Every now and then, I get asked to run a writers’ group in whatever community I’m currently working in.
This is one of the most intimidating challenges for a stranger in town, because each group is its own unique beast. Some people go to these things because they’re working on their magnum opus and are seeking feedback; others want exercises to stimulate their creativity; still others want to write in silent company; and some will be simply be there for the social contact.
On a couple of occasions, I’ve found myself leading a three-hour group with participants ranging in age from 14 to 65, and trying to solve this riddle:
What do you do with the buggers for that long?
Well, just like when running immersive storytelling events for kids and teens, I start off by stealing an idea.
It’s like Newton standing on the shoulders of giants – I dig out something like Daniel Nester’s lovely writers’ course idea ‘The Worst Song I Ever Loved.’
Nester is a talented essayist and poet who teaches at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. He generously shares his course material with the world on a teaching blog.
One of his assignments challenges students to define and describe ‘The Worst Song I Ever Loved’, whether that be a guilty pleasure, a song you only listen to away from your peer group, or the work of a widely derided figure like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus. “It could be,” Nester writes, “a song that, although horrible to your ears, brings back a poignant or meaningful memory in your life.”
Nester’s students are assessed through a 1000-word essay, presentations, and research including scholarly, peer-reviewed sources.
Working with a mixed-age group of casual writers in Parkes last month, I couldn’t expect them to be delivering me footnotes and thousand-word essays. I had a three hour session to fill, but I loved Nester’s idea for the way it moved us away from bookishness and into a rather intimate space of language, personal taste, and pop culture.
I gave ‘The Worst Song I Ever Loved’ a respectful tweak, and built in some of that multimedia goodness which I learned in my kindergarten teaching years: making people move, and listen, and use more than just their eyes and writing hands during my workshops.
This is ‘The Worst Song I Ever Loved’, Parkes-style:
We opened the evening with a game of Fictionary, where players have to bluff one another with false definitions of an obscure word.
This was to warm up the group, getting people relaxed in each other’s company, thinking, and writing. It also cued up the idea, crucial to Nester’s assignment, that meaning lies in the eye of the beholder.
At the end of the activity, I gave the writers a mystery word whose meaning would later become clear…’TWSIEL’, pronounced ‘Tweezil’.
I split the group up into three and gave each team a mystery challenge. They were each sent to a different corner of the library to listen to a song, and then report back on what they heard, and their responses to it.
The songs were:
Bob Dylan, ‘Masters of War’
Streisand/Gibb, ‘Woman In Love’
Fall Out Boy, ‘Dance, Dance’
The three teams had a few minutes to discuss their song before they returned to share their discoveries with their fellow writers. People shared their likes and dislikes; sought hidden meanings in the songs; tried to find a connection between the three tracks I’d chosen.
I sent them back to listen and discuss again – but this time each group was armed with a text as well.
The Dylan team had Greil Marcus’ ‘Stories of a Bad Song’, one of Daniel Nester’s own recommendations. This article captures how one of the less successful Dylan tracks was revived as an anthem for rebellion during the Gulf and Iraq Wars, based on its vocalisation of the ultimate threat, wishing death on “the masters of war”.
The Streisand/Gibb listeners had this excellent blog post from Bob Gilbert. I loved it for its dissection of the lyrics, including the comment: ‘ “Life is a moment in space – when the dream has gone, it’s a lonelier place” has been described as “metaphysical cheese” […]but for me it’s one of the most desolate opening lines to any pop song.’
It’s one of those pieces of writing which immediately makes you reevaluate the song you’ve just heard, realising that the schmaltz of Barry and Barb is as bleak as a Malcolm Middleton number.
Finally, the team who’d heard Fall Out Boy were given an article from Australia’s The Punch, somewhat lighter and more magazine-y in tone, which focussed on a crush on the band’s lead singer.
When the teams came back together and were invited to share what they’d read, this time they saw the connection – and figured out our topic, bad songs we come to love. I explained that mystery word TWSIEL as Daniel Nester’s acronym, “The Worst Song I Ever Loved.”
It was time for a snack break. The writers chilled, chatted, gossiped, and nibbled cheese and biscuits for a quarter hour while the sounds of Dylan, Streisand, and Fall Out Boy percolated through their brains.
When we came back together, we began to explore the question: What was the worst song you ever loved?
We brainstormed as many song titles as possible to get a feel for the sort of songs we might discuss…then narrowed in on a particular song, and began to consider some of Nester’s own questions:
- Why did I/do I love this song?
- When, where, why, and how, did you realize you fell in love with this song?What did you do back when you loved this song? Activities? Friends you hung out with? What kinds of clothes was I wearing when I heard this song? What group of friends did I have? Did I dance to this song?
- Did you know the song was terrible then, or did someone take you aside and convince or remind you of it being terrible. Or did you not realize until years later?
- Do you still love this song, even though it is now considered horrible/not hip/differs from your current tastes?
- When and how did I realize or teach myself that this was the worst song I ever loved?
I then gave the writers time to either create a short piece of writing, or present notes outlining such a piece.
I was pleased that many did write, and those who didn’t still made a contribution to the wider discussion of bad songs and the marks they make on our lives. The response was warm; the social aspect to the challenges they’d been set had enthused them – much as a hands-on activity enthuses kids and teens in immersive literacy activities. Yet at the same time, the event provided value for those who were working on their own pieces of writing: for example, a retired journalist writing a memoir about a disastrous country funeral started thinking about what music would have been playing at the wake he attended.
You wouldn’t run an activity like TWSIEL in your group every week, but it has a use in stimulating discussion and refocussing writers on the world that they are trying to snare in words. There’s an element of mystery, and a focus on language, and most importantly of all, it’s damn good fun.
So…what would you do in YOUR local writers’ group? And…what’s the worst song that you ever loved?
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