Finding My Voice by
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Prompted By Why We Write

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Nancy’s book

It is fair to ask “why do I write”? I ponder that myself. I thought about this question for some time before beginning to write this particular prompt. I never wrote much before being approached by my childhood friends to be a beta tester for their new baby boomer website MyRetrospect. I wrote when an idea came to mind that I had to put down. I wrote my Sarason family history after my father died more than 30 years ago as I sought answers to questions that I never thought to ask my father and now never could.

These friends, who have known me since 10th grade, were aware that I have lived a life full of ups and downs, had some interesting stories to share and would not sugar-coat the details as I shared them with others.

The answer is not simple, but as a trained actress, I learned to be a keen observer of people. I love history, following the stories of others as well as my own. I have a point of view. Indeed, I am often called out for giving “TMI”, as I share information.

About 25 years ago I heard a friend talk about The Chilmark Writer’s Workshop. She was a smart, clever person. We’d done volunteer work together and I admired her facility with words. She praised Nancy Slonim Aronie, a published author, guest speaker on NPR, who ran these workshops from her home on Martha’s Vineyard. My friend said she took the workshop multiple times. She laughed, saying she was a slow learner.

I was intrigued. Nancy ran ads in the local papers with dates and contact information. In 2003, I signed up for my first (I took the workshop three times in total, the last time in 2011, the summer after my mother’s death. Nancy said I should come to process that event). The workshop (a half hour drive from my home) ran from 9am-noon, Monday-Thursday. As I recall, at the time, we each paid something over a hundred dollars to attend (though scholarships were available). We brought a pad of paper and pen and our fertile minds (some at the time had laptops; I still don’t). Nancy was so well known that some came from off-island just to attend. We sat around in a circle and listened to her share her wisdom. We were a mixed group, as many as a dozen of us, of all ages, some very good writers, some novices like me. This was a judgement-free zone. When Dan heard what was going on, he said it wasn’t writing, it was therapy. The two were closely linked. Based on the prompt, our writing often touched our emotions.

It was Nancy’s thesis that all of us could write, we all have something to say, but at some point along the way, we’ve been silenced by someone, “lost our voice”; perhaps a teacher, a parent, some authority figure who shut us down. She aimed to liberate our inner voice, and silence that inner critic to allow us to let our ideas flow freely. I considered that. Certainly my mother was always critical of me, and even now, someone close to me must correct and criticize much of what I say and do. I could relate to what Nancy said. She talked about her own personal struggles, the health problems of her younger son, diabetic at 9 months old, diagnosed with MS in his 20s. He was still alive when I took this first class with her (she used him as an example to teach perspective). He died before I took the last workshop. Each day there was some new lesson, but lots of time for writing.

The prompt would be given as the opening line of the story. The first was always: “dinner at my house was…”. And we’d be off for 10 minutes to write something. We would then read our stories around the circle and each say one POSITIVE thing about what we liked about it. This was not a workshop about learning HOW to write, the finer points of grammar, how to construct an interesting narrative. It was about expressing yourself and getting positive affirmation for it. We had all sorts of prompts. One was just “boobs”. One woman around the circle was recovering from breast cancer, so yes, that essay was very emotional. The prompts often triggered an emotional response. That is why Dan called it therapy, but writing one’s feelings is not a bad thing. We learned about ourselves through the narrative.

We would break at mid-morning for some warm, home-made bread with delicious butter or jam. Nancy was hamish (in the best Yiddish way; she also wrote a great story about not fitting in as a very tall Jewish girl from West Hartford, going to college in Virginia. She could be bitingly funny and she always wrote and read her own story for each prompt. I tried to take it all in, from the good writers and the not-so-great writers). At the end of the day we were given a prompt for overnight. We were instructed to spend at least 30 minutes or longer on it. Two of those have been used as stories for Retrospect, most notably, my story about my cousin Alan Jackson. The prompt was: “the last time I saw him…” I’ve used that story (and added more to it, as I learned more about him) twice. It is now called “Action Jackson”.

I enjoyed these workshops enormously, but did not continue writing after. I seem to need a prompt to inspire me. But I did feel free to get things off my chest, to shape a story, to share, but perhaps not over-share.

