Green Windows has recast how I see myself. Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I have a community to draw from. Yes, my words have a place. - Catherine
You like me best when it's cold out. Something sexy about more clothes over less. That gray shirt with your coiled strength below it: that thin barrier smooth against my pushing shoulder blades.
You like me best, but you love him most. "He's my best friend, mama."
He likes me best when he's giggly. It turns out that the most base human state is polarity. Within ten minutes, gleeful hee hees and ha has, wailful mourns and utter ambivalence.
I’ve been writing with Green Windows for about 4 years now. I met two of the regular attendees at a coloring club meetup. I was feeling brave enough that day to venture out of my normal routine to do something like that, and holy hell am I glad I did. My first night there I heard writing like I’ve never heard before. Not like the crap they made me read in school, not the forced-to-sound-like-this writing from my creative writing class in college, not what I always thought poetry “should” sound like. I heard real, raw, authentic voices from real, raw, authentic people. We were writing at Chapter 510 then, and being in a space that could hold the creative energy for youth helped me work through some shit. It also inspired me to start a group at the elementary school where I worked using the same method that we use at Green Windows after reading Pat Schneider's book about the AWA method. Listen to some writing by an inspired 10-year-old sometime. It changed my world.
This group of people has become more than just a creative outlet for me. It’s where I sort out all the things inside and around me and find a way to feel all the feelings and have other people witness me doing it. It’s become a group of fellow soul travelers, friends, mentors, and family. I honestly cannot imagine my life without it.
When Peggy offered to take me on as her apprentice, I was beyond honored. I told her that no matter how busy my life can get, I’m learning how to make time for the things, the spaces, and the people that feed my life. What would be my life be without them anyway? Green Windows and the community of people that are part of it fit all those categories. As a therapist and someone who’s participated in and facilitated healing spaces for years, I can confidently say there’s something really special going on at Rock Paper Scissors every 4th Sunday of the month.
Writing a blog post means I’m sharing my work, too. I thought about adding a fun poem, one that invokes a laugh or at least a chuckle. Maybe one of my short pieces about my mom’s tomatoes or my brothers’ paper towel karate belts or how my dog looks at me when she pees or the time I met a human bunny rabbit on the Lost Coast. But the bravery of folks to speak truth inspires me everyday to speak mine more, and lately I’ve been encountering too much of that bravery to keep crawling back into my cave where it all feels easy and protected. I shied away from true tales of horror inflicted on women and children for many years, because it reminded me too much of mine. Maybe that’s where you, reader, need to be right now, and so I’ll give the disclaimer that this is not a fun piece. It’s a part of a journey, the part where it’s all super thick forest with no map, no machete, no rope. Hopefully, hearing a piece of my story will give you strength to write yours.
(more about Lena)
men teach me to like rape
by Lena Nicodemus
ferns & nitrous ice fog on the cold sand
a fallen tree trunk
lifting up on hips & lifting up of t-shirt
a stupid fucking visor hat
and when you look at me you look nervous
but I don’t say no
your hands are cold up my shirt & you
push your tongue too much into mine
but I don’t say no
you stick your hand down my pants
root around for whatever loose change
you’re looking for
and I remember we’re at where people who
go off trails can find us,
not far from the shit food of the national parks lodge
and I still don’t say no
later I say no and I laugh but I’m not sure I’m joking
and you hardly stop to check
I’ve been taught for my whole life to say
yes yes yes
I don’t imagine myself saying no or
why I would
the stories I hear from the couch are
always the same
men getting robbed at gunpoint and women getting raped
and then there are the stories where it’s little boys and girls
and the guns are your cousins
and I guess both guns could be your cousins
and I used to be scared of the word
and have to spell it out when asking friends
if movies had
I could watch them and
I don’t watch anything other than
the office it feels like anymore
because getting surprised by a rape scene in a movie
I thought was rated PG-13
and really 13-year-olds can watch this?
it’ll knock me out and before long
i’m scared to go out or even ride my bike anymore because
all the hey baby’s and looks feel like rape
because when i feel triggered it’s like
I’m being raped
but since I was young,
men teach me to like rape
men teach me to call nonconsensual sex “kinks”
and “it got a little rough”
and stopping to ask me once for a safe word neither of us use isn’t consent
and anyway girls can’t consent to sex only women can
and you didn’t invite a woman back to this apartment, did you?
I heard about Green Windows on an aimless walk through downtown Oakland at dusk one Spring. I remember the sky was pink and I was climbing my way up from rock bottom and pure Hell. I think I was only a few months sober. Back then, Green Windows was hosted at the original Rock Paper Scissors Collective art workshop on Telegraph Ave. I opened my mouth for what seemed like the first time since I was a kid and spoke about what was really important to me. We sat on unassuming chairs in a paint-splattered room and people listened to me. I never did AA or any kind of structured help program. Green Windows was it for me. Every month I would join a friendly assortment of colorful people, I would write, I would share and I would listen. In this way, I built myself up from broken, devastated pieces into a positive member of a tangible community for the first time in my life.
