Writing Festival Experience: Creative Nonfiction

By: Claire Mckenna

My experience this year at the Writers’ and Artists’ festival was very fun and different from my experience sophomore year. This year I worked with David Giffels in the Creative nonfiction workshop. In my English class all of our essays work on our non-fiction writing capabilities, but I was surprised by the difference between my writing for school versus the writing I did in his workshop. We began the day doing a Mr. Potato exercise where each of us found a small object in the school and wrote down sensory details about the object that we noticed while focusing on specific senses such as our sight, smell, or even taste. Our next exercise was the collaborative piece of writing that I have attached below. Our group was divided into smaller divisions of three or four people, and each group was assigned a sense. We each had to write a paragraph solely about the details of the object while using our assigned sense. The object chosen was an old phone. The next part of the exercise was my favorite because we got to combine all of the pieces of writing into one collaborative piece, so each person in my workshop wrote one of the paragraphs below. Unfortunately, I could not make it to the second day of the festival, but we rehearsed the collaborative piece as a workshop in the end of the first day. I loved seeing how all of the different works of writing combined into one cohesive piece!

What is a phone?

I stand, hovering over the large clunk of plastic, or what others call an ‘antique phone’, trying to hear something—anything. You see, this phone no longer works, and the task of trying to listen to its noise, is starting to earn me some crazy looks from the people around me. I turn the phone’s dial, and let it play. The sound of a zipper ‘zipping’, fills my ears, but just as abruptly as it began, the sound ceases, and the dial gets stuck. Out of frustration, I pick up the phone and slam it back down on the cradle. I hear a faint ‘ding’. Surprised, I carry out the same action. Once again, I hear a small ‘ding’. Just from hearing this almost inaudible noise, my imagination is transported back. Back to the past. Back to the time when this phone was used. Back to the mid-20th century. Questions start to pop in my head. I begin to wonder what forgotten conversations took place through this cold, hard piece of plastic. Who was talking? And what were they talking about? I look at the phone once more, while these unanswered questions hover in my mind.

***

An antique phone, radiating the scent of the basement underneath a long-forgotten curiosity shop. The rotary dial imprints its metallic steel wool smell on my fingertips, reminding me of the rusty brown fan lost in the attic, every time my hands get close to my face. With the mouthpiece turned to my nose, I don’t get a whiff of a phone, but rather the velvet coin purse of the crazy lady on the bus as it is pressed close to my cheek. The receiver reeks of musty fabric that didn’t dry right, mixed with a layer of wet dog. Maybe the dog laid out in the sun on a fall day, on top of the cloth, drying him but not the towel below. You might as well have your nose against the old photo on your grandmother’s nightstand in her nursing home. Or, have your face buried in a bag of decade-old Halloween candy inside a frayed cotton pillowcase, shoved to the back of a cramped wood closet. Dirty but sterile. Odd but familiar. Strange but common.

Why am I smelling a telephone?

***

I picked up the old antique phone, and looked at it resting in my hand. I held it up to my ear, and i could almost hear past conversations of people laughing with their friends, or asking their mom about dinner plans. Only in reality, i heard no one on the other end. I felt like a child holding a shell up to my ear listening for the sound of the ocean, only this time i heard no waves. My ears were muffled with a sort of deafening silence, and i yearned for conversation and laughter. This silence was almost too quiet, and in order to stop it  i fidgeted with the dial making it go back and forth and back and forth, hearing a sound similar to the wind up toys i used to play with as a kid. I found myself dialing my mom’s number wishing to hear that familiar ringing sound. I hoped to hear her wishing me good luck at my game, or just simply asking me what i wanted from the grocery store. However, I heard no ringing, and the deafening silence came creeping back.

***

This telephone smells like it has been hiding under a couch that has been sitting in the rain and won’t ever be dry again. It has a scent that I’ve smelt in a nursing home. It’s old and stale like a half-burned cigarette. The rubber cord has traces of a metal; the kind that makes up a playground, but one that’s been rained on. On the receiver, the earpiece contains the scent of that old woman who lives down the street; the one with the primped and puffed hair. The underside could pass as a musty towel that has been living in a linen closet. Perhaps this phone sat in a cellar for quite some time under a ceiling that had a leak. I can see how at one time, when the phone was new, someone could smell that new plastic that holds the wires and the bell. I imagine that it was a clean scent; one like a brand new children’s toy. Now, overtime, the new, clean scent is gone. I wonder who used this phone that gave it these smells. Could a man with a cigar in his mouth left the scent on the mouthpiece? Or perhaps a woman who went heavy on the hairspray held this phone to her ear…

