National Writing Project

Running the Baltimore Writing Marathon

By: NWP Staff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 1
Date: January-February 2002

Summary: An intrepid band of writers hit the streets of Baltimore the day after the NWP Annual Meeting. This special online collection contains the thoughtful and impressionistic pieces written that day.


The following article features pieces from the writing marathon that were not in the printed version of The Voice (see below). Enjoy!

Richard Louth, director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, is the writing project's writing marathon point man. Each year, he leads a writing marathon with teacher-consultants in his New Orleans–area writing project. (See Louth's upcoming article in The Quarterly, winter 2002.) Because there's nothing particularly complicated about a writing marathon, he's found success with them in many places. Basically, Louth takes a group of teachers into an urban area, where they put the environment to work for them as a source for writing.


This year, he hosted a writing marathon on Saturday, November 17, the day following the NWP Annual Meeting, taking an intrepid band of writers into the streets of Baltimore. There, he introduced them to their task with a little piece of his own writing, which he offered "as a `prompt' for anyone who wanted one."

"I was there..."

This is how it all must begin. Then all you need to do is answer two questions. "Who WAS I?" and "What was THERE?" And if you can do that and still have time, answer two more. "Who AM I?" and "Where am I NOW?" And then you're done. You can close the book and drop the pen and get on with your life. But you usually never finish answering the first questions, so how can you ever get to the second?

The following pieces, generated by the Baltimore Writing Marathon, are offered for our enjoyment. (Note: The following pieces should be considered rough drafts, fresh from the pens of the Baltimore Writing Marathon runners, and have been faithfully reproduced as such.)

Harborside in Baltimore
Kim Stafford, Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College

November 2001

In America at war, it comes to me I was raised in another country.

In America, the country I grew into as a kind of immigrant, I'm sitting at a table with friends attending the annual meeting of the National Writing Project, and as I look around I feel disoriented by the ordinary militarism of my native land: a destroyer is moored below the brew pub; marines wave white-gloved hands at children; cannons protrude from the historic USS Constellation; in the parade happening along the waterfront, stars and stripes drape over the withers of marching horses; a fifty-foot flag hangs inside the World Trade Center of Baltimore; red, white, and blue letters decorate the commercial truck that has joined the parade to advertise oil; and in the parade, teetering among his elders, the smallest boy is being trained to march with his drum.

I was another kind of boy—my pacifist mother and father teaching a gospel of no border, no patriot country, no gun, no soldier—only suffering, witness, and the courage to not fight. We knew we were surrounded and in danger always, that soldiers would claim to protect us, saying "my gun is for your good." But "justice will take us millions of intricate moves," my father said. And my mother told the PTA, "I am for reconciliation in all things."

On the destroyer below me, the coxswain's pipe chirps part of a code that thickens the air around me. My country lacks half an imagination, knowing—with billions of dollars in toys for killing—what to do after Pearl Harbor, but not a clue what to do before.

My childhood was all about before.

Small Sparrow Friend
Pen Campbell, Teacher-Consultant, Third Coast Writing Project, Michigan

Small sparrow friend,
with whom I share my pretzel,
from such a tiny pinch
of bread
you make a feast
of bites.

Of Christmas Past
Pat Wachholz, Director, Florida Gulf Coast Writing Project

I hadn't seen a Christmas parade in years until November 17 in Baltimore. When I was young, my family went to Detroit every Thanksgiving to the Hudson's parade, the official beginning of the Christmas season. My mother put the turkey in a slow roaster before we left, and we traveled the 60 miles from the farm to the city with my dad's two brothers, wives, and kids. One year, my dad's youngest brother was in the parade—not by invitation. He just decided to join it. We were standing at the curb outside a seedy bar, close to the start of the parade route, where there was a bit of congestion and confusion. Suddenly, Uncle Don pulled a trumpet out from under his jacket, stepped in front of a slow float and began to play the Gillette Blue Blade song—and away he went. Hours later he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner, nonchalant about what he'd done. I always admired him for that. He was an artist—he belonged in that parade. It didn't occur to him to think otherwise.

