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Finding Your Story in Writing Class

By Roopa Ramamoorthi
Friday December 29, 2006

I want to write a piece for my writing class but what can I write? It is 6 p.m. on Wednes-day, class begins at 7 p.m. No, I do not have to have something to show this week, after all it is an adult school class, no grades. I have finished with that when I finished with school, no more worrying about grades. 

But I want to write something for today’s class, old habits die hard. Yes, I have all these lofty dreams to write all these wonderful short stories about India and become another Indian woman author. After all is it not the time when Indian women authors are flourishing? They write well and from the book covers, I can see they look cute too. The club I want to join, a wannabe. 

Yes, I can write about the India-Pakistan war, from my mother’s perspective or write my grandparents’ stories. They are dead, so I have to tell those stories to keep them alive, but no not in an hour. I have come back from work and my room is a mess. I grab a quick bite of leftovers from yesterday’s dinner and start writing about what else but the writing class.  

The class meets at the Jewish Community Center. Though it is just across from my home, I had never been there. What would a south Indian woman, a Hindu, do at the Jewish community center I had thought. After all I cannot even pass off as Jewish, assuming I wanted to. I had Jewish friends in graduate school but I felt more comfortable with my own kind. Then  

I spotted the item in the Berkeley Daily Planet, announcing a prose writing class at the JCC. The facilitator welcomed new people, fresh blood to pounce on as I later learnt. 

I had had two attempts at prose writing. I had tried to write about our electrician in India, when my mother suggested I better stick to poetry. Then I had tried writing letters to editors that none published. Here I was a scientist who considered herself a poet after having written only a few poems.  

Anyway I had felt I would not lose much, the class was free after all. Wednesdays were aerobics days for me but I could miss that once, check out the class it wouldn’t hurt. Besides I had my menstrual cycle that Wednesday so I couldn’t attend the aerobics class. 

There were two other women Jo and Jane in the class that night. George, the instructor was fiery, opinionated. Jo transported me to Arkansas where she and her husband were attending an auction on a palatial house, and for the price that in Berkeley I would barely get a decent condo. Then Jane, feisty and strong read about Madison, and the streets, the buildings and the grounds came so alive. Wisconsin Madison was the school that had offered me my first admission to graduate school. I had not gone there, but now I knew the city probably better than if I had spent five years freezing there in winter, all sitting listening to Jane, in the comfortable library surrounded by books. 

Everyone commented on what they liked and did not like. George began and others took up and I was all the time wondering, did I really fit, how would I write? Then I was told, write in first person present tense, an “Oh, phew” story about something that did not happen, what you narrowly missed. 

So here I was writing the first five pages, in my early 30s, not having written essays since high school. It was this story set in Delhi, about a time when in my teenage years a friend of mine had narrowly missed being raped by another friend’s father, and how I had escaped being the victim. The story I had not thought of for years, and now here it all came out, also Delhi, the traffic, the crowded buses, with men trying to grope the women, the colony where I lived, the summer heat with the loo (hot summer wind). I was transported there, could see the beautiful saris, Palika bazaar, with the shopkeepers haggling and the black smoke from Akbar hotel chimney.  

It was like love all over again being transported to different worlds, both mine and others. I could be in South Africa, in Soweto or on the March, hearing Walter Sisulu's voice. Then once we tore it apart and had Judy in tears, we moved on to Mexico in the ‘70s, journeying there with anthropologist Rose studying violent and non-violent families in Oxaca. Then onto a Parade of Civil War veterans and through Jo I actually felt I knew someone who took part in the Civil War (talk about six degrees of separation). 

Jonathan, the only male member of the group was there offering astute comments and keeping up his exchanges with George, who himself had the story of his conversations with his hairdresser who has reached menopause. This story drew some comments, not pleasant from the predominantly female crowd. Then after reading the therapist’s story about the narcissist who wanted to correct everyone but himself, and the introduction about the different personality types she was planning to write about, I wondered, in how many of them I would see myself.  

And so for two hours every Wednesday I am transported to different countries , different times, all along working on my writing, I can invent people, make their dreams or shatter them, go into their yearnings and desires, control their choices, and craft their lives a lot better than I can my own. And here I am the one in control with my pen, or computer keyboard and I can erase or correct without a trace with feedback from the group. 

How easy if in life I could just do a rough draft and a final draft like that. And yes I know North Oakland and acid days, and the Romanian immigrant families in Winnipeg Canada. I have been there shared all these experiences across time and space all along sitting in a comfortable chair around a large table with a bunch of feisty people from their 80s to their 30s, traveling with the years, traveling with the stories. And here I feel in control ... sort of.