A marathon day of writing at Richard Hugo House

The "Write-o-Rama" workshops prove to be more than cross-genre stretching exercises. They also help me discover, surprisingly, a theme that's been there all along.
Crosscut archive image.

Detail from HImanee Gupta-Carlson's zine, produced at the Richard Hugo House Write-o-Rama.

The "Write-o-Rama" workshops prove to be more than cross-genre stretching exercises. They also help me discover, surprisingly, a theme that's been there all along.

'ꀜI'ꀙve gotta get outta here.'ꀝ

My husband Jim — a photographer, not a writer — uttered these words a couple of hours into Saturday'ꀙs "Write-o-Rama," a twice-yearly marathon day of writing that raises much-needed money for Seattle's Richard Hugo House.

I found the same words in a quote about four hours later during a zine-making workshop and felt they set an oddly appropriate tone for questions about a post-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America that I'ꀙve been exploring in my teaching and recent writing.

That'ꀙs what I love about Write-o-Rama. Something always occurs during the six-hour experience that surprises me and infuses my writing with new energy.

Richard Hugo House held its first Write-o-Rama fund-raiser in December 2006, and now hosts it on the first Saturday of each June and December. Writers — from widely published to aspiring — raise a minimum of $45 (or donate the amount themselves) to participate in a series of 50-minute writing workshops and two open-mic readings. The Hugo House provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffee and snacks in between. This year'ꀙs event drew 85 students, 20 teachers, and eight volunteers. It raised a record $10,433, according to Leslie Chris Leasure, development director.

'ꀜIt'ꀙs a great introduction to the House, about half the participants come here for the first time and often come back to take a class,'ꀝ Leasure says. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs also great exposure for our teachers.'ꀝ

And it'ꀙs a lot of fun, in a way that perhaps only writers understand.

I have taken part in several Write-o-Ramas since the inaugural marathon-of-writing day three years ago. Sometimes, I'ꀙm a student; sometimes, I'ꀙm a teacher. Last year, I was a 'ꀜlaureate,'ꀝ which meant that I began raising money several weeks in advance of Write-o-Rama through my network of Facebook friends.

This year, I just planned to write.

Jim and I arrived shortly before the first workshop began at 10 a.m. The plan was for me to write and for him to photograph my movements. Only the plan fizzled. Surprise No. 1: Writers — when given a chance to be around writers — are a little self-absorbed, non-communicative, and boring. My husband left within an hour.

I stayed and wrote my heart out. To my amused shock, I used the f-word word in a prose poem, and confessed that I found spittoons to be vulgar and hymens to be somewhat interesting. I also praised The Lord, meaning Jesus, in the same prose poem where the f-word appeared.

What follows is an hour-by-hour compendium of the experience.

10 a.m.: My friend and fellow writer Eli Hastings introduces 'ꀜRegional Rock!,'ꀝ a multi-genre workshop on understanding how place and character interact. Our first assignment (delivered as I tried to ignore the sulky photographer-husband drinking coffee in the corner) was to name the place we currently were writing about.

'ꀜUhh, place? Well, I guess, Seattle now.'ꀝ

I hadn'ꀙt thought about my current project on women in hip-hop in terms of Seattle as a place. But, as Hastings'ꀙ workshop showed me, Seattle is a place within its hip-hop culture.

The Lo-Fi cipher creates community for those with frustration that resides in the soul and needs to be danced out. It'ꀙs a world of non-Seattle Seattle — no salmon or ski poles, very little flannel, too clean to be grunge, too street to be p.c., too sweet to be rude.

'ꀜAwesome,'ꀝ proclaimed Hastings, after I read aloud. 'ꀜWhat I really love about your piece is how your Seattle is so not Seattle.'ꀝ

(Awesome is a word that writers love to hear.)

11 a.m.: I head into a workshop taught by a writer-friend, poet J.T. Stewart, 'ꀜThe Set-Up is Everything.'ꀝ My husband follows me, grumblingly.

'ꀜI'ꀙd like you to participate,'ꀝ Stewart says, invitingly, to my husband. (An offer to participate is something writers crave, but apparently photographers don'ꀙt.) Jim flashes the deer-in-headlights look and bolts. The writers shrug and move on.

Stewart instructs us to choose a fake name and fake place as our home, and guides us toward writing a piece based on commands. If it ends up going vertical, it'ꀙs poetry or dialogue, she says. If it goes horizontal, call it fiction, nonfiction, memoir, or manifesto.