The Wants
Deborah Begel, Rural Voices Radio Producer
(written at Barnes and Noble bookstore)

My friend Susan told me this when I moved to NY: "NY gives you a case of the wants."

Yup, she was right. All those store windows and all that walking put me into a heightened state of shopping alert.

Today, I'm drinking a coffee with Melanie and Joan at B&N in Baltimore.

Ouch: another case of the wants strikes a chord in the heart of my shopping genes.

2002 calendars call me to go look—what 12 images will lead Ernesto and me through days that begin in our kitchen?

My eyes comb photos of nature—waterfalls tumble down the mountain, rainbows rise up into the sky, mountain snow turns pink in winter sunsets, streams flow flush with spring runoff, flowers dance when the wind calls.

Straight ahead—books on sale. Over there, Harry Potter calls to me—"Deborah, over here, time to read #2 in the series" . . . organizers luring me too, "Get thy papers filed and scanned and put away in the dark screened computer, now sleeping."

Okay, I give up. I'm venturing out to browse.

Two Pieces from the Baltimore Writing Marathon
Lynn Chrenka, Co-director, Crossroads Writing Project, Michigan

A Cup of Imagination
Richard said, "Be a writer. Tell people you are a writer and act the role." I decided to start with a cup of imagination, a Starbucks concoction called "Writer's Chai." Essentially an herbal tea enhanced by milk and honey, its syrupy sweetness seemed appropriate for jumpstarting the mind. Although I don't like sweets all that much (except for chocolate), there's something about the warmth and the faint flavor of cinnamon that, while its powers do not compare to Hemingway's rum, promises to fire up the pen. Perhaps, it's the adventure of trying something new, something different in a different place, although I'll admit that one Barnes and Noble seems pretty much like another. This building is, however, unique—an old electric plant in a former incarnation, someone said. I wonder if anyone back then had imagined its imposing smoke stacks might become niches for books. Probably not. Someone who tended the plant back then, seeing it now, might be heard to say, "I was there—there when great billows of black, coal-fired smoke belched from those stacks and floated out over the Chesapeake, not mere words stoked only by a cup of imagination."

Closed Until Further Notice
The Baltimore version of the World Trade Center stands on the inner harbor only 30 stories high. I'm sure there are taller buildings in the city. But, it IS still standing. Nevertheless, the sign says, "Closed until further notice," and I can understand why. Wednesday I spent the day in Washington, D.C., where, except for essential business, the city and most of its attractions are "closed until further notice." I sat in the Senate Gallery to hear John McCain and Robert Byrd address a nearly empty chamber. The National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was deserted. Only joggers, lunchtime walkers (I.D. tags dangling from their necks), and fat squirrels scavenging for scarce morsels broke the vast expanse. Eerie.

The Lincoln Memorial was "open until further notice," and I was able to stand before his imposing likeness and think with some reverence about an end to conflict. I was there—between the Korean Veterans Memorial and the long low black wall remembering those lost in Vietnam. When we don't learn from our history, we ARE doomed to repeat it, it seems. War, it seems, is only rarely "closed until further notice."

Outside the window now a corps of men carrying American flags leads the local Thanksgiving Day parade. The city is evidently "open until further notice" as long as people are insistent, willing to carry on in spite of conflict and adversity brought home. I can't help thinking about another World Trade Center reduced to rubble and dust—there where the ashes of 4,000 people mingle with those of their murderers. Closed until further notice.


More from the Baltimore Writing Marathon

For Motito
(who will throw us out if he decides to, and who gives us the gift of his name)
Pen Campbell, Teacher-Consultant, Third Coast Writing Project, Michigan

I admire the way you seize us,
entering your place,
and remind us there is protocol—
things that must be done and said
before we claim a place at the table.
We forget this often,
assuming all falls to us within our grasp
just because we are.
But often we are not
all that we see ourselves to be
or want
in the dark night
to see ourselves to be.
And when we presume,
as when we demure,
we should thank the guiding hand
that gently holds us still
and the voice that tells us
and see yourself.

