© Copyright 2015 by Sara Jacobelli
New Orleans Writing Marathon
(part of the Greater New Orleans Writing Project 2015 NWP Urban Sites Network Conference)
French Quarter Mini Marathon
Friday, April 17th, 2015, 1-5 pm
I signed up to participate in this mini Writing Marathon. Most of the participants paid to be in the whole program, which included various writing workshops held at UNO. (most of these sessions are for teachers, to improve their confidence in teaching writing and to improve their own writing skills)
It was scheduled to start at 1:00 pm. First I had to scramble around the apartment looking for a notebook with some empty pages in it. Of course, being a New Orleanian, I was late, and being me, I got lost. (Yes, I got lost in the French Quarter. Never mind that I walked those streets before most of my fellow marathoners were born, but we were supposed to meet at 916 North Peters, and I can never figure out where North Peters and South Peters start and stop. I had to stop at the tourist info center on Decatur Street, walk in and say, “This is embarrassing. I’m a Local but I’m lost, I can’t find this place.” Turns out it was at that little Jazz Heritage Park behind the Café du Monde. I had to walk by the statues, including MY statue, but I realized that you can’t live in the past and no one at this thing wants to hear about MY statue and my Quarter memories. (There used to be a fountain by Café du Monde, and some of us on drunken crazy nights used to put laundry soap in the fountain to make bubbles spill out. Guess that’s why they took the fountain out, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that.)
So I walk in about 1:30 and a nice young guy hands me a bottle of cold water in a New Orleans Writing Project koozie. Richard Louth, the lean gray haired easy going moderator, tells us how the writing marathon started—inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones. The idea is to write in spurts of seven or nine or ten minutes, read aloud and share, without compliments or criticism, to just say “Thank you” as each reader is done.
The longer session takes place in the summer, costs about a hundred bucks and lasts about five days. (This one was $16.82) Most of the thirty five or so people are from out of town, many of them are teachers. (So many are from Portland I almost feel I’m in an episode of Portlandia. OK, I only saw one episode, but I been to Portland. I get it. I tell all the Portland folks how lucky they are to have such good public transportation. I’m not sure if they appreciate their wonderful fast efficient light rail system. Maybe you have to do what we do: wait two hours for the bus, get to work in clothes dripping with sweat and smelling like funky stale dog, get written up for being late, then wait another hour and a half in the rain and the dark for the bus ride home. Maybe you have to experience the RTA on a daily basis— until you can appreciate the zip-zip-zip of the Portland system. But I digress. . . )
It’s not clear to me if any in the group are already writers or wanna be writers or published writers. (I think most of them are teachers.) Then Mr. Louth tells us that an important part of the program is to start calling ourselves Writers, and now we need to state, “I’m a Writer” to anyone sitting nearby. (Reminds me of that awkward old “Peace be with you thing” from the Catholic Church. And no, I haven’t been to church in a lotta years.)
The “I’m a Writer” thing seems to make folks happy, although I feel silly saying it. Maybe it’s because I was a newspaper reporter for three and a half years, or maybe it’s because I’ve been writing long enough and published in enough places that I shouldn’t have to say it. Then it dawns on me, we’re not saying it for others, we’re saying it for ourselves. OK, that’s a good idea, a good way to boost people’s confidence. I get it. (I still don’t have to say it. Some people love my stories and come to my readings and some don’t give a shit and some have never read them. I still write.)
1) Jazz Park 916 North Peters While at the Jazz Center building Mr. Louth directed us to pull out our notebooks and write for ten minutes. There was no time to read these out loud in such a large group. Here’s mine:
The Foster Home
She called herself Foster Mother. He didn’t really like her. She smelled like old root beer bottles. He wondered what he should call her. Not Mom. He decided not to think about his Old Life, that would make him Sad. He would think only about this New Life. There would be a New School and maybe New Friends.
Foster Father wasn’t home much and seemed kind of Mean anyway. There had to be something to like about this New Life. Foster Mother turned on the TV and sat back in her big chair. “Gonna watch my stories, then take a God Damned nap.”
“I don’t want to. I’m not tired.”
“Not you, kiddo. Me. I’m tired. All these God Damned kids wear me out. Gettin too old for this.” She closed her eyes. “The money’s good though. I get seven hundred bucks a kid.”
She’s going to sell me? He wondered. Who would buy a used seven year old boy who stayed back in second grade? Who would pay seven hundred dollars for me?
