Inspiration at the Autry: WriteGirl Fiction Workshop

By Wesley Middleton, WriteGirl Volunteer

On December 2nd, a blue-skied and bracingly chilly Sunday, WriteGirl mentors and mentees traveled from all over LA to participate in the 2018 Fiction Writing Workshop at the Autry Museum of the American West.

Mentors and mentees gathered in the Wells Fargo Theater, where – assisted by two undeniably adorable, life-sized faux reindeer – Workshop Coordinator Kirsten Giles led them on a fiction writing adventure, complete with an imagination-sparking, pen-stirring museum tour; five amazing guest writers; writing prompts galore; and some fun, fearless sharing.

Each mentor/mentee pair joined one of five groups and each group was given a map with a different WriteGirl-designed route through the Autry. At each new stop on their journey, they met a WriteGirl volunteer with a basket full of prompts. Color-coded by plot (yellow), setting (blue), character (white), and genre (purple), the prompts were a perfect springboard for creating stories inspired by the rich set of artworks, artifacts, and histories showcased at the Autry. Imaginations ignited as girls found story seeds in medicinal native plants, handmade rope sandals, elaborate saddles and cowboy getups and the richly varied landscapes of California.

“I loved learning about indigenous plants that Natives used in place of our modern

technology. It gave me inspiration,” said one mentee reflecting on the exhibit that

spurred her story.

As a special bonus, holiday table displays created by students from Arroyo Seco Museum School showcased traditions from around the world, offering more fertile source material for setting and action. Many of the mentees were surprised and delighted by holiday activities and customs from countries like Japan and Germany. “I liked learning about the Armenian Christmas tradition of dancing,” expressed another mentee.

As if that weren’t enough inspiration, the guest writers – Jennifer D. Chow, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Lisa Horiuchi, Marissa Kennerson and Vicki Stiefel – were true fonts of fiction wisdom. With their honesty and well-earned understanding of the craft, they discussed the inspirations for their work – and offered some mind-tickling prompts and advice. Jennifer Chow, whose novel The 228 Legacy explores the inherited trauma of a violent event that is not spoken about for generations, asked us to write about three milestones in our own ancestry. Cynthia Sweeney, author of The Nest, a deeply character-driven family drama, asked us “What does your character have to tell you? What do they want you to know?” – a question that might just be among the top antidotes for writer’s block.

The whirlwind day culminated in a reindeer-naming brainstorming session, a rousing round of Soapbox, and series of readings and story summaries by mentees. The rich variety of stories – from a magical coyote’s journey, to a strong-willed cowgirl’s antics, reminded us that when you have compelling source material and focused, brave, curious writers, there’s no limit to what can be created.

As mentors and mentees ventured back out into the brisk December air, fueled with fresh ideas and motivation, Kirsten turned to a few of us and said with her trademark enthusiasm: “I’m so inspired I’m gonna go home and read a book!” “Or perhaps,” she said, “go home and write a book?” At the end of a day like this one, it felt like anything was possible.