A Saturday Afternoon with Rachel Weaver

By Andre Gianfrancesco

The afternoon began when I was riding my bike through the neighborhoods on the east side of Boulder. I had just left work and was heading to my first Lighthouse writing workshop, which was being held at the Unitarian Universalist Church just off of Foothills Parkway. I had been hoping to take a workshop during my internship at Lighthouse this spring, and even though this one was about memoir, which isn’t my genre, I still learned a thing or two.

I am a creative writing student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Workshops and writing classes are nothing new to me, but this was my first one outside of school. It was a refreshing change of scenery. I knew what to expect, more or less, but I was not prepared to learn as much as I did. I was also encouraged by my classmates. Most of them had tens of thousands of words already written for their novel or memoir, while I only had a pool of ideas swimming around my head.

When I arrived for Rachel Weaver’s Building a Strong Foundation class, I was mildly intimidated by the prospect of writing a novel or memoir. I didn’t think I had the work ethic or the patience for it. My writing leans toward poetry more than prose, and it seemed like an undertaking that I didn’t have the attention span for. My writing to this point was usually for school, and the longest thing I ever wrote was an analysis of postmodernism and organic agriculture (even the English department in Boulder is a bunch of hippies).

Rachel broke down the behemoth task of writing into three foundational questions:
1) What is the character actively trying to do?
2) What are the obstacles preventing the character from doing that?
3) What is at stake if the character fails?

When it comes down to it, writing a story is like a train, Rachel said. The locomotive is the answer to these foundation questions. The cars are the scenes, one follows after another, cause and effect. A neat trick discussed in the class was to write each scene on a notecard, line them up, and decide whether each notecard lead into the next. The cards can be shuffled, added, deleted, rearranged, repurposed, repositioned, etc. until a cohesive story is revealed.

That was when I had my “aha” moment. I usually write poetry, and I realized poetry works in a similar way. Sometimes all a poem needs to work is to shuffle the stanzas, mix-and-match a few images, and rearrange some words. So if writing a full-length novel worked the same way, what was so intimidating about it?

As someone who leans toward poetry, I would prefer to write pretty sentences than have a cast of characters chasing a MacGuffin. In my writing I’ve been told to stick with the pretty sentences because my stories lack plot, but I refuse to limit myself to one genre or one form. If I have a story to tell, then I am going to tell it. Thank you to Rachel and the rest of my classmates for making that seem like a plausible task.

I had the unique opportunity to sit and listen to writers who were much more experienced than I am. I still consider myself a student-of-writing more than an actual writer. While it was Rachel’s class, and it centered around her three foundation questions, hearing the questions that other students asked helped me understand what goes into composing an extended narrative. Especially what was after the initial writing and into revision.

Most of my writing peers are all around my same age. This can stagnate the creative process. Memoir is not a genre that gets discussed among my young end of millennials. Being with a class of mixed ages and backgrounds made me pay closer attention. People were discussing things that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Like, how do you find time to write when you are raising three kids? Fair questions. Not one I can say I’ve thought about as a 21-year-old.

I would say my first Lighthouse workshop was a success. When I left, I was thinking about locomotives pulling boxcars of improv troops, acting out scenes and then running up and down the train to act with other troops. That was how I imagined Rachel’s metaphor. I had a notebook full of potential, and a head full of story ideas. I was riding my bike home, toward the picturesque Flatirons, preparing the story that I wanted to tell. As of today I am 1,000 words and an outline-in-progress closer to my first novel.

Andre Gianfrancesco was Lighthouse's spring intern. Rachel Weaver's next class is How to Write Stronger Scenes at our Lighthouse North location.