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Writing Austin's Lives: More than 800 residents tell their stories in Humanities Institute community project

My experience at a Life-Writing Workshop
for the Writing Austin’s Lives project

By Sofia Harber Bowden

I finally made it to a Life-Writing Workshop. I’d wanted to go to one since I found out about the Writing Austin’s Lives project from the Windsor Park branch library, where I volunteer a few hours a month, but other commitments kept interfering. Now, this was the last scheduled workshop. I got to Book Woman at 12th and Lamar on August 10th, a few minutes before 5:30. I was a little nervous, not only because I had not experienced a writing workshop before, but because Book Woman always makes me nervous. I feel the need to apologize to the clerk for being so plain and straight. Imagine a 31-year-old woman who drives a new Volvo and is dressed sloppily in sale items from Ann Taylor, and you’ve got a good picture. “Please, if you don’t mind, I’d like to browse your selection. Forgive me for stinking up your store with my conformity.”

Sofia Harber Bowden stands in front of bookshelves at Book Woman

Sofia Harber Bowden

I pondered this as I browsed the bookshelves and tried to hide myself until I figured out where exactly the workshop would be held. I wondered if the aging hippie or the proud lesbian knew that I admired them and was embarrassed to be so ordinary.

I noticed there was a guy from Fox 7 News there to film a little blurb about the program. I didn’t want to be filmed—I didn’t want anyone to see me there, vulnerable, trying to be creative. Who did I think I was hanging out in Book Woman? I definitely was not cool enough to be there, and besides, I had not put on any makeup and my hair was a mess. The workshop leader, Abe Louis Young, agreed to do a short interview but let the camera man know that workshop participants didn’t want to be filmed. He left without the interview or any footage.

I went to the workshop because I wanted to challenge myself in a way I hadn’t before. I’ve been trying to keep a journal for awhile, and I was ready to dig around and see if I could be more creative and honest in telling my own story. I had let the relentlessness of life squash my desire to find more in myself, but since I stopped practicing law I feel more alive. I want to rediscover the energy of the 18-year-old girl who arrived in Austin in September 1990 for her first semester of college with all of the possibilities of the world in front of her.

Abe had everyone around the circle introduce themselves and explain why they had come to the workshop. Most of us had lived in Austin for 10 years or more and the program had prompted all of us to try to record our little piece of Austin history. For our first exercise, Abe asked us to write for five minutes about the following prompt: “I want to tell you about a place…”

I wrote for the allotted time. When Abe asked for participants to read their work, I decided I would volunteer. I usually hide within myself when I try something new, so no one will know that I am no good when they are so skilled. This time, I decided, I would put myself out there, and feel what it felt to be open with people, doing something that made me feel vulnerable. That was why I was there. With a slightly shaking voice, and a volcano of nerves erupting inside me, I began by discrediting my work, telling everyone that I had written about a literal place unlike the eloquent writer before me. And then I read my exercise:

“I want to tell you about the place that I would go in college when I felt that my efforts to improve my life were not going well. When I felt that it was too hard to go to class, make good grades, try to make friends with people I didn’t understand, work a part-time job off campus, and live from paycheck to paycheck. When I wanted to quit college and join the Army full time, or go to a technical school that promised a decent paying job after just a few months of study.

Then I would climb up the slightly steeping walkway of the south lawn, panting under the weight of my too heavy backpack, and I would reach the end of my journey—the south mall, the base of the UT Tower. I would look up at the immenseness of the Tower and feel its power, its ability to change lives, within my own body. My self doubt would be pushed back until the next time. I could bask in the glory of the Tower and know that I would conquer myself and succeed.”

As I got the last words out, I felt my mouth quivering and tears behind my eyes. I believe it was the pain of vulnerability so intense within me that it was trying to escape in the form of tears, perhaps hysteria. I kept it inside and I may have masked it well, maybe not. When I finished reading, I heard the faintest whispers of appreciation, of an audience who understood what I was trying to say and appreciated that I had given part of myself to them. Then I was lauded with appreciative snapping, which Abe encouraged us to give to all volunteers who shared their writing.

When the workshop was over, I lingered to speak to Abe for a few minutes, eager to soak up any more information she could provide about life writing. I explained to her that in trying to write stories about my own life, my tendency is to be very chronological and just tell what happened next, without sensory details. One of the workshop participants, a lesbian who also happened to be an editor at the Austin Chronicle (so out of my league in terms of coolness), broke in to tell me that the story that I had shared was filled with emotion, and that I was well on my way to getting where I wanted to be. I overflowed with gratitude to her. Maybe I was not a lost cause, destined to tell my story in black and white. As I walked to my car, I was in love with Austin, with Book Woman and with myself.

Read John Salazar’s full story

Read Deb Kelt’s full story

Read Gina Schrader’s full story

Read Danny Camacho’s full story

Read Aletha Irby’s full story

Read Monica Beckford’s full story

Read Writing Austin’s Lives introduction

Photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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