Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.
What course did you teach at Grackle?
Last Fall, I taught “Message in A Bottle Rocket: The Art of Storytelling for a Live Audience.” My primary mediums as a writer are playwriting and live storytelling, so I’m pretty much always writing with a live audience in mind and a strong sense of how my text will be performed; I tried to bring both of those elements into my curriculum, to differentiate this class from a more conventional memoir class. We ended things with a live showcase of the stories we worked on. All writing classes are secretly excuses to hang out with cool people, and as far as hang-outs go, this was a great one.
What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?
We had a student who’d recently arrived from Afghanistan. If you remember the news stories back in August of 2021, when the US was pulling out of the country, he was there at Kabul Airport, amongst the thousands trying to evacuate, and that’s what he chose to write about. Helping someone write their firsthand account of a major historical event was new to me. We put a lot of time into figuring out how to distill the complexities of it all. And it’s a story he’ll be telling for many years to come, as part of his activism work, so I know what we did will have a life beyond the class. When you dedicate your life to writing, it’s easy to end up wondering if what you’re doing ultimately matters, but for the time that I was working with this student, the importance of what we were doing felt undeniable. So, I’m grateful that Grackle and Grackle was able to facilitate that.
Do you have a favorite prompt for your students?
Go to a graveyard, find a stone that stands out to you, and based on what the stone and its surroundings tell you, write the story of the person to whom the stone belongs. We actually think this might be how Dickens came up with A Christmas Carol. He was walking through a graveyard and happened upon the stone of one Ebenezer Scroggie, “a meal man,” but Dickens had mild dyslexia, so he misread it as “Here lies Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean man,” and thus the world’s most famous ghost story was born.
Also: graveyards are great places to find character names.
What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?
This isn’t an original observation, but incredible things can happen when you make it your goal to write something terrible. It’s a way to activate your confidence, because not all of us believe in our ability to write something good, but we all know we can write something bad at a moment’s notice, and once you’re writing from a place of confidence, you’ve bypassed one of the biggest barriers to creativity. It’s also just an interesting insight into any given writer to see what they produce when asked to conjure up the worst writing imaginable. What we write in that situation can end up being a funhouse mirror of our insecurities, our guilty pleasures, and sometimes, one or two genuinely good ideas that we wouldn’t have dared to commit to paper otherwise. You’ll learn something about yourself every time.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil is a writer of plays and prose. His plays include The Book of Maggie (World Premiere at Stages Theatre, Chicago Premiere at Death and Pretzels Theatre Company), Between Two Caves (The Landing Theatre Company) and Sunrise Coven (World Premiere this Spring at Stages Theatre). He has served as Playwright-in-Residence and Literary Associate for The Landing Theatre Company, overseeing new play development for Houston playwrights. He has been a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Award, the Houston Press Best New Play Award, and Southwest Theatre Productions’ “Plays With a Strong Female Lead” Competition. He’s a writer-in-residence for The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, and a member of the Rec Room Writers Group. As a storyteller, he has appeared on World Channel’s Stories from the Stage, Tell & Act’s Story Night at Club Passim, and KPFT’s So What’s Your Story. He frequently contributes to the monthly live storytelling show Grown-up Storytime. For six years, he has worked as a teaching artist for The Alley Theatre, and a consultant in Creative Writing for the Kinder High School of Performing and Visual Arts. He hosted and produced The Landing Theatre New Works Podcast.