Reflections on The Writing Institute
by Sheila Miller Bernson '71
When we returned to the US in 2006 after a quarter century living overseas, it seemed natural for me to return to Sarah Lawrence to help find my bearings. I studied writing as a senior with Edward Hoagland, who, in sharing his adult wisdom with us, taught me a few lessons on living life that have guided me ever since: to write you need life experience; don’t feel you need to accomplish anything/everything in your twenties; and the best of all: talent is cheap—it’s hard work that will get you there. I have lived by these rules, shared them with younger people and found them reliable and helpful. I had also always wanted to write, had stories drifting in and out of my head, never found the time or the ‘right’ moment. The texture and newness of living overseas gave me plenty of material, but day-to-day life ate up most of my time.
In July 2006, having arrived in a heap from Beirut during the summer war in Lebanon, I met Joan Bowman on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s now one my new friends: a mature woman who got her Masters in creative non-fiction writing from SLC in 2005. (Joan had studied in the Writing Institute in the early ‘90s and went on to write a regular column in her local newspaper.) She reminded me that our lives are a series of reinventions and fresh starts. While physically I had returned "home" this was yet another chapter in my life of travels. Her spunk and get-up-and-go, which were nourished by Sarah Lawrence, pushed me to the Writing Institute.
It was a full year later, in 2007, that I finally made it back to Sarah Lawrence. The first class I took (for 2 semesters in 2007-2008) was taught by Writing Institute instructor, Alexandra Soiseth, whose class “The End is in the Beginning,” focused on getting to the ‘end’ of the story. In fact, I have first lines of stories floating inside my head most of the day, only to have them disappear and vanish before I’ve done anything with them. So, getting to the end appealed.
I knew I was ‘home’ when my classmates and I gathered around the table in the wood paneled library of Wrexham, and Alex divulged not only her e-mail address but her home and cell numbers. We were a group of eight, ranging in age from mid-twenties to over seventy—all women, all with stories to tell. Some of us were well on the way to finished memoirs. I learned that a memoir can be framed in many ways. One woman was writing her memoir based on rooms and textures in her childhood homes. Yes, it was a device, but boy, did it work. We read each other’s work and devoted a large part of each class to discussing two or three submissions that we had all received a few days earlier by e-mail. Alexandra Soiseth’s class also introduced me to excellent books on writing—Hooked, by Les Edgerton, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. Writing is a craft, and I began to notice what makes a good story—how it’s constructed, how it moves, how to add immediacy, and most importantly, how to re-write and re-organize—again and again. We read and took apart short stories and memoirs; we talked about getting what was inside of us on paper; we discovered the virtue of using outlines. We read children’s stories. I was beginning to live like a writer. I began to listen to dialogue. I began to write dialogue. (This is so difficult—to sound ‘natural’ and interesting at the same time, and to weave the dialogue effectively throughout the narrative.) I was on a roll—finding stories that had been tucked away wriggling to the surface and finally finding their way to paper. I began to write ten minutes a day. It’s pretty amazing how many words I can spill out in just ten minutes. Writing is discipline—I’d heard it, now I was trying to live it. And all the while, I was getting input from my classmates and teacher about my writing, learning how my work sounded, how it affected people.
Forward to the fall of 2008, I tried a totally different class—Travel Writing—Your Life, Your Journey taught by Betty Ming Liu. Betty is a dynamo of a person, a teacher, and a writer. Her classes began with a short meditation that brought us all into the space and rhythm of our class. With a background in journalism, Betty showed me how all it takes is 500 words. She pushed me to condense any story I had written. Yes, it was hard to let go of phrases and words that pleased me, but I shed words and whole paragraphs that were unessential and ended up with a piece as powerful but shorter. I had to ask myself: why am I telling this story? Who cares? I also became familiar with terms such as "nutgraf"—what’s the status quo and what’s the change. In a way that’s what I was finding out about myself-- my status quo and how I had changed, how I was changing—and, putting it on paper. Unlike many in my class, I wasn’t interested in publishing my work, but rather, in just getting my ideas unjammed, and getting my stories (vignettes) on paper. Betty shared her writing with us and showed us how she chose her focus. She shared her blog with us—it’s funny, honest, smart and cuts to the heart of the matter. We read articles together and in noticing how they were put together, we began to slowly dissect our own writing. We wrote a restaurant review, which in the end wasn’t completely about food. In learning to focus and pare down, I was finding my rhythm, my voice.
My son has asked me to write him a book—of recipes. He is looking around the corner to the time when he will leave home and my kitchen. But on another level, he wants me to write about his childhood around the world—four countries in 15 years and no siblings to share memories with when I’m gone. So, that has become part of my mission—to be a memory bank and recipe book for my only child. To remind him about kim-bop, and bibim bop (Korea), pepernoten and gehakt ballen, vla and pofferjes (Holland), Yogurt kebab, simit, and kofte (Turkey), lubyah bil zeyt, Manouche, and kibbe (Lebanon). I am still working on it. This semester, I am taking Steve Lewis’ “Homeward Bound” class at the Writing Institute. Yes, it’s great to be home again.