“San Francisco will not merely welcome you. San Francisco will give you the longest, hottest bath you have ever had. It will drape a fresh, white cotton shirt over your shoulders, and even though this shirt will be three sizes too big, it will fit you better than any shirt ever has or ever will. And once you are sitting in an overstuffed armchair that has been warmed for you by a cat, San Francisco will muss your hair.”
Augusten Burroughs, Lust and Wonder: A Memoir, pg. 12
Sue Strasser was the first to push my thinking about setting. A retired nurse who lost her husband after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, she wandered into the WNY Young Writers’ Studio one rainy April afternoon to ask a question that changed my life.
“Do you have any writing groups for adults?”
I was seated at my desk, reviewing registration forms for our upcoming summer sessions. I hadn’t heard her come in, and her question startled me a bit. I remember jumping, spilling a bit of my coffee onto my shoes, and then breaking into a wide, embarrassed smile.
“I’m so sorry,” I caught myself. “I didn’t see you there. What brings you in?”
“I am almost eighty years old, and I’ve been waiting my entire life to write,” she revealed, pulling her hood away from her face. “First, I got married. Then, I had my kids. I even put myself through college and became a nurse. Then, my husband got sick,” she paused here, but her eyes remained steady, and so I nodded, waiting for her to continue. “He had dementia for a very long time. I lost him a few years ago, and while I miss him very much, I’m realizing that my life isn’t over quite yet. I can do whatever I want with the time that I have left. I want to write.” I sighed, feeling the full weight of those words and knowing that she took a cab across town in terrible weather just to ask me this question.
“So, do you have a group for adult writers?”
“Uh…..we do now,” I offered weakly, inviting her to pull up a chair. We spent some time discussing what she was looking for in a writing group, and I promised to open an invite to those in our local community through social media. I promised Sue that we would start hosting evening sessions that summer.
“Good,” she grinned. “I am not a young writer, but I am young at heart.”
That’s how I found my own writing group, and over the last four years, it’s grown to capacity. Many of the conversations that start here find their way into my work with middle and high school writers too. For instance, one of last week’s lessons was inspired by Sue Strasser herself. I remember bursting into laughter as she walked into Studio one evening sporting this particular t-shirt.
“I didn’t take you for a Breaking Bad fan,” I admitted. “That’s a pretty gritty show.”
“It’s fabulous,” she gushed. “I love Vince Gilligan’s treatment of setting. Have you paid attention to this? Have you read about it? You really should.”
And so, I did.
Last week, I invited some of our middle and high school writers to do the same thing. We began by unpacking the passage from Augusten Burroughs’s new memoir, above. Then we studied a few other lines, which you will find on page 12 in the preview provided right here. A word of caution: Burroughs isn’t for the kiddies. His work is gritty too. It’s also gorgeous, so I find myself carefully choosing passages to share with older students often. Passages like this one:
“San Francisco will tuck you into bed like you are a baby, and this will not embarrass you at all. And even though you are nineteen, San Francisco will leave the light on; you won’t have to ask. And when you wake up, San Francisco will be the first thing you see when you open your eyes. And it will say to you, ‘You know it. And I know it. Get out there and make them see it.’”
Augusten Burroughs, Lust and Wonder: A Memoir, pg. 12
Burroughs personifies San Francisco by comparing it to a nurturing parent or grandparent.
What will San Francisco give us?
What will San Francisco do for us?
What does San Francisco say to us?
These lenses made for a powerful close reading, and then writers were invited to characterize the settings of their own stories by writing on the grid below, bit by bit.
Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio
We plotted potential characters down the y axis of the grid above. Some settings could be compared to grumpy old men. Others were more like wise grandfathers or frightened children. The lenses above were defined across the x axis at the top of the grid. Writers used sticky notes to tinker with each, plotting their ideas and sharing them with others.
Then, they wrote.
Olivia Zappy is new to our little writing community, and she’s given me permission to share her first draft with Moving Writers readers. If you replicate this lesson in your own classroom, feel free to share her example with your students, and please let me know if you do. I’d like to show her how far her words traveled.
I’m wondering how you help young writers craft powerful settings for their stories. Do you have ideas to share? You’ll find me on Twitter at @angelastockman. Come share your thinking with me.
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