Until Further Notice
Pat Wachholz, Director, Florida Gulf Coast Writing Project

The sign on the World Trade Center of Baltimore says, "Closed until Further Notice." Life changed on September 11th. Our complacency, our sense of safety within these borders, shattered. America lost her virginity, and at a time when words should have been our salvation, they failed us all.

Liquid Earth
Elaine White, Director, Live Oak Writing Project, Mississippi

We've slipped between worlds. Glazed brick walls encase the narrow room. The wooden plank floor rises and falls as it delineates room divisions that have been removed to accommodate the wooden bar. Through the mismatched European style windows, I can see a cement courtyard complete with wrought iron railings and furniture sprinkled with a generous helping of autumn leaves. In-your-face paintings and voluptuous plants crowd the walls and corners and vibrate softly to the eclectic music that massages our senses and moves us back and forth between oldies and new age pieces. A woman's resin torso sprouts leaves that spill over the box crammed with a week's collection of newspapers.

The clientele is as varied as the décor. Two men sit at a sagging table. They skim the Wall Street Journal as they sip coffee and wrap themselves in business. A young couple—are they even twenty?—study the pastry cabinet weighing their choices carefully. Another young man wearing some sort of dot-com T-shirt shakes his long, cork-screwing pony tail as he sits atop the zebra-covered bar stool and carries on an animated conversation with another T-shirted, baseball-capped youth.

This is an excellent way to spend a Saturday morning. The ambiance of Liquid Earth delights me as I sip coffee, enjoy the delicate pink of the begonia outside the window, and enjoy the gift of writing. This place is the stuff of poetry and stories. I want to sit here the rest of the day observing, recording, imagining. I must tell Richard, "Thank you!"

Untitled Poem
Tom Meyer, Co-Director, Hudson Valley Writing Project, New York

I bought gloves
for stalling the cold of
November bike rides.

I found gloves
for little January hands'
afternoon sledding on icy hills
set in blue sky relief.

Now hypoallergenic gloves
sit like Kleenex
in a box next to Fall's apples

Beneath Norman Rockwell's mailman
Gloved hands reach for licked envelopes
while the Wells Fargo wagon is
a'comin' down the street
in Anthrax-powdered nightmares.

Please let me be.

The Lateral Swim
Deborah Begel, Rural Voices Radio Producer

Painted fish up ahead
Coast Guard ship on my left
Mohammed Atta on my mind
Juxtaposition of art and spirit
under the steel blue wing of military prowess.

Inside me, a new fear,
a new time, stripped of innocence and trust.

I look up.
The fish are swimming in a sea of glass,
running away from the Coast Guard,
but they'll never get away, they'll only imagine
freedom in blue waters.
I jump up to photograph them swimming through the glass,
clamoring for freedom under the steel blue wing
of military prowess.

Atta is dead but evil lives . . .
Now I see a shadow in my heart.
Fog drops its gray curtain over Baltimore,
a dark cloud hovers over New Mexico,
storms clash in Afghanistan,
the world so small
that every torch of lightening or cluster bomb explodes in my view.
I am witness:
the bell tolls for the fish Ted Turner kills with Fintrol,
the bell tolls for the ponies that came from Spain to New Mexico
500 years ago, only to be shot by the Forest Service this year.
the bell tolls and the winds chime for the innocent people
who lost their lives—and limbs—this year.

The painted fish swim forward, forward.
The painted ponies stand and think.
They tell the colors and stories
of artists living in today's world . . .
brighter yesterday somehow,
but beacons too for tomorrow,
for our human journey forward.

Untitled Piece
Melanie Plesh, Co-Director, Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project

Friday. I like the architecture in Baltimore. It isn't obtrusive. Some of it is modern—glass and steel and canvas—but much of it is red brick and black painted surfaces (coal burning was once prevalent here). An attempt made to fit with the darkness of the water and yet the gloss of the sun. Time to walk again.

