Writing Life Stories Session II

Writing Life Stories
Session II

On the grounds of the old Western State Hospital. Photo by Lenee Cobb
On the grounds of the old Western State Hospital. Photo by Lenee Cobb

May 12, 2015 class–This past week we warmed up on colorful writing techniques such as writing in the active voice and using verbs that pop in order to help us stay away from those pesky adverbs. We also covered ways that we can write our life stories that allow us to take the reader with us on our journey to our conclusions instead of writing as if we were preaching to them or simply telling them the facts about an experience.
In writer-lingo, that’s showing and not telling our stories.
I used an example taken from one of my stories, An excerpt from


We crept along the thick cement walls in the waning afternoon light, peeking into the shadowed basement through rusted bars of glassless windows. Every chair inside lay as it doed, overturned. Old, dark wooded office desks and rusted black file cabinets stood like desecrated corpses; their files and papers hanging out of open-wounded drawers like drawn and quartered entrails. Was it my imagination or could I really feel the terrified, futile screams of the merely unwanted, mentally handicapped, and demonically possessed—electroshocked, drugged, and lobotomized? All these souls were still here, wailing and imprisoned, snaking out through the rusted bars in the low-lying mist, grabbing, as a drowning victim will grab, clinging to their rescuer in a frantic effort to free themselves by pulling you down below them; wanting to wrench you down so they could climb up and out in a mad frenzied dash to escape this prison.

Where the old barbed wire fence once was. Photographer: Lenee Cobb
Where the old barbed wire fence once was. Photographer: Lenee Cobb

This was Western State Hospital as I first saw it, back in 1968. At that time, the last of the hospital’s mentally ill residents were relocated to the new hospital across the street. Even so, sometimes we’d see patients wandering off grounds, shambling back to the acreage they were more familiar with, to do the chores they were habituated to perform in the orchards, old barns, and slaughter houses. For Western State Hospital was renowned for its self-sufficiency, and who better to do the gardening, herding, and slaughtering than the insane?

Neck shivers.

We’d just moved to Washington State onto Filbert Street in Lakewood, at the southern end of Tacoma. My parents, ever the explorers, and the new parish priest, a tall Irishman, took us kids on a walk. You see, our new neighbors told my folks about a grove of Filbert trees that were ripe for the picking just on the other side old the barbed wire fence at the end of our street. They said that fence bordered the old hospital grounds but that now, the grounds surrounding the old hospital should be empty. There was a hole in the fence at the end of our block so we didn’t exactly sneak in but . . .


I’m not claiming that was a great example or anything, but I do hope I showed the reader and did not tell the reader about the character of that place.

The assignment for next week is to write at least 300 words about a character in your life. Try to make that character 3-deminsional through colorful writing.

Memory Triggers for this week

Actually, I (and I don’t think I was the only one, but I’ll take the heat since I’m the instructor,) was so into reading everyone’s assignments from the previous week that I plum forgot to ask for memory triggers. What do Elvis, Llamas, horse races and AVON Ladies have in common? My Writing Life Stories class at Shipley Center.

Here are some class-inspired memory triggers I’ll leave everyone from this last week.

• Blue suede shoes
• Pink foam hair curlers
• Dick Francis
• Shoemaker
• Elves
• Meeting famous people
• The baby ape from Planet of the Apes
• Pink Cadillac
• Spit
• Horse trailers
• Winnings
Have a great week!
Coach Cobb


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