The 10 writers sitting around the table in a conference room at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center make up a diverse crowd: Of the eight women and two men, a handful are Jewish, two are African American and their ages vary from early 30s to mid-60s.
All have come here for one purpose — to learn the art of telling stories.
“Narrative Nonfiction: Telling True Stories” is the center’s first foray into writing classes. The teacher is Peter Lovenheim, who has written numerous essays and a couple books of narrative nonfiction (including “A Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf” and, most recently, “In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time”).
Tonight, Oct. 2, is the last class, but that doesn’t mean Lovenheim is going to let them off the hook. It’s time for a writing exercise and he needs a volunteer to lament a great hunger, go to the vending machines for a snack and come back to eat it while the rest of the class watches and takes notes for their telling of this story.
“Are you willing to do that?” he asks Matt Gever, whose quick-witted, class clown charisma is a giveaway for why he was chosen.
“I would,” Matt says, winding up, “but I feel so faint from not having eaten in so long…”
“No, no, don’t start yet!” Lovenheim cuts him off. “But that’s a great start.”
The class was four weekly sessions of just this type of exercise, along with workshopping each person’s story. And although they hadn’t been together long, the class members had developed a comfortable rhythm that comes with swapping life stories.
Carrie Fitzgerald’s life right now happens to include a lot of first dates. So, the 53-year-old took her story about online dating after 50 along a humorous route, detailing an aggressively average first date with a man she met on OkCupid. A date she described as “fine,” but when he said, “I’ll call you,” she knew he wouldn’t. And she was right.
Her friends and coworkers love hearing her first date stories, she says. Tonight, she regales her classmates and Lovenheim with her most recent escapade — a 12-hour date that involved several hours of hiking. She hates hiking. But she’s a natural storyteller.
“Everyone I work with was always telling me to write about my dates,” she says, which became part of her impetus for taking the class.
Having feedback not only from Lovenheim, who gave everyone thorough edits on their first drafts, but also her classmates gave her more direction for her second draft, she says. “It’s been really helpful and I think everyone here listens very carefully.”
The class numbers off one through three. The ones will tell Matt’s vending machine journey chronologically. Number twos will start with Matt at the vending machine and weave in the rest of the story. The threes will start at the end and work their way to the beginning. And, with that sorted out, Matt is allowed to start.
He takes a new, but equally dramatic, tack: “So, we were sitting around talking about the big questions, like what was more important — food or sex? And, sitting in synagogue for hours [during Yom Kippur], we realized it’s really food.”
And with that, he’s out the door. After listening to everyone’s take on Matt’s snack expedition, the class comes to the conclusion that number two — starting at the vending machine — really works best because it was the main point of action and drama in the story.
The point, Lovenheim says, is that this is another set of options writers have when telling a story and deciding how best to tell it.
Diana Schapiro’s story, for instance, centers on the siddur she received in Hebrew school as a child. Though the 33-year-old’s connection to Judaism waned through her teens and 20s, she found that siddur shortly after her mother died a couple years ago. It survived three moves, she says.
“I was with it every day and saying the [mourning] prayer every day and seeing how it helped me grieve,” she says. It was a time of great personal loss that she felt a renewed connection to her faith.
This class offers her immediate feedback, she says, in a way that doesn’t always happen with writing. Schapiro is hoping to keep working on her story and eventually submit it to be published.
Telling — and writing — a good story is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. Almost everyone has one, but timing, narrative, voice and other elements of style are not always so easily mastered.
“I feel it’s a real privilege to work with people and help them tell their stories,” Lovenheim says. He loves watching a story come together.
Like with Tam Harbert, 58, who, unlike most of her other classmates, is already a published writer. But as a freelance journalist, narrative nonfiction is not a genre she has much experience with. As she’s gotten older, Harbert began looking for a new challenge — and a new way to tell stories.
“Probably the hardest thing for me was learning to take the reporting shackles off,” she says. Her classmates — and Lovenheim — told Harbert she needed more of herself in the story, the opposite of her journalistic training. “There was just enough feedback in class to really help me get a second draft. It was inspirational.”
Her story is as much her son’s as it is hers. This past February, at age 25, he woke up at home in New York paralyzed from the chest down. Her “adventurous, fearless” son — who, just a couple years before had been studying loggerhead turtles for five months in the jungle of Equatorial Guinea where there was no running water or electricity — had been incapacitated by something doctors could not diagnose. “Fear came to roost” in him, she says.
(He was diagnosed with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis, whose symptoms resemble those of multiple sclerosis, and, with a lot of rehabilitation, is recovering.)
Lovenheim reserved the last hour of class for evaluations and any and all final questions — where to publish, best practices in quoting someone, how to find or create writers groups.
And as the clock inched toward 9 p.m., the writers bemoaned the end of the class and started their goodbyes — because every good story must come to an end.