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The Great Grapes And I

THE GREAT GRAPES AND I

by Charles Kruger
Method Writing Instructor

I walked into Jack Grapes Method Writing Class in the summer of 2001. I was 45 years old, and my dreams of being an artist−whether writer, actor, musician, or painter−were passing me by. I had attended poetry workshops at UC Irvine (led by United States Poet Laureate Emeritus Charles Wright), earned a graduate degree in theatre arts, taken years of piano lessons, written reams of unpublished poems, cultivated the companionship of working artists and yet I still had not unlocked the gate into the hidden garden where I, myself, would become a maker. I was disappointed. I had not unlocked myself. My artist self was imprisoned, and I needed to find a key that would let me escape.

I had just finished my first year as a middle school teacher in inner city Los Angeles, an experience which came close to pushing me into a nervous breakdown. I felt finished, done, without a creative future. I needed a break. I needed to become an artist.

I had met Jack Grapes in his role with the California Poets In The Schools program, for which he conducted workshops for teachers. I was impressed! Now, with my teachers’ income and the gift of a summer vacation, I was ready to attend one of his celebrated “Method Writing” classes, which, at that time, he was conducting in the living room of his West Hollywood home.

Late one Thursday afternoon, I stepped into the foyer of Jack’s house, where the magic would happen. In the small, dim hallway that opened into the living room I paused for a moment. There was a table stacked with pamphlets and syllabi and chapbooks and poems, all stacked so high they looked ready to fall to the floor. Indeed, there were several sheets of paper that had apparently fluttered beneath the table. I could smell all that paper and ink. I heard the muffled voices of students in the living room. I could see two or three of them crowded together on a settee. As I took a deep breath, I stepped over the threshold into the living room/classroom that was about to change my life.

Jack Grapes is a big man in every way, very tall, very round, very enthusiastic, very loud, and full of charisma. You can tell he has had a career as an actor and it is easy to understand why he is often described as a “stand up poet.” When Jack whispers, you lean in to listen. When Jack bellows, you pay attention. When Jack’s quiet, you wait respectfully for his next pronouncement.

That afternoon, I learned something of what Jack means by his practice of “Method Writing” and how it came to be.

As a teenager, Jack was a competitive athlete who participated in multiple sports: football, tennis, baseball, boxing, swimming. He thus had the benefit of many coaches. Also as a teenager, he indulged his love for writing. Eventually he attended college with a dual English and history major. Then he made an abrupt turn and decided to become an actor, a career which he pursued professionally for a number of years, first as a member of Second City in Chicago, and then as a stage and TV actor in Hollywood. Through it all, he continued to write, and became known on the literary scene as a capable poet and a particularly good reader who could entertain an audience unusually well.

Like most of his professional colleagues, Jack realized that he needed to supplement his acting income, and found himself earning dollars as a California Poet in the Schools and, eventually, as a writing teacher for UCLA. It was during this time that Jack discovered his deep calling as a teacher, and began to combine what he’d learned as an athlete/actor/writer/student into the curriculum he came to call “Method Writing.”

In that class I learned the first four concepts (or skills) of Method Writing: (1) Write like you talk; (2) Use “transformation lines” to tap into the deep voice. (3) Use “image/moment” to construct suspenseful cinematic scenes; and (4) Use the “dreaded association exercise” to move from dull to sparkling and startling.

These skills, or some variation of each, are not unknown to writers and writing teachers, but rarely are they taught in isolation with effective, easy to grasp exercises and drills that lead to mastery.

As a result of this teaching method, I listened in astonishment as my classmates’ journal entries went, in a matter of weeks, from simple to sophisticated to polished, eventually producing work that was clearly approaching excellence.

And, looking back over my own work created for the class, I was more than delighted to recognize a level of improvement I had thought would take years to achieve.

Since then, my self-confidence and my productivity as a writer have grown by leaps and bounds. I have written for national literary websites such as The Rumpus, for CBS News in the San Francisco Bay Area, for LitSeen (one of Northern California’s leading literary websites), established my own theatre review website, published many poems, wrote an introduction to a major book of photographic art, become a member in good standing of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Cricle and the National Book Critics Cricle, and had my work recognized in the New York Times.

It has been two decades since I began my study of Method Writing and the adventure has been joyous. During that time I also pursued a career as a secondary English Teacher. Now I bring together these two aspects of my work to become a “certified” (by way of Jack’s endorsement) teacher of “Method Writing.”

I can’t wait for the adventure!

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