by Nancy Scott
(Editor’s Note: Nancy Scott’s over 800 essays and poems have appeared in magazines, literary journals, anthologies, newspapers, and as audio commentaries. Her latest chapbook appears on Amazon, “The Almost Abecedarian.” She won first prize in the 2009 International Onkyo Braille Essay Contest. Recent work appears in “Black Fox Literary Magazine,” “The ACB Braille Forum,” “Chrysanthemum,” “Kaleidoscope,” “One Sentence Poems,” and “Wordgathering.”)
Sometimes it’s like the country song. You really want five more minutes to kiss someone, to say goodbye, to be in that place. But sometimes ...
Tonight I am presenting a Sunday writers’ workshop to the Behind Our Eyes telephone group. Behind Our Eyes is an organization of writers with disabilities.
I know the drill — caffeine and just enough nerves to be up for performance. I’ve scripted the presentation so I can read from braille notes or ignore my planned words.
This is a permission writing workshop. I tell them what to write, although I suggest ignoring my prompts in favor of their intuitions. And I tell them when to write. They will happily (maybe) get their fingers moving.
Most folks are visually impaired or blind. Writing will be noisy — braille writers, buzzing braille displays, talking computers and voices from Perfect Paul to Samantha. Everyone must mute their phones if they are going to write. I have to mute mine, too, because I’m using a talking count-up timer.
I’ve been a published author for 36 years and I’ve been on both sides of such exercises. A facilitator in a long-ago phone writing group commanded, “Write about which Monopoly piece you’d like to be. Five minutes.” Phone muted; paper inserted in braille writer but I didn’t remember what the real Monopoly pieces were. I thought, “Top hat.” And I knew there were houses. I didn’t want to be a house. Something bigger? A castle! And I was off writing my stellar universe.
The five minutes flew by. I needed more time when the taskmaster said, “Come back.”
I unmuted because, of course, I would read my piece back. It was clever (maybe not) but I only had five minutes. I was thankful to my muse because there were a few good phrases in the four paragraphs I wrote.
In this telephone conference, I am the taskmaster. “Write about middle school or about an art supply like chalk or Play Doh or crayons. See whether you are more prompted by time or by things. Five minutes.”
We all mute and I push timer buttons. I almost immediately imagine that my writers have gone off for a snack, fallen asleep, or that the phone system will never reconnect us, ever. What will I do? How will I explain disconnecting the whole conference? Will they like the prompt? Will the timer work? It’s only 3 minutes, 12 seconds. I can’t unmute myself to tell them they have one minute left. How can there be so much tortured time ’til four minutes?
Amazingly, they all come back. Some just after my one-minute warning. Some right around the five minutes. A few perhaps a minute or so later. I am ridiculously relieved. People read what they have written, especially those who used braille.
I confess my unease with their five minutes. But we do it again. This time, I read a poem of mine called, “Trees for Poems.” If you’d like to read the poem, it is available at wordgathering.com. The web address is https://wordgathering.syr.edu/past_issues/issue44/poetry/scott.html.
They will write beginning with whatever phrase or idea from the poem interests them. “Mute the phones. Five minutes.” (I have such power.)
We vanish. I fret and sweat and wish them back from the absolute silence. 2 minutes, 32 seconds. I was just lucky the first time. My poem says, “I want the towering craft of after.”
Four minutes. I unmute from the abyss. “Please come back.” Alice says, “You are not alone.”
In this exercise, most people write from a literal image and not from my metaphor. People read about bark and leaves and blind women climbing. The literal responses surprise me. Perhaps I like metaphor too much.
I have done workshops with actual people in a room. They scribbled and crossed things out and moved in their chairs and clicked computer keys. Even though I couldn’t see them, they never disappeared.
My last exercise is sensory. “Write about the softest thing you’ve ever touched or write what you wish to hear outside your window. Three minutes.”
I would want robins and the ice cream truck looping a portion of “Pop Goes the Weasel” but summer is seven months from this slice of hissing cold. “One more minute,” I happily announce and there they are again, eager to read.
Afterwards, I suggest other prompts without letting them go play. “What if I say, ‘lesser virgin’? Or ‘he gambles and comes home broke but finds one chip he forgot. He throws the chip out his fifth floor window.’ What happens to the chip?”
And then it is time to end this. I have survived the dread of technology and retribution. We each have survived an hour-and-a-half of something. But we each have lived it through very different sounds and silences and thoughts. That’s how writing happens — magic, gratitude and perseverance.
For more information, visit behindoureyes.org.