Saturday. Writing next to about sixty six-foot fish sculptures on the wharf in Baltimore. My favorite is "Sea Change," which is a fish on a concrete and pipe stand, its flesh embedded with broken tiles and glass and old keys. Its fin is Mardi Gras beads. And it has a dragonfly for a nose. I think the artist did Shakespeare proud. The sky is so blue here today. A few wisps of clouds. Writing with Joanie from Charleston and Debra from some little town in New Mexico, who lives, I think, in an adobe house in the desert. We're also sitting next to a Coast Guard cutter called The Taney. That thick white paint on the hull. That crows nest. I'd love to go on a ship like that, into the Atlantic, winter, and stand up there in the crow's next. Even better would be to be in the North Sea like that. The Mord Sea, the Germans call it. Thinking about Helgoland . . . wouldn't it be great to take a trip to see all the great rivers of the world?

In Barnes & Noble. Eating a ham and Swiss croissant. Drinking coffee. The building has four huge smoke stacks painted bronze, studded with heavy-duty brads, lined with bricks on the inside and open on two sides to walk through. The escalator's workings are exposed. I love the insides of machines. The escalator looks so simple on the outside, and so it probably is, and then the inside with the belts on wheels, rolling, and that there are twice as many steps as you see at one time. Of course, that's as it must be, but you never think about the hidden steps, the inside steps. And what more complex machine than the human body? With its hidden cogs and parts and belts and wheels. And so forth. And so forth? Oh well, can't be on and clever all the time.

Pratt Street, at the Christmas parade. Bands, little children, Miss Maryland, etc. There's a beautiful green building across the street, beautiful. A skateboarder with suspenders on, not over his shoulders but between his legs. An older guy he is, maybe late twenties, orange spiked hair, earphones. I wonder what he's listening to. He's rapt, that's for sure. He's a writer, too. Has a notebook like mine. Dollar signs (red) on his little black anklets. The tattoo on his leg looks homemade.

The Red Cross volunteers in the parade make me cry. Sorrow for the hopeless? Joy that someone cares? Sometimes joy feels like sorrow, like cold sometimes feels like heat. Like love feels like pain.

Untitled Piece
Richard Louth, Director, Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project
(Written at Barnes and Noble during the marathon)

I hear someone at the other table say, "This 'I was there' prompt is interesting." And then Jim, with his Rhode Island accent, replies, but I only hear words and gaps. "You get rooted," he says. And someone else says, "I'm the most Southern; I'm actually from the Midwest."

And meanwhile, I'm trying to tell the story of "I was there," and now it occurs to me that last night, walking back from the blues bar with Kim Stafford (I WAS THERE), I told him how I have no sense of place myself. I live in the South. I was raised in Rhode Island. I have no real home. No piece of land I really relate to. I am rootless. Perhaps shiftless too.

The night before that, we went to a different blues bar. Actually, we did not GO there. We wandered and found ourselves there. And it was perfect. As perfect as perfect can be. Great blues. Empty seats. No line at the bar. Good companions. All totally absorbed in the music. The big black man with the Gap sweatshirt and hat askew on his head taking over the stage, singing the blues. And I felt, sitting on a stool behind my group, that this was a little piece of heaven. I wanted to tell this to someone. Then I realized I didn't have to. That if I did, it would only be because I'm so much in need of labeling moments and owning them, and this is bad. But my life, shiftless and rootless as it is in ways, has been a necklace of pearls. And each pearl has been a moment like this. And it's been a gift. Probably undeserved. I feel guilty for the good times sometimes. You're sitting here in a moment that is round and shiny and could not be any better in any way and you know it has to end and that if you don't let it end it will just unravel and lose its beauty so you just learn to sit back and let it happen, let it take its shape and accrete its own sounds and sights and lusters.

