Creative Writing Three-Day Intensive Workshops


If you’re a wordsmith looking for a brief, fun and intensive workshop, you might be interested in one of the three-day classes that fellow writer Brad Zellar and I are launching in January.

These new workshops, each of which focuses on a different subject, are ideal for writers with significant life experience – fifty and up, say – but open to writers of any age and experience level who would enjoy and benefit from a focused creative writing experience.

The workshops will be team-taught by Brad and me, and the first two will be offered in January 2009 at the Minneapolis Central and Washburn Community Libraries. Registration is limited, and cost is $150. Descriptions are below. For more information, please email us here or at

Workshop #1: Writing From Photographs: Inside and Outside the Frame
Dates and Time: January 6-8, Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

It’s said that every picture tells a story, but that’s only true if we apply our memories and imaginations to reconstructing or re-imagining the constellation of circumstances and details that literally frame all photos. In a sense, then, a photo is actually a mere scene from a story –a beginning or an end, perhaps, or a mysterious, poignant, or telling incident that unlocks the story’s secrets. A photo is a connection to the past, a memory, a tangible connection, but it’s far more than that. What at first glance appears to be the main focus – the person or building or scene – is only a hint of what came before and after.

Consider the periphery – what was happening in the margins of the frame? And what about the world beyond the frame – what was left out or cropped? What would the complete picture have shown that the photo does not? What happened just before the shutter was snapped, and just after? Time is forever frozen in the image, but life went on before and after that particular moment, and that life, and those details, are the proper story of the most evocative photos.

Bring in three photos of your own, ones whose largely untold stories fascinate or resonate on some imaginative level, and we’ll provide others. Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for character development, scene setting and
storytelling, both real and imagined. This workshop is designed for writers of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Ideal for ages 50+, but open to anyone. All experience levels welcome.

Workshop #2: Writing from Place
January 13, 14, and 16 (note: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday), 12:30-3:30 p.m.

Recall some of your favorite books. What part did the setting and landscape play in making these books unforgettable? Is there a place in your own life that haunts you, that is inextricably bound with your memories and the experiences that made you who you are? All writing, no matter the subject or genre, is made more powerful by a powerfully-evoked setting. This three-day intensive class will help you conjure places of great meaning to you, whether beautiful or ugly, real or imagined, and translate that power onto the page.

Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and in-class writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for conjuring place, whether from your own life or a fictive world. This workshop is designed for writers of
fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Ideal for ages 50+, but open to anyone. All experience levels welcome.

Another tiny story of immigration

This is not my grandmother McGhee, but it IS her dog Jody butting heads with me, and I loved Jody, and so did my grandmother, so there you have it.

This is not a photo of my grandmother McGhee, obviously, but it IS a photo of her dog Jody butting heads with me, and I loved Jody, and so did my grandmother, so there you have it.

I would write this one down in the words of my grandmother McGhee as exactly as I can remember her telling it to me, but to be honest, I could hardly bear the stilted feeling of the last little immigration story, rigidly adhering to my grandmother Kirsch’s words instead of flying free with my own. Either I’m a control freak or a free spirit, take your pick. (Could it be that they are one and the same? Something to ponder.) In either case, I only heard this particular story a few times, as opposed to perhaps a hundred of the Boy Who Dove Overboard, so it’s not at all ingrained, word for word, in my (faulty) memory to begin with.

What sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather (or maybe it was her great-grandfather, I do not know for sure). As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-grandfather (great-great-grandfather?) was one of them.

As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.

My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My ancestor (note how I’m avoiding having to decide whether he was my great- or great-great-grandfather by calling him my “ancestor”) saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)

And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.

A Boy Jumps Overboard


Here is a tiny story of American immigration, set down here exactly (or as close to exact as I can get it while going against my own nature and resisting completely the instinctive urge to embellish and embroider it, re-tell it in my own way – as told to me in my childhood by my maternal grandmother).

“Your great-grandfather, my father, Paul Ajas, was French Basque, raised in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. He was sixteen years old and living at a Catholic boarding school not far from his family’s home. His mother had been sick, and the day came when he overheard someone from his village in the headmaster’s office, asking for him.”

‘And he knew that his mother was dead,’ said my grandmother,  ‘and he walked out of the classroom, and he walked down the mountain, and he walked right past his family’s home without stopping, and he walked to the sea, and he stowed away on a ship bound for America.’

And a few days into the voyage, he was discovered. The captain put him to work below decks, and as the ship approached New York Harbor, he was locked up, so that they could return him to France upon their return.’

But he managed to get free from the hold, and in the middle of the night he made his way up to the deck, and there he saw New York City before him. And he dove off the side of the ship, and he swam to the shore, and there he hauled himself into the city.’

And when dawn came he approached a man in the streets and asked him where might he find work. And he spoke no English – he spoke only French – and the man answered him in French.'”

And that is the story of how my grandmother, Reine Eugenie Honoree Ajas Kirsch, came to be born in America, in New York City, which to her eyes, and all her life long, was the only real city in the world.