In Green Windows, you always have the option to pass on sharing a piece of writing. I have never done this. I have written pieces of writing that scared me into shaking, pale-skinned jello in these workshops. Sharing them in a safe, confidential space with warm, loving people who all share their stories in turn has brought me healing that feels divine. Again, you don’t have to share if you don’t want to, and plenty of people choose not to, but I have made serious progress emotionally and spiritually just by saying what I need to say, even if I’m terrified.
After a while of coming to these workshops, you start to see the same people. You admire their writing and then get to admire them as people. None of us are big-shot prestigious writers (at least not yet). Almost everyone is available to talk or share a ride home or a slice of pizza after the workshop. The community of people I’ve met coming to Green Windows over the years is what keeps me rooted in the Bay Area. It brings me pride in my home and I feel like I’m releasing stagnant energy and rejuvenating by writing, reading and listening.
As long as I live in the Bay Area, I’m going to keep coming to Green Windows workshops. This community has played no small part in making me the person I am today. Peggy, her helpers, and all of us do a lot of work to keep the space open to truly anyone who wants to come through these doors and write. The participants in these workshops feel like a cross-section of Oakland and the greater Bay Area and I haven’t seen this diversity in one space anywhere else. Green Windows writers have the privilege of coming to awareness of what life is like for people different from us. This work is important for keeping myself humble and keeping myself engaged in the struggle for justice and in building community. Here, I have the space to dig into myself and find veins of painful, traumatized gold to bring into the light and inspire others. I am grateful to live in a time and place where this is possible.
Below is a piece of fiction I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. I hope you enjoy it.
Different Kitchens, Different Friends
by Alec West
The refrigerator makes a sound that most people don’t hear. My friend Charles grew up on a boat and said that when he had to live in a house he hated the refrigerator. It was so loud, it kept him up at night. He wasn’t used to it.
My friend J used to come over and raid my fridge. He showed me how to cook tortillas on the stovetop. Years later, he admitted that he’d had a gun on him in our house. Old friends were trying to kill him, and he had to protect himself.
My friend Basil also used my kitchen. He is dead now. I remember him standing in my kitchen, having a conversation with my Mom about yogurt-coated granola bars.
“These are actually sweeping the nation as one of the best new things!” he said. His wide eyes were shifty and unfocused, his blond, box-springed hair was like a brillo pad under a wool cap or a hoodie. We went on that afternoon to get drunk in an alleyway with fresh green grass growing. It was springtime, and we were enjoying being young and the bold, deep flavor of loneliness when you have someone to share it with. Then Basil bought a bottle of vodka from a homeless man with my money, and we blacked out in the bathroom of a drug store.
This kitchen, on Lake in Piedmont, by Beach Elementary, was the first place I discovered alcohol. I remember coming home in a nice button-down shirt from the freshman dance and finding the liquor cabinet open.
Vodka and Gin. I filled up two plastic water bottles full, one red and one blue. My friend Red covered the stairs at the Morcom Rose garden with orange, green, white, and yellow puddles from the paints in his stomach. They were inkblots spilled over a page. Somebody was holding their pen up too long thinking about what to write and splotches ran through. Back then there was less loneliness than hope and excitement. I felt like I could still be part of something here if I tried. Red was my first drinking buddy.
Years later, I find myself in my brother Gabre’s kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. He has liquor bottles displayed above the cabinets where he keeps plates and dishes. He was a teetotaller all through high school, and now that he is in college, he is drinking. He felt that he had earned the privilege with his success. My friends and I taught him all about top shelf bourbon and scotch. Now he is a connoisseur and a snob, and at six pm on a weeknight he is shaking the cocktail mixer, fixing a drink.
My friend Hombre’s Dad’s kitchen looks out over the whole of San Francisco. You can see the city shimmering with light and heat and fog and silver and gold during the day and shining with purple and orange at night. It was the perfect place to enjoy a blunt with some close friends. My friend Hombre had sixteen pot plants growing on that back deck in high school. At first, his Dad didn’t notice, then he didn’t care.
Tall, fragrant bushes, sticky flowers and phosphorescent leaves. Orange hairs, white hairs, purple hairs. Acid and mushrooms and looking at the clouds. Hardcore music. Drum and bass music. Dubstep. A State of Trance.