It’s not really fair, he thought. It’s not fair at all. He lay on the rug. It smelled like cat pee. He didn’t see a cat anywhere. “She probly sold the kitty too,” he mumbled. “I gotta figure out how to survive here. I gotta figure it out.”
2) Croissant D’or 617 Ursulines
We divided up into small groups of six or seven. They gave us maps of the Quarter with various places highlighted. I felt silly again, a local saddled with a bunch of clueless tourists. Couldn’t I just do this by myself? Spend the $16. 82 on booze and go to bars and write by myself? I decide to be a good sport and play along. We have a young moderator in our group, a charming smiling guy with long hair who suggests Croissant D’or on Ursulines.
After we introduced ourselves, we write for about twelve or thirteen minutes. I write two pieces. The first piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a time I was held up at gunpoint. The second piece is a blur of fiction and nonfiction about my days as a Quarter Street Kid. (Before the Dirty Kids, before the Gutter Punks, we were just Street Kids.)
I have many memories of sitting in this courtyard, listening to my pal Little Jimmy whining about how hard his life was. Jimmy is long gone but the place is still there, cheap enough that the locals can afford to buy the coffee and the soups and sandwiches. (I think they make their real money off of the gourmet French pastries that the habitués of the nearby boutique hotels buy.) I get an iced coffee—I have sixteen dollars and some change to make it through the day. I write one piece about an armed robbery—then start another piece and find myself lost in writing about some of my adventures with Jimmy Fontaine. I can see how the “no comments just say thank you and no criticism thing” can help the shyer, more sensitive types. (Having been a reporter, not only did I receive criticism from the editor, my colleagues and the public but I also got angry letters, had irate readers screaming at me over my scrambled eggs in breakfast joints, death threats, attempted physical assaults, and my reporter boyfriend—now my husband—was brutally attacked by a speed freak with an ax.)
Here’s the first story I wrote at Croissant D’or: (I didn’t read this one out loud)
He stuck a gun to her head and all she could think about was the rent—she was late on the rent and now she wouldn’t have to worry about it. The Entergy bill too—they were about to turn off the electricity. Now that didn’t matter either.
“I said, give it up. Girl. You don’t listen.”
“I only have two dollars. Two. Fucking Dollars. You should be robbing the Rich People on Wall Street. Not poor people like me.
“Two dollars, that’s all?” He stood there, young and confused and angry and nervous all at once. His partner on the corner got agitated.
“Hurry the fuck up, Big D. Get the money and let’s get outta here.”
Big D looked at her. “Give it up, then.
She threw the two dollars in the street and he scrambled to scoop them up. She didn’t give him her ID, which was scrunched deep into her other pocket.
He ran to meet his partner—turned around to look at her. “It’ll get better,” he said.
She walked back to Markey’s. “Somebody’ll buy me a drink, they hear this story. Somebody’ll buy me a fucking drink.”
Here’s the second story I wrote at Croissant D’or. (This is the one I read out loud.)
The Last Ride
Sometimes when no one was making any money panhandling on Dauphine or hustling on Bourbon we’d break up into groups of two or three and head out to the highway to do some interstate hitch-hiking—east to Mississippi or west to Texas—in a last act of desperation hoping lonely travelers would buy us truck stop meals. Little Jimmy whistled the tune of “Riders on the Storm” as we climbed into a van driven by a middle aged crew-cutted guy with a scar across his neck that looked like a zipper. Jimmy whispered, “There’s a killer on the road” and I smacked him to shut him up but hated myself for ignoring the funny feeling in my gut. My stomach betrayed me by growling louder with hunger.
Crew Cut didn’t talk—he just chewed gum and drove—chewed gum and drove— and Little Jimmy rolled his eyes while I looked out the window at the empty gas stations cheap motels greasy diners zipping past —and thought of all those cross country hitch-hiking days—Boston Denver Miami Cleveland—and wondered if this was my Last Ride. I was seventeen.
Everyone read their stories. They were well written and interesting to hear. Some wrote about the past and some wrote about sitting here in a New Orleans courtyard. No one else wrote fiction. The young long haired guy wrote about his wife’s experience teaching sixth grade in a New Orleans public school, which I could relate to, since I attended similar schools and taught special education for four and a half years. Keeping with the program’s focus of free writing and “no criticism” we all said, “Thank you” as each reader finished.
