Three Bean Salad

I returned recently from a workshop at the Highlights Foundation where we focused on minor characters and transitions. The workshop was led by Jan Cheripko, who gives his own minor characters their proper due in Imitate the Tiger and other fine books.

For me, the workshop was a great balance between my own private writing time and learning with (and from) others as we looked at characters in Shakespeare — the master, Cheripko says, of the minor character. I’m not going to give away too much, as Highlights will likely offer this workshop again. But here’s one takeaway: Every character counts. And while this is something I knew, it’s also something I sometimes forget.

If you’ve never been to the Highlights Foundation, for either a workshop or a retreat, I highly recommend that you go. And if you have been? GO BACK! I can’t say enough about the staff, the meals, and the TLC. Plus, they have an ice cream bar, people. Baskets of fruit and candy. Also, Cheetos, which, I am not ashamed to say, I ate.

Jamming with friends at the Highlights Foundation. Photo by Jan Cheripko

The workshop was a good balance of other things, too. For one, I succumbed to the pressures of Deborah Prum and brought my guitar. And then I played it. With real, live people. And then I opened my mouth and sang. As I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, some of my best friends have never heard me sing, but here’s the thing:

When you’re showing other people your writing, you are taking a risk. You are making yourself vulnerable. You are being brave. And the distance between that and singing in front of someone else suddenly didn’t seem so far. To quote Debby, who is pretty much a walking, talking Nike commercial: Life’s short. 

Three Bean Salad. Photo by Jan Cheripko

We called our group Three Bean Salad because two of us favored songs that only had three chords in them. (I will note that they didn’t have to be the same three — Liz Harris and I just preferred to skip songs that included B…) I’m pretty sure someone died in every song but Wagon Wheel and Jolene.

The quote you always hear in the music world is that all you need is three chords and the truth. I’ve heard that attributed to Springsteen, Willie Nelson and U2, who have all seem to have said it. But likely the first person to put that together was Harlan Howard, who wrote a few of my country favorites: Pick Me Up on Your Way Down and Heartaches by the Number. Three chords and the truth makes a good mantra for writing, too, I think. At the very least it would keep me from over-complicating my plot?

Something was funny. Perhaps it was my singing. Photo by Jan Cheripko

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