We found a vast, dark basement full of all flavors of people who did drugs in San Francisco, from hardened criminals to kids like us. Hombre wanted to wear sweat pants and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. We told him to go for it, but he didn’t do it. We were too young for ecstasy, we felt, so we took trucker speed, those pills you buy over the counter at the gas station for like five bucks. That and a lot of marijuana, and we didn’t sit down for six hours.
All this is what I remember of my childhood in the East Bay. What were we gonna do? We were making the best out of a teenage situation in suburban California. No, you’re too young to get into the club, but there’s this alleyway and this bag and this homeless guy who agrees to buy you alcohol. I’m not joking when I say that homeless guy became my best friend. His name was J, he was only a few years older than me, and he taught me a lot.
Alec West is a Bay Area native and has been writing and publishing since he was twelve, when a fierce middle-school teacher taught him that he was worth something. He has been published in Slingshot Magazine, The Anthology of Poetry By Young Americans, The Moon, and The Highlander. His first book, “What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV” will be available in print and e-book in December 2018. Follow Alec on Instagram.
A friend told me about Green Windows. I had been in writing classes before but not done writing to prompts. I loved it. I like not knowing what will happen--either what kind of prompts we will get or what my pen will do when it gets one. Mostly it pours out some familiar story from my life but sometimes, and I am grateful for those times, the prompt sets me off on something I would never have thought to write. Even when I write a story I’ve told before, there may be a new insight or I will like the way a group of words sit together.
I’ve been in other prompt-writing groups since, but Green Windows stands out for the variety of writers and writing in it: people of many races and classes and several genders, immigrants and native-born, drop-outs and people with post-graduate degrees. It’s in Oakland, it’s sliding scale, and Peggy so completely welcomes everybody to bring their whole selves in.
I’ve met such good people at Green Windows, and heard such amazing writing, poignant, playful, profound. I met Renee Garcia at Green Windows, and joined her on-line prompt-writing group. Late one night, one October thirty-first, Renee challenged us to start writing a novel at the stroke of midnight, the moment when National Novel Writing Month would start. I wrote for twenty or thirty minutes about why I couldn’t write a novel. The next morning I started writing a novel--a fantasy for older children--which I am still rewriting over three years later. I love working on it.
Peggy encourages us to write either as ourselves or as a character, and I sometimes respond to prompts as some character in the novel. This has either given me material I can use in the novel or insights into my characters that will inform my further writing about them. One prompt was to write about a familiar or habitual walk. So I had a character, Margaret, talk about hers, and it’s in the manuscript now, and here, below:
Excerpt of novel-in-progress
by Nancy Schimmel:
On the evening before landfall in England, Annika said, “I’ve never been in a castle, much less lived in one.”
“The trick is not to stay in the castle much if you can help it,” said Margaret. “You leave the castle early in the morning before somebody thinks up something for you to do. First you go down—down the path to the beach and along the beach to the trail, then up the face of the heugh, back and forth like lacing on a bodice, to the grassy top where the sheep are. Or where they are supposed to be if they haven’t done something stupid like one wander over the edge and another one go to see what happened to the first one and go over the edge but not on purpose and therefore badly, and you may have to stop and do something about it.
“If all is well with the sheep, you go through the meadow. By and by you will come to a hut with smoke coming out of the chimney. However early you have left, Tom will be up and dressed and making tea before you get there. Bring him some honey, he likes that. Sit with him and sip the hot strong sweet tea and listen. Tom will tell you a story about himself and the sheep or his brother and the sea or his grandfather and the Norse raiders. He tells true stories, or truly as he heard them, but he doesn’t dither about exactly what happened or who was there or what day of the week it was, he keeps the story going.”
“I know what you mean,” said Annika. “We had one of those ditherers in the village.”
“Janet’s father is like that,” Margaret replied. “Maybe that’s why Janet likes ballads. No room to argue with yourself about what happened. Anyway, then you tell Tom your story, like you told it to me. I tell him stories I read in a book or heard from the cook or from some traveler.”
“But now you are the traveler,” said Annika.
“That is so,” said Margaret. “I’m a princess, but I’m a traveler, too. I used to hear travelers say things that either made me want to jump on the next ship leaving or be glad I stayed home where there’s hot tea and honey every morning.”
“Are you sorry you are a traveler?” asked Annika.
“Not at all. But I will be glad to get home again.”
Green Windows started partly at the Rock Paper Scissors Collective (RPSC), a grass-roots community arts organization. RPSC, with other galleries and arts organizations, turned "Uptown" Oakland into a vital, thriving, arts destination. And then they were priced out of the neighborhood they helped revitalize while remaining deeply rooted in the existing community.
Green Windows held monthly workshops in RPSC for seven years, When RPSC lost their space, our monthly workshops tried several different spaces, none of which felt like home. Green Windows and RPSC have overlapping missions supporting the creativity of Oaklanders while remaining affordable, accessible and deeply focused on the importance of creativity for those who are the least heard.