3) Harry’s Place 900 Chartres
I have a lot of memories in this bar, dating back to before Buddy and Cindy bought it and it was owned by Beachball Benny. I didn’t want to bore anyone with my life story, so I sat at the bar and chatted with a charming old duffer. (OK, I must admit. I was embarrassed walking into Harry’s with a bunch of composition-book carrying visitors.) The duffer and me chatted about Bob Smith—who used to work at Harry’s but now bartends over by BJ’s in da Bywater. Then we talked about the recent Times-Picayune article about the impending no-smoking ordinance, complete with a photo of harmonica player/ bartender Bobby Lewis—who this guy didn’t know. Then he says, “an ken you believe that ole Jimmy LaLa got quoted in that article? He’s so full a shit.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was over in Florida after the storm and they quoted him in every article I read online and saw in the newspaper. Jimmy LaLa. Jimmy God damned Lala.”
I bought a well drink vodka cranberry and sat by myself at a window table. I got inspired to write about some of my old Quarter character cronies. Everyone huddled and wrote for about twenty minutes. When I was done, I joined several ladies at a table that were part of the group. One local—the rest from out of town. A bar patron crashed the party—chatted up the ladies—then one of his buddies wanted to play a game on him and pretend to get one of the lady’s phone numbers. I said to just play along. That led to a discussion among the women about how they can’t even go into a bar without guys trying to pick them up. I disagreed, said it was just part of the camaraderie of bars, and I grew up in bars and worked in bars and spent more than half my life in bars, at which point I realized, hey I’m a fuckin bar fly and no one wants to hear this.
Here’s the story I wrote in Harry’s Place: (I did read this out loud, but since it was noisy in there we didn’t read our stories until we got back to the Jazz Park.
You Remember Bob Cass, Dontcha?
“Bob Cass useta live upstairs”, the old guy said, adjusting his baseball cap. “He had that Jazz magazine, Climax? You remember? He lived upstairs from the Rue Royale Coffee Tea and Weed store rightchere on Royal Street. Back when rent was cheap—the seventies, the eighties. He sold weed too but they weren’t really rivals. All kinda folks useta come inna place lookin for em, buyin weed and reminisin. They knew him from back in the old BeBop days—the nine-teen fifties. Even the comedian Mort Saul come in one day lookin for em. Sure he did.”
He coughed, lit another cigarette and downed his whiskey. “You buyin? Gimme nother Jameson’s. So, I was tellin bout the Rue Royale. It’s a fuckin yuppie art gallery now. Useta have jazz music playin on the record player and all kinda folks comin in and out. Characters. All kinda characters. Crazy. It was some kinda crazy. If I’m lyin I’m dyin. One time these two ladies come in—they was lookin to buy them some weed. They was lookin for Bob Cass—the upstairs dealer—or Red Headed Ray—the downstairs dealer. Well Ray had alla these post cards for sale on this here rack. And one a them post cards had a famous pitcher a that broad—that pretty broad—who was it? Married Kennedy?”
“No, no, not that Kennedy. The president. First she married JFK. Then he got shot, ya know. Jim Garrison had him some kinda trial about it. Then she married that Rich Greek, what’s his name?”
“Onassis. Yeah, you right. So anyway, these two ladies—they see that famous pitcher a the First Lady onna post card and they say, “Who that?” So Red Headed Ray’s girlfriend, Saratoga, she says, ‘That’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.’ Figurin ever-one inna whole wide world has heard a her. So one of em says, she says, “Kenny who?” and the other one, she says, “Oh I seen her—she live in da French Quartahs.”
He choked, guffawed, sputtered. “Saratoga—she loves to tell that story. Tells it alla time. Always gets a laugh. “Kenny who? Kenny who?”
4) Jackson Square
One of the members of the group said it was too noisy to write in there and asked if I wanted to join her in Jackson Square. We walked over to the Square, sat on a bench. I wrote a short piece about a long ago moment in that very spot.
Perry Como Said Hi To Me (I didn’t get to read this out loud)
One time I watched them film a Christmas TV Special in Jackson Square starring Perry Como. His music was just Old People’s Music to me—but I watched them film the show anyway.
Perry walked by. Me—-All skinny and scraggly, tough street kid sittin onna bench.
Him—some kinda big singer wearing a sweater making a dumb TV special.
He said “Hi.” I said “Hi” back to him. I thought of asking him for money—then thought better of it.
Decided to save the moment. Perry Como looked at me—treated me with respect—didn’t just walk right past me—but stopped and said “Hi” to me.
Me—a skinny straggly hungry ain’t-got-no-money ain’t-got-no- home but got-a-lotta-attitude street kid. I wasn’t invisible. Not to Perry Como.
