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The Clothesline School of Writing

by Gormack on September 15th, 2016
Molly Daniels-Ramunujan

Molly Daniels-Ramanujan

The old Studebaker Building was down and across from the Art Institute of Chicago on South Michigan. It was built for the manufacture of carriages by the Studebaker Brothers of South Bend, Indiana in 1884.

Now it was “The Fine Arts Building” though still served by its now ancient, elevators with a human operator in each: proficient with the metal cage gates and expert at lining up with the floors of the building using the antique lever mechanisms.

The Clothesline School of Writing was on the sixth floor: a single large classroom with folding chairs and banquet style tables arranged at right angles to make a large box. Molly sat in the King Arthur position.

On the east side of the room, paint spattered, cloudy windows overlooked Michigan Avenue with its steady stream of traffic at all hours of the day. The sounds of cars and trucks on the streets were overlaid with noises contributed by the old building itself: random clanking’s, creaking’s, banging’s, and groaning’s.

The classes varied: we discussed reading assignments; we brainstormed; we journaled; we recited. Then at last, we wrote. “Don’t stop to think; don’t compose; don’t pick up the pen until I say ‘stop!’”

Then we headed home to fix it up, and turn it in next week before class. I would lay mine on the pile and then slink down in my chair as she scanned them, hoping against hope that I had not yet again offended the angry gods of fiction – it could be brutal!

Often we had to stand up and “tell” our story. That way, she explained, you couldn’t disguise with pretty words the fact that there was no story.

Other times she would take someone’s draft, cross out two, three, even four paragraphs, hand it back to the writer and say “start here”. We were always “setting the stage,” she said, “you vastly underestimate your reader!”

One night she thrust a redacted story into the hands of its author, pointing to a page saying “read this.” When the student finished she went around the room asking each of us in turn what we heard. We got it all, all of us. Molly said the removed paragraph “explained the punchline.”

She looked at the writer: “Don’t do that!” Then she became quiet, laid her hands on the table, and looked up at the slowly spinning ceiling fan. When she finally spoke she said “Do you know the tuition barely covers the rent here?” She smiled at that; a rare thing, that smile.

She was serious again. “Write densely,” she said. “Make every word count. Don’t tell your reader what he can figure out for himself! Don’t tell your reader what you have already told him!”

“Think about this: a story does not take place on the page! A story takes place in the mind of a reader. Do you understand? A story is a collaboration between a writer and a reader. If you fail to engage your reader in that partnership, he will stop being your reader!”

The room was quiet. She respected that silence, giving us a few extra minutes before we put pen to paper that night. The work from that session was very good, even Molly said so.

Molly A. Daniels-Ramanujan a.k.a. Shouri Daniels was a highly acclaimed author, educator, and critic.

She taught Creative Writing and Poetry at the University of Chicago and at her own school, The Clothesline School of Writing.

No student could be untouched by Molly’s profound understanding of and love for the written word. She demanded the best of us. She took us to places we didn’t know we could go.

Molly A. Daniels-Ramanujan passed away on November 26, 2015 at her home in Ithaca, New York.

Thank you, Molly, from all of us!

From → Life Styles

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