RPSC continued to do arts workshops in schools, libraries and various community spaces. And now they have found a new home at Warehouse 416. Which means Green Windows has found a new home, too. We had our first monthly workshop there on May 27th and it did, indeed, feel like coming home. We are so grateful for the ongoing partnership with RPSC. Come write with us next month!
I’ve been telling stories since I was three years old. The best years of my childhood were spent guiding my friends on narrated adventures in my backyard (which I would later learn is called “live-action role-playing”). Unfortunately, not all of the stories I told were, in truth, my stories, spun out of my own head, nor written by my own hand… The truth is I didn’t master handwriting until I was 12 (and before the widespread use of personal computers, this was a serious set-back), and a good majority of the stories I told were based on movies and TV shows I had watched, memorized, and faithfully replicated in my own little voice.
In retrospect, I suppose I had to start with the oral tradition before I could move into transcription. There was a good several years of my life where I was able to recite the entire poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, by heart and without prompting, not because I fancied myself a poet, but because my grandfather used to read it to me every night that I stayed over at his house, and it became stuck in my head. It took me a long time to figure out how to tell my own stories, or at least to perfect my own voice when I told them, but if I hadn’t practiced with the masters, I wouldn’t have learned that every idea comes from something before it, that “new” stories are essentially built upon pre-existing narrative structures, and that it is physically and metaphysically impossible for creative impulses to exist in a vacuum.
My father worked for IBM for 30 years, so we were among the first in our neighborhood to own personal computers in 1994, which served me well in my transcription practice. One of the first writing programs I used to transcribe my stories was appropriately called “Creative Writer,” which you could tell was purposefully designed for small children because it was full of colorful cartoon characters that cracked lame jokes and stale puns, as well as weird-shaped buttons that made squishy fart-noises when you clicked on them. Other than that shameless bit of pandering in the software’s design, “Creative Writer” basically functioned like Microsoft Word, with many spacing and font options for each project, plus much fancier-looking clip-art to use as needed.
Thankfully, I took to typing much faster than I took to handwriting. My middle-school teachers were disappointed that I continued “hunting and pecking” for the keys I needed, despite their pathetic attempts to cover my hands with a thin (but not thin enough) box over the keyboard. I’m pretty sure they only wanted me to master QWERTY-style so that I could become somebody’s secretary, and if I’d been allowed to curse, I would have gladly advised them to “fuck that noise,” but the truth is that I wasn’t allowed to curse until I got to high school and then all bets were off.
Instead of embracing social milestones for most teenage girls—like learning about makeup, armchair-studying fashion in magazines, and/or getting a boyfriend—I spent the vast majority of my high school and college years absorbed in story-driven computer games, like “StarCraft,” and writing fanfiction for multiple other writers’ stories. The important thing, again, was getting as much practice as possible; I wrote before classes, I wrote at lunch, I wrote at the library, I wrote after dinner, and I wrote well into the small hours of the night, and yet still managed to get up in time for school.
Jordan was one of my best friends since I was three, and she introduced me to Green Windows in 2015. These workshops have allowed me to challenge my time-use, to focus on staying positive, and to hone my narrative voice, as well as to listen for that which resonates with me, even if I don’t immediately understand why… It feels to me as if we are essentially building on pre-existing structures and adding our own flourishes in order to express the ideas we generate, with the goal of learning how to share them with others. While most of my computing experience is centered on word-processor use, I figure if the process of writing is at all like I hear coding can be, then Green Windows must be one hell of a hack-a-thon.
Below is a piece from a previous workshop. Enjoy!
EXCERPT FROM “THE HEARTSCAPE FACTS” THREADS ON WWW.MAPPING-THE-HEARTSCAPE.COM, DATED 02/02/1998
By Rachel Golden
Frank Riordan, the guitarist for Heartscape, is not just musically competent – he’s also an astrophysics prodigy. When he was 16, he was placed in an advanced mathematics course where he composed a 10-page essay on the practicality of faster-than-light travel as featured in the classic film, Barbarella. Within a year, this work earned him the attention of the Canadian Space Agency, which offered to pay for his university tuition if he helped them develop a perpetual motion machine. He even took time to help a fellow musician—Philip Taylor Kramer, the bassist from the band Iron Butterfly—on a Top Secret time-travel experiment in the U.S., but good luck getting him to break his non-disclosure agreement with the CSA and NASA.
HighPriest: OMG MIND BLOWN!
Diogenes: Holy shit. I don’t even.
LunarRover: Sounds plausible. I mean, the guy is a genius, after all.