I told Patti and John about these workshops during one of our visits. They write for a living. I didn’t know at the time they were working on Retrospect (I would learn about it soon enough). The very first prompt was “Food”. It was taken from “dinner at my house was…”. I didn’t make the connection right away, they told me that later. And when we write comments after the story, it says in the comment box, “Say One Positive Thing About This Story”. That also comes from Nancy’s workshop. We are not here to critique, but to be supportive. This isn’t a class in writing. We are just enjoying others’ narratives.

I was honored when they invited me to be a beta tester. I wasn’t sure my writing was good enough (there was that negative inner voice – I needed to quiet it), or that I’d always have something to say for each prompt, but I told them I’d try. And here I am, almost six years and 300 stories later (and new owners). I find something to say about everything. It may not be the most interesting, but I try to personalize it, make it interesting. It has become a good mental program for me, life-affirming, a way to share my stories.

Why do I write? I write to learn more about myself.

A current photo of myself; April, 2022, with my nephew Mike Sarason

 

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    An amazing, evocative story, Betsy, which leads you (and us) to Retro. I’ve never been in a writers’ workshop, so the description of the process with Nancy’s was fascinating. (Also yummy.) And I particularly enjoyed reading about your being a beta tester for John and Patti on Retro and how the “Positive Thing” comment evolved from Nancy’s workshop into Retro and the reason for it. It now makes even more sense to me.

    I agree about how important the prompt is for writing for most of us. I’d be curious to see how Nancy’s “first sentence” would work in practice, but I can already see how effective it would be as a catalyst.

    You’ve made me think even more introspectively about writing, both for writing and generally, than I have in writing my own story . And the question you pose and your answer in your last sentence are so compelling. Even without the “Positive Thing” mandate, I would have to say, “Me too!”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Not to be repetitive, but I did think a lot about this one, as it has become so central to my life and I give the writing, editing, reading and commenting on all the other stories so much time each week. So what drives that for me? I hope I convey with each prompt that I try to learn (and then reveal) a bit more about myself, through words and old photos.

      Nancy’s workshop remains a mainstay on the Vineyard. She just published a new book, which she is promoting, so is only doing a few workshops this summer, but she is a wonderful presence here.

  2. Wonderful to hear how you found your voice Betsy! Nancy’s workshop sounds wonderful!

    I took a writing workshop years ago that was given for NYC teachers, also led by an inspired teacher.

    One of the prompts we were given was to write about something our heart remembers. I wrote a story I’ve posted on Retro entitled My Heart Remembers My Grandmother’s Hotel.

    We too read our stories aloud, and there were often tears in the room.

  3. PS
    Betsy, wish I could come to the Vineyard and take Nancy’s workshop, but did the next best thing and ordered her book!

  4. Suzy says:

    Betsy, we both wrote about how being beta testers for the Zussmans was a life-changing experience for us. Among other things, it brought us to each other, for which I am grateful. I would love to take Nancy’s workshop; I wonder if she would ever consider doing it virtually. Maybe I’ll just have to buy her book instead.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Retro brought us together and we discovered our many common bonds, Suzy! I don’t think Nancy teaches via Zoom (I know someone who had started her workshop two weeks ago, got sick – not with Covid – and couldn’t finish it). As I just mentioned to Dana, she just published a new book called “Memoir as Medicine”. That also looks interesting.

  5. Marian says:

    I enjoyed learning about the workshop and how it started you writing, once the prompts were in place. And, I agree that writing, especially memoir writing, is therapy, often of the best kind, to gain understanding of your past and yourself.

  6. Your “negative inner voice” that you wish to quiet? Why be so harsh? Possibly you could welcome and befriend your negativity, give her a tiara and let her emote? Although I will say that “negativity” has never been what I read in your posts, more like ebullience, excitement in the details of your life, and healthy curiosity.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Perhaps I should say my “critical voice”, and by that I do not mean a voice that strives to do better; indeed, I welcome that, but one that puts me down and is full of doubt. I have enough of that in my life already. But thank you for hearing ebullience and excitement, even healthy curiosity. I always wish to convey that about life (even in these ugly times). I try to be a “glass half full” person.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I am struck by the truth of what Dan said. Writing is definitely therapy for me. 300 stories — wow, Betsy!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Agreed, Laurie. It can be good to “write our feelings” as a way to process or get things off our chest.

      My first story was in December, 2015 (“Brisket”). I think my writing has improved since then.

  8. Your comments reminded me of a book that Tillie Olsen wrote. I believe it’s called either SILENCING or SILENCES, on the very topic you identified. If you haven’t read her, start with the wonderful short story, “As I Stand here Ironing.”

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