As Anastacia from Nebraska, I start with the words 'ꀜWake up!'ꀝ

Wake-up, it'ꀙs not early.
Get up.
Get out.
Rise from the bed.
Hit the floor with the feet.
Kiss the husband.
Pet the cats.
Praise The Lord.
It'ꀙs 4:20 a.m.
Brush your teeth, and hit the road. Begin the bus-bike commute down and up and down from home to Ninth and Stewart, Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and back home again 'ꀦ
'ꀦ in Indiana,
where we never thought of bikes as a mode of transport, or of hills going up and down or of men sleeping on cardboard on the streets and women, too, as somehow normative.
Pay the rent, get a job
F--- you
And you'ꀙre fired for the swear word you just uttered
What the f---???
You'ꀙre left muttering
As you shiver 'ꀦ

'ꀜTime,'ꀝ proclaims Stewart, 'ꀜAdd dot, dot, dot. And write a title for your piece in progress.'ꀝ

Quickly, I scrawl, 'ꀜWake-up call.'ꀝ

Poetry is not my genre. When I do it, especially with Stewart, it opens me, and refreshes me, perhaps giving me the boldness to try 'ꀜNaked Poetry'ꀝ with the real Anastacia, Anastacia Tolbert, another poet and writer-friend, at noon.

(Having writer-friends, by the way, is a sign that you'ꀙre respectable.)

Noon: Tolbert passes out three index cards and asks us to write one word on each related to: 1) our biggest fear (rejection, in my case); 2) something we find vulgar (a spittoon); and 3) a body part that evokes some emotion in us (hymen).

We each turn in our cards and receive three cards from Tolbert'ꀙs stack, not our own. We then write eight lines, with the following rules: Line 3 must be trippy; Line 8 must stand alone and contain no more than eight words; and each of the three words we receive must be part of our naked poem.

With my three acquired words, 'ꀜfaggot,'ꀝ 'ꀜbroad,'ꀝ and 'ꀜstomach,'ꀝ I write:

"Give me money, Get me high,'ꀝ cries Louie at Fifth and Pine.
A solo whine.
Being broke is two friends away from being homeless.
Being broke means you'ꀙll fill your stomach
And call men like Louie faggots
And the women who got the job before you a broad.
It means warm blankets, food, fire.
Stress, not survival.

1 p.m. to 2 p.m. is lunch, and after that, more workshops. Several workshops on memoir, writing on sex, and dramatic performance attract me, but I opt for a two-hour session on zines, the uncensored, low-budget, raw, and graphic publications that gained a following in the 1980s during punk'ꀙs heyday.

Only two people — besides Hugo House'ꀙs zine archive interns — participate, an elementary school-age boy and myself. We are instructed to create an eight-page zine on a single 8½-by-11 piece of paper folded into eight equal segments that includes a story we might have in our mind and a retelling of that story in five ways, including a cartoon, a collage, a poem, an instructional manual, and a map.

I choose the 'ꀜWake-up Call'ꀝ piece from Stewart'ꀙs class as my first piece. I fabricate four windows of cartoon with stick figures and blow quotes, and create a collage out of words and pictures I find in old issues of The Nation and a comics journal, juxtaposing 'ꀜScholarly booklet proves Jesus never existed'ꀝ with the Christian fish symbol that I find in almost side-by-side ads.

I craft a poem out of campgrounds overflowing with homeless men, and then realize that I'ꀙve been thinking all day about Reaganomics, the era in which zines evolved. So the instructional manual becomes a piece on 'ꀜHow To Do 'ꀘMorning in America'ꀙ'ꀝ:

  1. Get up and out of bed.
  2. Kiss your husband.
  3. Pet your cats.
  4. Praise your Lord.
  5. Go to work.
  6. Close your eyes to the homeless on the streets.
  7. Take orders from your boss.
  8. Tell your boss to f--- off.
  9. Get fired.
  10. Wonder what happened to the comfort of your bed.

Story 6 is supposed to be a map. But I am running out of time so I fill in the page with the poem about Louie that I wrote in Tolbert'ꀙs workshop and title it 'ꀜMap of a Naked Poem.'ꀝ I create a cover out of an angry boy evicting his mother from a home, and while hunting for a picture of Uncle Sam for the back page, I discover a cartoon image of a girl running away from home screaming, 'ꀜI gotta get outta here.'ꀝ It seems oddly appropriate.

'ꀜAre you coming back to get photos?'ꀝ I text-message my husband.

"K. In a bit,'ꀝ he responds.

4 p.m.: The final workshop is heavy on writing. Midge Raymond leads us through 10 short pieces on one story, each one about five minutes in length. I refocus on my project on women in hip-hop.

Jim returns for the 5 p.m. open mic. I read from my freshly produced zine and he seems impressed.

'ꀜYou wrote all that? In one day?'ꀝ


'ꀜThat'ꀙs pretty good stuff.'ꀝ

All in a day'ꀙs work, I say.


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