In the summer of 2000, between tenth and eleventh grade, I had the opportunity to attend South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. I went for the creative writing program. It was held on a campus near downtown Greenville, S.C., about 2.5 hours away from where my parents lived. Sure I’d gone to overnight Girl Scout camps, but this was the first time to be away from my parents for an extended period of time. And it marked the first time I had to live with a roommate. This was a big deal.
I was excited about going but nervous about what the experience might be like. My style of writing was mostly to wait for inspiration to strike, to have an idea or a vision of where things were going and to complete the piece at that time. There really wasn’t a concept of brainstorming and editing, no stressing over word choices and trying to make things sound better. My approach was to really wait for inspiration and pounce in the moment. It was one of the rare times when I could be spontaneous. So I was nervous about how my writing approach would be tested and shaken up, having to meet certain expectations and requirements within a set time frame.
While waiting in line to fill in some paperwork and get my room assignment at the school, I somehow found out the girl in front of me was my roommate. That was a slightly more pleasant way of meeting rather than entering the room after she had gotten settled and doing that awkward assessment of things with forced conversations like “No, it’s ok. I didn’t really want to be by the window.” My roommate was attending the visual arts program, so it was cool to get some exposure to a different form of art.
That was another aspect of the school’s goals. Sure you worked on your particular craft, but then you were also expected to attend faculty concerts. These concerts lent itself more easily to musical performances, but throughout the course of the program we encountered art in a wide spectrum. So I was introduced to a lot of musical pieces, theater performances, dance recitals, visual art exhibits and poetry readings.
Armed with a few calling cards, I set off for five weeks away from home with a hint of more independence. Yes, calling cards were important because cell phones weren’t quite ubiquitous yet. I didn’t have my own cell phone until after graduating high school. The same thing went for personal computers. Some students came with a laptop, but most people didn’t have one. My first laptop came at Christmas during my senior year as an early graduation present; the catch was that I split the cost with my parents. Since most students didn’t have a computer in their room, the biggest draw in the mornings was racing for a spot in the library to check email before classes began.
Stretching your boundaries
The creative writing program had afternoon sessions together with George Singleton, our main instructor. Then each week, the morning sessions were led by different people. I think for the most part the 15-20 students participating in the program had a strong preference toward fiction writing or poetry. In order to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to stretch and grow, students were required to take at least a week of fiction and a week of poetry writing. After the first two weeks, then students could choose a focus for the remainder of the program.
So for me, I knew fiction writing wasn’t a good fit for me. I can come up with ideas, but I typically struggle with crafting believable characters and story arcs. Actually, I tend to focus more on the dialogue of a story instead of the descriptions or narration, which seems odd for a person who doesn’t talk a whole lot. Being forced to spend a week focused on fiction writing was a good exercise for me. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and got me thinking in a different way. And this was a great opportunity to try, having a successful writer offering you feedback on your efforts. Of course, that also made it intimidating.
For my first week, I was assigned to the fiction writing group with Tommy Hays. He was actually one of the people who sat in for the in-person interviews. This was a challenging week. I struggled with ideas, with creating a vision for a story we worked on the whole week. We had that major project as well as smaller exercises. The most memorable assignment we had during class started with a brown shopping bag. Tommy had all sorts of items in that bag, and he set a different object in front of each of us. Our job was to imagine the kind of person who would own such an object, answering questions like: where did it come from, how did the person get it, what did the person do with it, why is it important, what’s the story behind the object. From there, once we had the background, we had to incorporate that somehow into a fictional piece. It was a close equivalent to people watching. I’ve done my share of observing people and imagining what their life is like, so that was a cool exercise.