Diogenes: Where to start? I mean, it’s total bullshit, but I have to say it’s the most entertaining bullshit I’ve read this week. Kudos to whoever posted this – you’re a funny bastard.
Howitzer: Dude, it’s not bullshit—don’t ever say Frank Riordan isn’t a goddamn genius, because he totally is. Anything else is fightin’ words!
LunarRover: Whoa, down boy!
Diogenes: Are you seriously polishing his balls right now, Howie?
Howitzer: They never found Kramer’s body! He fucking disappeared off the face of the earth! How the hell do you know Riordan didn’t help him with a time-travel experiment?
Diogenes: The same way I know that Riordan didn’t write a goddamn paper on FTL travel in Barbarella. The premise of undertaking such an endeavor is absolutely impractical, completely insane, and totally stupid!
LunarRover: Jane Fonda is a total fox, BTW.
Diogenes: Don’t get me wrong, I love the shit out of that movie and yes, Jane Fonda is a total fox, but good goddamn, it’s called SCIENCE FICTION for a reason!
RocketSauce: But at least the post is funny, right? You did say it was funny, and that whoever posted it was a “funny bastard,” right? Yes?
Diogenes: Thanks, Rocket. You actually made me smile today. Congratulations are in order, for that is no easy feat.
RocketSauce: Fuckin’ sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet!
BigNo: Wow, and here I thought Diogenes might actually secretly be Frank Riordan, posing as an average poster and getting his jollies by trolling the crap out of everyone.
LunarRover: No, no, that’s me.
RocketSauce: HOLY SHIT LUNAR ARE YOU FRANK RIORDAN?!!!!!??!!
LunarRover: No, I’m the average poster that’s getting his jollies by trolling the crap out of everyone. I like to think it’s basically my job.
Howitzer: OMG, if Frank Riordan actually posts on this site, I’m going to freak the fuck out and literally shit myself.
RocketSauce: You and me both, man!
BigNo: Gotta say, Howie, you are a class act.
HighPriest: I think you mean, “clact ass.”
BigNo: No, I don’t, King Pothead. Get your eyes checked.
LunarRover: …the hell does that even mean?
BigNo: It means HighPriest has been hitting the bong too hard and needs to drink some coffee.
HighPriest: Fuck you too, Biggie.
InfinityPrincipal: All right, all right, enough of this. This all has gotten simply too silly. Thread is locked. Now for a complete change of mood…
I've always loved stories. I've always loved secrets. I literally sat at the feet of my elders while they cajoled, caroused and shared their stories as only they could. Bedtimes were tortuous, because I would strain to listen to the adults while they exchanged their lore in hushed tones at night.
I am fortunate to have a large, diverse, family with expressive, larger-than-life personalities. My father doubled down on his stories, my grandfather spoke piecemeal and cryptically, my mother weaves together tales of tenacity and enduring humor so effortlessly. I have a lot of cultural capital from which to draw my experiences, and for that I am truly blessed.
In my adolescence, I became enchanted with Dungeons and Dragons, along with art house cinema. I learned about the importance of compelling characters being presented in unconventional ways. Often as the Storyteller for our sessions, I had to captivate my audience quickly and unite the players with a common bond that was worth their time and imagination. I can't say that I was always successful, however my strongest friendships are with those that humored me and indulged my fantasy creations.
My writing became more refined throughout college, where I learned about structure and identifying theses. A wise professor advised me to “make your subjects personal.” Since I've received that guidance, I've been able to write passionately about most everything. To this day, I feel as if I write with an edge, or chip on my shoulder.
I feel fortunate to have been introduced to Green Windows by my wife. I didn't know what to expect or if I really wanted to expose my writing, but I took a chance anyways. I found the environment encouraging, welcoming, and I was blown away by the authenticity and vulnerability of the participants. While struggling to find my writing voice, I was encouraged by the growth of others and the creative ways they approached the writing prompts.
Through Green Windows, I've been able to find my unique voice and express myself with conviction. The writing prompts and welcoming atmosphere have inspired me to dig deep and get raw with my writing, drawing upon my unique experiences and perspectives. This process has made me realize that everyone is a vital repository of great stories and truths. I am humbled by the journey and am excited to see where it takes me each month.
Professionally, I've been a psychiatric nurse for about 3 years. I'm tasked with listening to my clientele and discerning truth from delusion or projection, for the purposes of positive health outcomes. I am fortunate to have the trust of my patients who have shared in varying degrees, heartbreaking, nihilistic, zany, grandiose, dangerous, and relatable stories. My role constantly reminds me of the power of trust, secrets, and having a secure place to tell your story. For a person like me, this feels perfect.
