memoir! The rest of the night was all uphill as others took their places at the podium (save for one reader who preferred to read from her seat and everyone was OK with that).

It’s amazing how many different perspectives were applied to these five objects. The readers varied in age from early 20s to perhaps early 70s, and their stories featured childhoods, teen, and adult memories in Rhode Island, New York, Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts, and more. For John, the sea pebbles brought up memories of the Atlantic at night; for Irene, they invoked a warm hand on her back; Karen was reminded of how the sun would make her sick and how she devised a way out of the beach on a family vacation; Christina remembered collecting white stones with her mom and the magic of one purple stone that turned out to be painted. Of those who had the key, Marion had a beautiful story of the jewel box that despite the various objects it held over the decades always reminded her of her exotic, bird-like Aunt Margaret; Amy remembered the intimacy of cutting her legs shaving just like her mother had done in the bath, although with different results; and Matthew had us rolling with a dog walker’s tale of keys locked in a borrowed office yet again.

Like my Irish relatives could create a meal from a single potato, four readers created beautiful stories from just 200 words about that object. For Maura, the potato was an interrogation on memory. For Dory, it invoked growing tomatoes with her mother with love and later culling potatoes while volunteering at a farm. Jen had an intimate, mouth-wateringly detailed tale of making goulash with her father, while Nickie’s story, “The Real Skinny,” spoke of betrayal when a father’s tradition of passing his potato skins to his daughter changed to his offering them to a new companion. Those writing about a softball ranged from Carol Anne’s hilarious report of her childhood athletic failures caught on video to Jason’s powerful, painful image of a black aunt in an all-white neighborhood to Sally’s sweet tale of her daughter Sophie’s field hockey attempts mirroring her own failure at sports, with a realization that choice to try and be good at things trumps ability. Bobby’s softball tale invoked murmurs at his raw portrait of a boy in tears, pitching badly in an intense Little League game, until his father the coach revealed that he believed in him. For those others who got the Jack of Hearts, Tina’s tale of streetwise, 6-year-old pathological liar Jillian’s supposed associations with Elton John, Barry Manilow and Son of Sam had us in stitches, while Gary’s tale of losing at “War” with his older sister was intense and acted out with theatrical flair. I hope I haven’t missed anyone’s stories here, because whether funny, sweet, or sad, all of them deserved to be told and deserved to be heard.

In all, it was a wonderful evening, and not only will I be back for a fourth micro-memoir!, but I encourage even more people to come out to the next one. Don’t be shy about adding your voices to the mix. We could all learn something from each other, or at least have a chuckle or two over things we’ve managed to survive.

(Photo from http://www.providenceathenaeum.org/)

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