I had obviously made the cut and earned my way into this program, but that didn’t stop me from wondering why I had been selected or if someone had made a mistake. In many ways it was exciting to be among other students from across the state who were creative, but it was challenging. I had a hard time separating appreciation for what they could do with feeling like I didn’t measure up. Mostly because our writing styles were different, and I therefore always thought theirs was better. Wishing I had their vocabulary, their way of phrasing things. Or at the very least, I wish I had more confidence in what I was trying to do. Critiquing others was difficult because I didn’t think I had room to talk in offering that kind of feedback. Writing is very personal, and while no one was cruel, it was still tricky to hear about tightening up certain areas or needing to elaborate in other spots without feeling like it was a personal attack. It’s not easy to separate the two.
Probably the wildest part of this whole experience is that one girl in our creative writing program I had classes with in seventh grade. We had been partners for a math project, and I’d invited her over for a party or two at my house. What are the odds of that happening? We got along here, but she quickly became part of this “inner circle.” It may not have been an official clique, but it was a subgroup of our class. They seemed more popular, or at least they were confident, opinionated and seemed to tackle the assignments we were given with ease.
There were a couple of girls in the program who were a bit eccentric, but they also didn’t seem to care how they were viewed. They gave off more of a “I am who I am. You can take it or leave it” kind of vibe. I longed for that kind of self-assuredness.
Afternoons with George Singleton meant a wide range in exercises. Sometimes we stayed in the classroom and brainstormed ideas. Others we went outside in a nearby park along the Reedy River and discussed writing prompts. There was one afternoon where we explored downtown Greenville. The idea was to take note of similes and metaphors as you explore the shops and observe the people. You’re paying attention to the environment and doing quality people watching and character observation. But that was a thinly veiled guise for a chance to shop and have some fun checking out the downtown area.
I’ve since done a few more exploratory walks, taking in all the details, making mental connections to what I see. It’s kind of like staring up at the sky and identifying the different shapes you see in the clouds. But in this case you’re walking a familiar or less familiar area and observing your surroundings. How would you describe the scene to someone else? Did you notice a small figurine on the ground, acting like a door stop? Are those merely two trees near the store entrance or are the branches contorted in such a way that it looks like the trees are fighting?
This poem was written during sessions with George. I have no memory of what prompted it and how it got started. While some of the wording makes me cringe, I do like how it describes a relatable experience of buying a gumball.
Rainbow of possibility
Nose pressed against the glass
Containing the rainbow of chewable candy.
I stared. Mesmerized
And longing for one tiny piece.
The quarter passed from my hand
To the slot.
I turned the dial
Like it was a slot machine in Vegas,
And waited bug-eyes,
As the small round ball
Tumbled down the ramp. Happily,
I opened the hatch as if it were a mailbox
And a party invitation
Was expected on the other side.
Excited with that perfect round ball in my hand,
I popped the sphere of perfection in my mouth
And chomped down.
The smile on my face faded
As if I had tasted spinach.
A jawbreaker was not what I had expected.
I really wish I could remember the assignment that prompted this next poem. I have a vague memory of composing this, but nothing exact. I do remember feeling like I wasn’t able to truly accomplish whatever the guidelines happened to be. That was also the general vibe I got from the instructor, too, so it wasn’t all in my head.
This poem was not titled, but on my computer I had it saved as “Love.”
When no one else was around to hear her problems,
He would fill the empty seat.
If she threatened with a gun,
He’d paint her portrait with words.
He would offer his shoulder for her to lean on,
Whenever her problems increased her vulnerability.
He would dance like a marionette,
Just to see her sparkling smile unfold.
He didn’t dwell on the loneliness that filled his world
Like choking cigarette smoke in a subway station.
Of all the poems I wrote during this program, this is the one that I appreciated the most when reviewing the for the blog. Mostly because this describes the kind of friendship, the kind of relationship I longed for. If I was the girl feeling lost, alone and sad, then I wanted someone who could help get me through it. And the final two lines are very telling, of this need to put aside personal problems so we can help someone else. I love the marionette bit, too. That’s a clever bit of imagery that I certainly didn’t appreciate enough at the time.
Stay tuned … there are more accounts from Governor’s School.