A place to write.
Ten minutes is long enough to uproot your life, get caught in a storm, drink a cup of coffee, memorize a child's face, wash a sink full of dishes, recite wedding vows, fall in love with someone you shouldn't, eat a sandwich, remember a dream, call an old friend, sketch a figure model, read a chapter, listen to your favorite song, get on or off the train that will change the course of your life forever. Ten minutes is enough time to write something strange and beautiful and true without editing the strangeness and beauty and truth out of it. We all have ten minutes, many times a day, so it’s hard to come up with convincing excuses—even to our secret innermost selves—why we don’t. Ten minutes is everything we can't fit into a Facebook status, it’s slice of life, short-shorts, a Polaroid picture, a poem, a prayer.
What stories from your life can you write in ten minutes?
Origin Story by Valley Haggard
As much as I’ve always wanted to consider myself a free spirit who writes with wild abandon, the truth is I crave structure. Please, fence me in. Otherwise my writing blobs forth like an amoeba, jello, the inside of the body without any skin. Or, it fails to launch at all. I need a vessel to pour my words into. Ten minutes has turned into that vessel. It holds the beginning of something big or the entirety of something small. It’s a poem or a letter, the jumble of thoughts clogging up the brain like leaves and sticks and twigs in a gutter. Ideas lurking in the back of the mind or buried in the heart. The overwhelm of ideas and shoulds and to-do lists that could stop me before I even get started. But I do, because ten minutes gives them a place to sit while I move on, discovering what lurks beyond and beneath.
In 2010 I started a creative nonfiction class for adult writers at a rare and used bookstore in the heart of the city, where my writing group had met for years. I didn’t think that I was really allowed to do this or that I was in any way truly qualified. In fact, even with a liberal arts degree in creative writing, a lifelong habit of writing, and years of journalism experience, I felt like a fraud. Real teachers had their shit together, published books and multiple degrees. Not me. I couldn’t even write a sentence without editing the death out of it, which made all of my deadline writing loads of fun. But I was desperate for independent work after having been laid off from my desk job at the local alternative weekly during the journalism collapse of ‘08. I had been teaching kids for a few years already- they were my comfort zone. I could be silly and imperfect and weird with them. With kids I had nothing to prove. To my surprise my first adult class filled quickly and on the drive home on the first night after class I felt like I had won the lottery and fallen in love all at the same time. It felt that good.
The structure was simple. We read an essay that I selected, I gave an open-ended prompt and then we wrote by hand for ten minutes using a timer, non-stop, without editing. Afterwards we read our work out loud. Instead of a critique group designed to rip each other’s work apart like vultures around a fresh carcass there was no cross-talk, advice giving or criticism. I gave immediate and gentle feedback, finding it easy to focus on something beautiful or hopeful or heartbreaking or brave or hilarious or original about every piece of writing, no matter what. A social worker friend of mine termed this strength-based feedback. And it works. When we focus on and cull out what is working in our writing it has a chance to rise to the surface and take its first gulps of life giving air.
My class combined all of the elements of the literary life that I craved most. Writing in the company of others, without having to go it alone. Practicing non-judgment while getting all the way through a barely conscious thought without rejecting it outright as boring or dumb. Focusing on the process rather than the product. Reading my vulnerable, outrageous or humiliating thoughts and stories to a group of people who didn’t then run out of the room or burst into flame.
Since my first class five years ago, I have taught creative nonfiction continuously, moving from one class per week to four or five, including mini-marathons, weekend retreats and one-on-one sessions. I moved from one bookstore to another in 2014, when Richmond Young Writer’s created the Writing Room in Carytown attached to Chop Suey Books. My students have been lawyers, waitresses, chemists, novelists, directors, PhD candidates, professors, actors, grade school teachers, models, dancers, artists, photographers, bankers, quilters, knitters, yoga teachers, priests, preachers, bartenders, therapists, house cleaners, social workers, archivists, parking lot owners, college students, introverts, extroverts, stay at homes, stay at home dads, the very young, the very old, my own mother and writers for whom English is not their first language. I have written with many people who write for a living but felt stuck writing for themselves. In the same class I have written with an award winning novelist and a landscaper who had never written an unrequired word in her life. But it didn’t matter and it never does, because every time we sit down to write, we’re on the same blank page together.
We laugh when we read. We cry when we read. We turn bright red and get chill bumps. We get our material out, assembling the raw ingredients of our memories, experiences and dreams, deciding what genre it belongs to only later. Poems, short stories, screenplays, dreams, opening chapters of novels, eulogies, letters to the editor or our children or the dead emerge. I have now stockpiled close to thirty journals full of ten minute pieces, trying all the while to figure out what it should become. A memoir? A novel? Kindling for our fire pit? And then I had a tremendous DUH/AH-HA moment. These short, dense, sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful and always surprising 10 minute pieces are a genre all their own.
And Life in 10 Minutes was born.