At any rate, I will share another piece of myself in the form of a Green Windows writing project. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy it.
by Philip Staley
“I'm a kung fu preacher from Wichita, don't fuck with me!” Silas McClellan teetered unsteadily as he always did, propped up at the figurative intersection of angst and bad choices. Kay noted that he had a much larger crowd today. Normally, she would dismiss his ramblings for scrimshaw, slipshod, nonsense, but these were different and hungrier times.
Old Silas had a penchant for pouring cheap alcohol in his myriad wounds and drinking the rest; and we're not talking about the kind they sell at liquor stores. His crazed eyes were red-rimmed and golden, a harsh indicator of his pock-marked liver. The combination of these things lent him a demonic, blood-orange visage.
Kay Kellen had to consider the changes in this part of town, long in shadows and hope. People were disappearing in such disturbing fashion, that even the city's undesirables complained. She had “the sight” or the “undervision”, as it was known in occult circles; to see and interact with the fearsome denizens of worlds best left unexplored.
Additionally, this sight was instrumental in piercing the veil of superstition in the cityscape and the isopropyl alcohol fueled ramblings of amateur and tormented, doomsday preachers. The gang members, ne'er do wells, and other ruffians who composed the Murderers' Row of Junktown approached too. They paid rapt attention to the nuggets of superstitious truth that now affected their collective interests.
Often ignored, Silas McClellan rumbled along in that deep speech, the hate and vitriol of his words punctuated by that horrible, phlegm-racked cough. Occasionally, he spit out blood and blamed the Devil; his captive audience hanging on his threadbare words.
Kay shifted uncomfortably, noticing the small apparitions now creeping amongst the assembled like pickpockets in a town square. Naught creatures who were here to lap up the conveniently assembled packets of fear. The psychic investigator liked the idea of these times, for once feeling useful. However, bathing in this apparent destitution made all previous instances shudder from the abrupt juxtaposition.
Aged in spirit well beyond her 29 years, Kay Kellen rolled up her sleeves and approached the doomsday prophet, eyes blazing with that otherworldly fire and the resolve of the forgotten.
When I started writing fiction I had neither a personal computer nor a cellphone, and that wasn’t yet considered “weird.” The world has changed and keeps on changing at head-spinning velocity. But one thing has been a constant: the importance of getting words down, owning them, treating them like living matter.
It’s been a winding journey with lots of detours.
In the long-ago year of 1994, I won a literary prize.
And soon after I became discouraged and quit writing for four years. During that time I did a stint in jail, got heartbroken and lost most of my money. The rooms I lived in became smaller and the city seemed to grow hands, which would wrap themselves around my neck.
I returned to writing because I had no other choice.
At the time I was a transplant living in San Diego. There happened to be a writing group that met twice a week not far from my apartment. The lady who ran it used the principles of Natalie Goldberg. Set a timer, receive a prompt, get your pen moving. I let my grudges go long enough to eke out words. I discovered I still had a hunger, possibly even a mania. That was “weird.”
Let me stop right there and take a detour to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the crown jewel of the ancient world. Its succumbing to flames meant the loss of thousands of books and scrolls, irreplaceable Knowledge (yes, I do mean the big “K”). It is impossible to even guess the sheer volume of genius that got turned to powder. If it never happened might we now have the cure to cancer? Could we have landed on the moon 50, maybe 100 years earlier? Slavery abolished sooner? The power of the written word. It’s such that even in death, from out of oblivion, it can beguile.
Back to me. Eventually I went back to school. Grad school for creative writing. After I got out, a story of mine was nominated for a literary prize and a prominent agent from New York contacted me. Soon after, I became discouraged again and began to forget how to write.
How does this happen?
With the speed of a fire.
There is no road that goes absolutely straight. Pitfalls and the unexpected are guarantees. The fairy tale – itself an invention to deal with human folly – is that there are clear signposts and plainly seen adversaries. Kill the dragon, get the damsel, live happily ever after. Except sometimes the dragon comes as a friend, and the damsel’s beauty is just cover, and more often you’re your own worst enemy.
Permit me another detour. The fires this year in Sonoma were on a cataclysmic scale. In some areas it would be difficult to tell apart California embers from the aftermath of Hiroshima. What’s bizarre is that there is also a good kind of fire. Fires in nature, when appropriately scaled, make room for more sunlight and the growth of stronger trees. You burn away the undergrowth, where a lot of creepy things hang out.
As I forgot how to write I also forgot who I was. I couldn’t sleep; maybe because it was like going to bed with a stranger: myself. Everything was an irritant. Headaches were routine. A complete meltdown appeared to be just around the corner. Before the call from the agent, I’d already sunk low. My father had died only a few months earlier and I had lost my job. I wanted to disappear. When I finally put pen to paper again it felt like trying to make a fire using stones. Perhaps there are experts who can do this, not me.
