After nearly nine months of being on-call 24/7, it was time to unplug and recharge. Or, as my co-workers, called it “rehab.” I took my rehab up at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. where I spent every day of last week writing the unthinkable (and drawing spirals). Omega is, for the most part, a cell phone and internet-free zone. When people walk along the paths of the lush grounds, they engage in conversation with each other, and with passersby. No one really knows anyone else, so everyone takes the opportunity to introduce themselves at mealtimes (all vegetarian, natural, organically-grown and delicious foods are served). When you get down to brass tacks, Omega is hippie camp for adults. I attended during their annual “Arts Week,” where the workshops ranged from mask making and life casting, to figure drawing, dance & music, flying trapeze, gospel singing, comedy, and writing. My class was called “Writing the Unthinkable” and is taught by Lynda Barry. There wasn’t much of a course description, but after having followed her series of 100 Demons!, being seriously devoted to her books, keeping up with her website, and with a little extra push from a fb friend (who rocked Lynda’s workshop a few years back), I signed up for the Unthinkable.
On the first day, Lynda got up in front of the class to introduce herself. She looks a bit like a cartoon herself, wearing a white button-down shirt (to “hide the sweat,” she said) blue jeans, hipster-looking glasses with coke-bottle lenses, red lipstick and a red bandanna tied on top of her red curly hair (which is twisted up into a bun or worn wildly down her back). She told us how much she loves teaching her workshops, but that she also gets very nervous. So, she was going to do something that made her even more nervous to break the ice. She was going to sing for us. And, she did. After her song, she got us to sing her the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”
For five magical days, I went from hearing the evil editing voice in my head to complete silence from that part of my brain. Instead, a wave of words and memory swept over me. It was truly a sea change. By Wednesday I could write in our seven minute spurts completely uninterrupted by any horrible thoughts or with a single question about my choice of word or phrase. In that time, me and my 60 classmates wrote our truths, the good, the bad, the ugly, but they were all ours. We listened to each others’ stories, while drawing spirals. The only feedback we heard was Lynda’s “GOOD, GOOD” when we finished reading a piece out loud. Seven minutes of writing is like letting down a drawbridge to the back of the mind.
We couldn’t talk about our writing or the class for five days, and, because you’re really not looking at people (or sitting in the same seat or next to the same person more than once) you really don’t know anyone. But we managed to find each other, in front of our classroom, in the dining hall, the dorm and walking across the campus. We were raw from exposure, but swelling with a warm gooey-ness from Lynda’s pure joy and humor.
She started every morning off by getting us all to sing this song and calling us her lovely, fabulous, wonderful, bad-ass class. Almost every evening ended with a movie. But even after the day was over, I would return to the theater where class was held, to write. I didn’t know how long the silence would last for, so I took advantage of it and just kept my pen moving. Only by the act of writing will you find the story.
Nearly every night I was the only on in the theater with Lynda (and her assistants). We traded stories and laughs. She gave me gentle advice and was always available. She never made you feel like you were asking or doing anything wrong. Everything that came out of her was true and real. As she said after cracking up over a story I told her about my job, “See? This is amazing and it’s REAL! You cannot make this stuff up!” She also reminded me that the passage of time allows stories to come out. What I might not be able to write about now may take on another life in my writing in a few years. Allow the story to come forward.
In five days, I wrote about 75 pages of memories; of the beginning of stories prompted by words on note cards or photographs torn from Lynda’s old NAT GEO magazines. These compilations of words now sit in my green binder waiting to be opened and revisited. Fleshed out and turned into 3-D. And, the funny thing is, that voice hasn’t returned yet. My mind is still quiet, the images still swell and crash against the surf. I can’t catch them all, but the ones I can, I do my best to put out my bucket and capture every drop. Babies are vessels filled to the top. Your job is to make sure none of it spills. That’s what images are like. Writing (and your mind) is your vessel.
Every morning before we entered the theater, Lynda drew a cartoon on big sheet of paper to greet us. On the last day of class, she was running late and didn’t have time. The paper was left blank. Perhaps this was a way of saying we are ready to fill it with our words and expressions. So, we did. With words of thanks to our amazing, genius, lovely, awesome, bad-ass teacher, Lynda Barry. Right on! Write on.