The blonde photographer. The Janis Joplin type on stage who says, "You gotta look at the bartender's butt. It's worth two dollars." And I think she's probably right—he's a good looking guy with curly black hair and an earring and he reminds me of an old friend, Dave, 20 years ago. Our mantra for life in grad school was, "I was there." I tip the bartender well. But I don't look at his butt. So the "little moments of heaven"—Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire calls it "a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands." And then she says, "Sometimes—there's God—so quickly!" Whatever anyone else thinks about her, these words made her an angel for me. Like Hemingway talking about "Writing one true sentence" in A Moveable Feast, there are some moments that can only be lived OR captured in language, but there are some also that can be lived AND captured in language. And that's always been my quest and my doom. I want to live em and write em. Not even books anymore. Just a sentence or a phrase will do for me if I can just do it without cliché for someone else as Blanche Dubois and Hemingway have for me.

Untitled Piece
George Dorrill, Teacher-Consultant, Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project

It's 10:35 now, and we're in the Liquid Earth Café on Aliceanna Street. It's a nice place. We're going to write for thirty minutes, so I'm finally going to be able to finish writing about that smell. To me the smell smells like incense, but I think it's Elaine's perfume. I smelled it in the room where we started too. Smelling it reminds me of meditation. The music here is meditative. I don't know who it is—sounds a bit like Alanis Morissette. I'm going to write about women for a while. One of the major things I like about the writing project is that there are so many women in it. When we did the New Orleans writing marathon, I was in a group of all women except me. Today I am in another such group. I like that very much. One of the reasons I went to yoga this morning was that I knew there would be women there. I wrote two poems yesterday. One of them was a poem about obsession modeled on a Naomi Shahib Nye (?) poem about kindness. The other was a haiku that went something like this:

A thirty-chair room.
I find myself seated with
twenty-nine women.

I am more comfortable being around women than I am around most men. I don't have any interest in sports or hunting, so that limits the conversation. I am sharing my hotel room with a man I have never met before this conference, and I know I snore at night very badly (at another conference, another teacher that I was rooming with moved out after spending a night with my snoring). Last night, I tried to stay up so Tom would go to sleep before me and wouldn't be bothered by my snoring. I don't know if I succeeded or not. Tom has been very polite about it. At first, he denied knowing that I snored but later made a little joke about my sawing logs. I'm thinking about writing about the painting that is above Beth's head, but I don't think I will. Instead, I'll write about the Edith Piaf song that is playing now. I love the way she rolls her r's; I wish I could do that. That is one of the things I have always wanted to do but have never been able to do. I can't understand anything she's saying but amour. I guess all her songs are about amour. I feel myself getting into a kind of writing rhythm. It's like that bar we went to in New Orleans—that Irish bar. I was riffing a little bit in that bar too. I love so much writing with my newfound pen. I am so happy I found it. Thank you Lord for letting me find it.

We have been reading St. Augustine's Confessions in Jim Walter's class. I love the way Augustine goes directly from narrative to prayer. A lot of my writing goes from narrative to prayer. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratefulness is the heart of prayer, and right now, I'm feeling very grateful. I am grateful that I am in this fruit juice bar in Baltimore with these very lovely ladies; grateful that my pen is writing so well; grateful that I am drinking coffee; grateful that there was an unexpected breakfast this morning—I loaded up on all kinds of delicious fruit; grateful that I got my shitty first draft of the festschrift article completed and turned in; grateful that Richard invited me to this conference and is paying for it; grateful for the sun that is shining; grateful that I am alive and have a wife who loves me; grateful that people have praised my writing—yesterday they said my "obsession" poem was good and I was secretly pleased, even though I was not all that happy with it; grateful for that session, the California ladies' session; grateful for all the sessions; grateful that we ended up here and not at the Blue Moon Café—if we had stayed there, I would have ended up probably ordering scrambled eggs, grits, and sausage, foods that I love but should not be eating. The ladies at the other table are talking. Have we finished writing? Beth says she thinks so—it's eleven.

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