***

The twisty wire has a sticky feel to it, as if its age is catching up to it and wrapping itself around the cord. The phone’s sleek finish is soft to the touch. I feel the sticker’s edges peeling off, and the chipped black paint around its base. The dial’s circular shape feels never ending, as if it never runs out of numbers to  call. The phone feels vintage, yet valuable. I play with the cord and the dial, impatiently waiting for someone to call. The air has the same stick to it as the cord- the perfect mix between anticipation and nervousness.

***

The tight coils of the telephone cord suffocate my fingers as I impatiently wrap the wire in tight circles around my right hand. The minuscule holes on the number plate pinch my skin as I jab my fingers into the dial and forcefully yank it to the right. I pick at the worn, peeling mud-brown sticker and trace my fingertips over the old figure-eight nail marks engraved into the handset as I nestle it into the cradle between my shoulder and head. My right hand escapes the grip of the cord, and moves against the midnight-black smooth side of the telephone rubbing it like a genie in a bottle, wishing the other side of the line would pick up.

***

first) Hello?

Second ) YO AILEEN I GOT A QUESTION Are you worried about the English essay?? I haven’t done it yet

 

No, neither have I isn’t it due monday?

 

Is it due Monday?? Wait this Monday?  I thought it was due the 15th or something like that

 

i don’t know that’s what i thought Is it due the 15th that would be nice??

Son I do not know

 

Well we were supposed to already be writing it but we know that never happens

I didn’t start writing my last essay until 11:30 the night before

 

SHOULD WE BE DIFFERENT ERAS like from the era of the telephone

Yeah no

 

How about “Hey janine hows your son”

So are we soccer moms now?

 

No it’s like the olden days ok not like olden but like 1990s something like did you like the new NSYNC song janine?

HOw about “Did you hear that U2 had a new tour coming”

 

My mom is calling i have to go

You’re in the middle of doing something important here

 

That’s my mom calling me for dinner YEAH MOM I’M COMING i gotta go

***

I pick up the silent phone. Smooth surfaces with surprising dips and bends, somehow every dip and dive my hands feel are connected. Such odd sides moving my fingers outward and inward finding small distinctive holes. I always thought that holes meant emptiness, but the heavy weight to you, lets me know there’s nothing hollow about you. There’s a real juxtaposition between your rough, bumpy bottom and silk-like love handle. All in all, you have dimensions that remind my touch of the lover I’ll never call again.

***

The antique is now a matte black from all the dust that has been absorbed into its once shiny coat. The dial moves at the speed of a new driver behind the wheel for the first time. The paint is chipped from use and old age, slowly fading the bright white to the color of a smoker’s teeth. The sticker and cards were once the stark white of a new pair of converse, but now are the color of a coffee stain- fading more to the old, yellowed photographs you see in an attic. It’s survived so much abuse and use, only having scrapes and scars to attest to its age and experiences. The and mouth pieces are worn from the countless times the user slammed it down, but missed and all the long conversations that wore it out. It has been forgotten with no one to take care of this old relic, it has deteriorated. You can see that this phone have lived, but now it is at its end; old, faded, and forgotten

***

I see the black solid body, and the old chipped and worn handle, I see numbers all the way up to 9, and the alphabet, three letters on each number, the coiled cord that attaches the handle to the body, the volume dial that you can move back and forth that’s marked “Loud”, and the feet of the phone, on top of the handle is writing “burk S.P. 205…253-5531,and 867-4999.” Two letters seem to be missing on the “7″ and the “9″- The Q & the Z– and on the “0″ it spells out OPERATOR.

***

A phone that doesn’t work is useless. There is really no purpose. I dial the numbers and each pull sounds like the playground zip-lines that you hang onto for dear life until you get slammed into the end, followed by a very slow tick backwards until it gets stuck and doesn’t move. I pick up the phone only to hear the echo of air whirling in my ear. It reminds me of the ocean I used to listen to in the shells when I was young, although this time I don’t want to hear it. The silence is disheartening. With rage, I slam the phone down only to hear a slight faint “ding.” A mere sign of optimism comes over me as though I hoped the phone could work again, but I snapped back to the reality that it was broken. And like I said, a phone that doesn’t work is useless.

***