Teacher to Teacher
Lessons From Moe's Cafe
It All Started With Moe ...
About twenty years ago I was teaching a creative writing workshop to a group of ninth graders from Chicago's South Side. On this first meeting of a four-session program, the students were to describe a real or imaginary place. I told them to select a "memorable" place and make the readers feel they were there. I told them to follow a plan and to pack in plenty of details. I even read a few examples from former students. Description, I told the group, is something all writers need to master.
They all nodded but not agreeably. In fact, you might say that they nodded disagreeably. Instead of smiling, they scowled. Instead of sitting up eagerly, they slumped. Instead of asking me pertinent questions, they grumbled. Even the teacher who had arranged for this workshop sat in the back with a John Grisham novel nestled in her lap and yawned. This was not going to be pretty.
What should I do? Should I push forward even though prospects did not look good, or should I try this new idea I had been fiddling with? I looked over as the teacher was picking up her novel and made the choice. What's there to lose?, I thought. Let's see what happens.
OK, I told the group, change of plan. Imagine that you're inside a horrible restaurant called "Moe's Café." I'm going to ask you a dozen questions. You'll scribble down quick answers. When I'm done asking, you'll take your answers and shape them into your description.
Before they had a chance to complain, I began firing off questions. What's on the floor? How about the menu? What do you see on the wall? Name several bad smells? Where's Moe standing? What's he look like? What about that dog sleeping in the corner? How about the family that sat down next to you? By now they were sitting up and smiling, and I could tell I was on to something. When they told me to slow down, I sped up and they asked more questions: How about Blanche the waitress? What can you tell me about the ceiling?
Before long I was done asking questions and they were about to begin composing. I told them that they should write this description as a letter to a friend and that they should change the order of details or add some more. Then I shut up and let them write. For an hour they were bent over, feverishly carving out their descriptions while I sat on the desk and marveled. Even the yawning teacher had put down John Grisham and was scribbling away.
When they were done, they read aloud and the results were gruesomely spectacular. One girl talked about a dead fly on the menu. Another girl described the barefoot waitress's big doe. A boy added a contrasting detail: an old lady in a while dress carefully nibbling a sandwich at a corner table. Each description was powerful in its own way. Most were funny, but a few were quite sad.
Moe's Café was born.
Over the next three sessions, I continued with the Moe Method: I put the students into a place; I asked a lot of questions. They listened, scribbled, and composed. In Session Two, they described a cozy cabin. In Session Three it was a spooky office. Session Four was a barn with a cat about to do in a mouse. On my last day, I suggested to the regular teacher that she might want to continue doing this. She said that she had already started a list, thank you. As I asked the class to think about their recent writing, I pointed out that although I may have been the one who asked the questions, they were the ones who did the actual writing, and it was very good. For now on when you write, I urged them, ask your own questions.
Through the years I have continued to teach writing workshops all over the Chicago area and have founded a program for city kids who like to write. In all of these efforts, Moe and his despicable dump have been at my side. No matter whom or where I taught, I would always ask my writers to stop in first at Moe's Café.
Now fellow Moe's regular Mark Larson and I have put together a book of writing ideas inspired by Moe's Café. The prompts are varied: Some require imagination; others require memory. They all, however, involve a heavy dose of questions and answers. As Moe himself might have said, "You ain't going to write something until you have something to write. Hot cap on that coffee?"
Mark Henry Larson
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