Not sure why I never forgot that day. The day Perry Como said “Hi” to me.
5) Jazz Park (outside table)
Our group met back at the Jazz Park and ringed our chairs around a table and read some of our work. Once again, the stories were well written, the writers were very earnest, everyone was very nice. I am so grateful that the writing was pretty angst-free. (I don’t like-a lotta angsty. All that angsty make-a me feel kinda icky. But I digress.) Richard Louth read about when he first came to New Orleans, sat in a window at Molly’s on Decatur, writing and people watching. He was funny and affable and entertaining.
As we walked through the Quarter. I stopped to chat to folks we passed by: uniformed restaurant workers standing outside on a smoke break, panhandlers, falling down drunks. I spent so much of my life on these same streets, yet every time I pass by I see or hear or smell something new.
Some of the participants had cars so we piled into them to go to Big Class on St. Claude, where we had free pizza and wine. This was part of the Pizza and Poetry Project, the pizzas each had poems written by elementary school kids. (Good poems, too!)
I think the writing marathon is a great space/format/idea for beginning writers, shy writers, nervous writers, and for people who have never read their work out loud in front of others. For me? I need a tougher workshop with lots of constructive criticism. (I was a reporter, I can take it! I’ve been screamed at about everything from school board reports to murder trials.) Criticism isn’t so bad. Some of my fondest memories are when I wrote for the AVA in Mendocino County, Northern California—and The Editor would scream at me over the intercom that connected his office to the newsroom: “If the movie is so God Damned bad, why is the review so long?”
(And once my husband told me that a character in a short story I was writing was “too annoying.” “He’s supposed to be annoying,” I said. “Yeah but he’s too fucking annoying. You’re being too cute with it. You’re going too far.” He was right. As a reporter he interviewed Jessica Mitford, author of “The American Way of Death”. She told him, “Kill your darlings.” “What?” he asked. “Murder your darlings. Get rid of any unnecessary words in your writing. Or anything you’re too crazy about that you like too much.” That, and the fact that she could read his notes upside down, truly amazed him. (There’s some controversy as to who originally said “Kill your darlings” or “murder your darlings” but it’s sage advice. Advice that we all need to hear.)
The idea of just saying “Thank you” after each person reads is too much like the “Everyone gets a trophy, everyone gets a prize” bit. I do like Natalie Goldberg’s book, “Writing Down the Bones”—there’s great ideas in there for teaching writing, holding writing workshops, or just getting started. And I do believe that just writing and writing and writing and letting your first draft flow without interruption is really the way to go. (Save the rewriting and editing for later. That’s how I write stories. Write. Write. Write. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.) And I like the idea of the whole project. I want to support writers and writing. (Warning to participants: when you do a public reading, the audience may or may not be supportive. They may be loud. They may be drunk. They may laugh in the right places. They may laugh in the wrong places. Reading for an audience is tough, but I get through it by reminding myself that it’s not nearly as hard as being a comedian. Now that’s hard! Say something that’s supposed to be funny and they just sit there? Whoa baby, where’s the tissues, I’ma gonna cry.)
But I don’t have much money, so if I don’t sign up for the workshop next time, I could spend the whole $16.82 on drinks. (Three vodka cranberries plus tip—or two vodka cranberries and a better tip. I used to be a bartender so I better give them a good tip.)
The next day I received an email telling me that my short story “Half Moon Bay” is going to be published in Fiction on the Web. I get another email, asking if I want to sign up for the Summer New Orleans Writing Marathon. (This one is longer and costs $150.)
No way can I afford to pay for the workshop and take five days off of work. I need the money. I got to eat. I got to pay rent. And I got to buy those vodka cranberries.
Keep writing. But don’t get too sensitive about it. Sometimes you gotta kill your darlings, dahlin.
Greater New Orleans Writing Project:
New Orleans Writing Marathon: (Registration for the July 13th-17th Summer Retreat is Now Open:
Who Really Said “You Should Kill Your Darlings”? Slate Magazine Article:
Jessica Mitford’s Obituary in the New York Times:
Mitford. Jessica. “The American Way of Death.” Fawcett. 1963.
Mitford, Jessica. “The Making of a Muckraker.” Michael Joseph. 1979.
Mitford, Jessica. “The American Way of Death Revisited.” Vintage Reprints. 2000.
At BJ’s Lounge, Smoking Cigarettes Keeps the ‘Atmosphere’ Going:
Picture Credit: Pixabay Copyright Free Images.