What followed were a lot of grueling workshops. Then one day, I found myself at Green Windows. The AWA method it used felt like reacquainting with an old friend. I subsequently learned that Pat Schneider, who founded AWA, was the spiritual precursor to Natalie Goldberg. It seemed like a circle had closed. At Green Windows there is a particular energy when writing with the group – a synergy – that can’t be duplicated when ruminating alone and pushing your pen in a fearful way. You have to let go, be reckless, and you need to feel like that’s not only permitted, but radically encouraged. I’ve heard pieces written there that had more vitality than much of the “polished prose” I’ve come across. There would, of course, be more travails ahead, more testing of my faith. But what I’ve come to understand is this:
Everyone must take his own journey.
And face his own fire.
What remain, even in the ashes, are words.
So stay weird, stay weird.
These days I do professional critiquing and editing for other writers. You write a draft in a white-hot fever (ideally!) and then a cooler approach is taken to looking at craft elements: plot, action, themes, character, etc. I view my job as not about condemning weaknesses or changing a writer’s voice. It’s about bringing out the best in a writer. Sometimes a person can’t see her own potential, until she is shown what’s possible. There are no limits in this endeavor, just new and ever wider frames of reference. You can find my services here: https://www.fiverr.com/fiction_magic/critique-your-fiction-and-do-developmental-editing I’m happy to offer a discount to anyone who’s been to an AWA workshop.
Below is a short video I find great solace in. It features two poems by Charles Bukowski. The street-wise scribe had much to reveal about courage and inspiration.
And below the video is a bit of my writing done at Green Windows. It’s raw, unedited, and written as my pen managed to stay ahead of my inner critic. The only item I’ve added post-write is the title.
by Joseph Kim
Slivers of rotting dog meat covered the helmet, all the better to blend in with the carrion that infested the city ruins. Wild dogs, rats and roaches were now the chief rulers of a megalopolis that had once spanned over a hundred square miles. From horizon to horizon only twisted rebar, crumbling concrete and mangled steel could be seen.
But Cassandra had the helmet in her crosshairs. It had moved. Something or someone was under it, crouched behind the wreckage of the sixth floor of a former Stock Exchange building. In the building opposite, Cassandra held her rifle, trying not to blink and waiting to shoot between heartbeats.
It had to be him – whatever he’d become. He was the enemy now. Could never be trusted. He had flipped. His message had read:
Come to the city center.
In the center we will play.
Remember Chutes and Ladders?
It was the game they’d once played. A beaten-up board game retrieved by her on a scouting mission, to entertain him while he spent lonely hours down in the bunker surrounded by Women Folk, no other boys to play with. Boys were all raised separately. The idea was it tamed their natural aggressive tendencies by removing the “wolf pack” element. They played the game awkwardly at first, trying to understand the strange 20th century obsession, but in time they found joy in it, an escape. Such a simple world where the stakes were clean and innocent. Not life or death, like now where she was obligated to kill her own son.
I remember a few years ago, I was going through childhood stuff as I started to move the last of my things out of my parents’ basement, and I found poems I wrote when I was probably in the 5th grade. I wrote a few that were what I thought poetry was supposed to sound like, a few that were what I thought cute girls were supposed to write about, and then there was this other one. I was really passionate about the wild world as a kid. I was part of a project that same year where my friend and I raised money to help protect snow leopards. I used to keep a sticker collection, like most 90’s babies, and the front cover was a tree frog. I had a budding monkey stuffed animal collection, and anytime I could, I escaped to the woods behind my house, where no one could hurt me.
I’m a trauma therapist for children and families at an elementary school. A lot of what motivated me to get into the work I do was my own trauma as a kid. I was sexually abused by an older neighbor who also bullied me in front of other kids from age 5 to 10, and my family had a lot of dysfunction, to say the least. School, the woods, books, writing, my own fantasy world: These were what kept me alive. I was that kid who could read and walk through the hallways from classes--to this day, my peripheral vision is on fleek.
This poem I found was about big construction vehicles rolling through a beautiful, pristine rainforest; ugly, metallic machines attacking the sweet greens and damp brown of the earth and bright red of a flying bird leaving its disappearing nest. The animals began to run until the snakes hissed back. The snakes hissed back and led a revolt and the animals turned around and took down those big machines with all the power of them standing up for the protection of their home.
I read this poem, and I knew that the part inside me that, 15 years later, started my own personal revolt against my abuser and the environment that broke my heart and my innocence, started it with this poem and the teacher that asked me to write it and wanted to hear me read it.
I read this poem, and I knew that I wanted to be the person who would ask others to write about how they would start their revolts and then help them start them.
Today, I’m lucky to get to hear those stories and to help re-write them so that the suffering, the cycle of abuse, stops. I try to remember to never underestimate the power of a poem, a metaphor, a story.
When I found Green Windows last year, I was ready to write more of my story, and Peggy and the group of amazing people she manifested every month kept me coming back and writing more. The writing below is an excerpt from a book I’m writing based on my own story and all the stories I’ve heard throughout my lifetime.
Excerpt from Frontera
by Lena Nicodemus
Mama helped Jo learn to stitch when she was old enough to hold the needle and the circular frame. It went in and out to the speed of their singing of songs that neither were old enough to fully understand. Jo would often overshoot the needle and accidentally stab herself in the pad of her index finger.
“Ow!” She would pull her hand back as the costura became tinged with a little red dot of blood.
“Los errores son parte del aprendizaje,” Mama said then, something Abuela had taught her, something that Jo would tell her own children someday as a bookmark for moments of flawless idiosyncrasy.
When the phone rang for the last time, it was months after the accident, and Grandma May lay flat on her bed with the orange curtains pulled closed at any time of day. Stale café and pan sat cold on her nightstand, next to a picture of Grandma May and Grandpa George with Mama, who looked up at her two smiling parents with no expression.
“Vente, vente,” Grandma May beckoned. “Vente por aca.”
Her hands are wrinkly and dry. Jo opens the nightstand drawer & takes out the oil, rose, and sandalwood, with corn oil to make it last longer. She rubs Grandma May’s hands. She closes her eyes. She remembers the Sunday school teacher telling them the story of when the ladies, implicitly whorish, washed Jesus’ feet. Jo imagined washing the Sunday School teacher’s feet while he read the story over and over on a loop, incessant and dull. She imagined playing that game where you dart a blade between the webbing of a hand, and doing that to the Sunday School teacher’s feet. She would take the dullness of that blade and slide it between each of his toes as she made him breathe in and out and keep quiet.
The phone rings, and the attic is oddly silent.
The phone rings, and Jo becomes aware of her mother’s radio two floors down, reverberating through the dry, wooden floorboards. The phone rings, and there’s no one on the other line.
The birds of paradise at the edge of the property swivel in the air, being put off by the helicopter blades.
Tomás holds the curling edges of the burning books until they get too hot and he drops them, one by one.
The kiddie pool full of the ceniza of 1000’s of words and letters by underpaid and over-emotional authors starts to melt from the heat. He goes for the phonebooks as well, burning “Aguilar” to “Zafón” and “air-conditioning repair” to “yard waste removal.” There is a book with leather skin, a book with a note written in blue on the inside cover.
Please call me when this is over.
I love you, I miss you. Please come home.”
The signature is illegible, the P.S. unreadable.
The title of the book is “Frontera”. “Border”.
Bertrell Smith is an amazingly talented artist who practices in different media: painting, writing, music, video and more. He has been writing in Green Windows workshops for several years. We asked him to share some of his art as well as a few words about his artistic process. Thank you, Bertrell!
When I create a work of art a lot of things happen or don't happen. If I'm painting I might make a thumbnail drawing while listening to random recordings. I usually find an error, a dot or something, in the canvass and adjust to it.
When writing a rap I jot down a few ideas about the direction for the rap in general and hope I finish it one day. In general this is how I do what I do or what I'm trying to do in the creative realm.
I often question why on earth am I doing these things. Then I remember why and I proceed with caution. It's a way to travel without checking my baggage, I tell myself. I usually put all my materials in one area and plan to spend from a hour to a week or more discussing my problems with them be it the canvas, a musical recording, a piece of paper or video etc.
When I waltz into Green Windows to write, I do something similar. I ask, "Why am I here?" I eventually remember why, eat some pastries and unleash a tension on the page that I've been storing for such an occasion. Green Windows writing workshop in many ways mirrors my creative process. I wish I could find a workshop that helps me in the other areas with the same level of consistency.
- Bertrell Smith
By Bertrell Smith
(Written in a Green Windows workshop, January 2014)
Shut up don't listen to your sorry selfishness. The version of you at this moment of time will be thrown away. I am not playing with you. Ball it up and let the smell from it take you away. Don't talk back to me in predictable anger it will do you no good. I'm happy you are here with me in a dark sadistic way. Now leave all that you know quickly and sweep up the floors. The floor covered with images of your self you placed there in haste, Make a noise, A new one. Not joyful not bitter. Something mechanical and happy. It's not a request you can ignore. I'm commanding you to be a subject of little insight and much pity. You shall grow as I say you will. The descriptions of you will fade and be forgotten as has been stated in the writings on the floor. You will mop after you sweep. I will let you take time to feel horror or hunger, Only one. There is no out at this only in at this. It is not a riddle only a lapse of a memory you wish to forget. Slow down let the pressure inside. To go in .
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.