The Takeaway Message

By Erika Hoffman

I’d been asked to teach men at a homeless shelter how to compose a story. I pen inspirational, true tales like those in The Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. So, I showed up, told the gatekeeper I was here to see the chaplain, and parked in front of the shelter where men moseyed about. Upon my entering, the chaplain greeted me. I liked his bowtie and spiffy attire; he reminded me of what Urkel on TV might have looked like as a fifty-year-old. He escorted me to a gargantuan room where he handed me a mic whose box I attached to my waistband, not easily because I don’t have a lot of room between the tight waistband and my body. I hung the doohickey around my ear with the mic in front of my mouth and glanced up to see 60 men staring at me. As I walked up and down the aisles, I instructed them. “Each story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Don’t be boring. Start with a good hook. Lure your reader.” I emphasized creating an emotion in the reader, be it sadness, laughter, or curiosity. “Most importantly, the writer has to impart a takeaway message. There must be something inspiring about your story!” I emphasized. Like any teacher worth her chalk, I gave them an assignment: Write a story for next week.

When I returned seven days later, the cheerful chaplain was at the doorway, dressed to the nines. “I like your bowtie,” I remarked. He smiled and said how much the men enjoyed my lesson and confided he’d been worried it might not go over well, but I was a hit. So, buoyed with the knowledge I was making a wee bit of a dent in the lives of these homeless, addicted, or jailed men on work release, I felt confident as I strode into the cavernous room with the captive audience.  Unfortunately, the mic was broken. I lost my Oprah swagger without the auditory amplification. So, I started with a review. “What do you recall from last week?”

A hand shot up. “A lot is two words.”

“Good. Anything else?”

A man, who would look intimidating had you met him in a dark alley, said, “Start out with a hooker.”

Everyone burst out howling. “A hook,” I corrected. “But, if you started a story with a hooker, well, that might get the reader’s attention.” They laughed again.

I had them condense their stories to six words and wrote the example of Hemingway’s six-word story on the board: For sale: baby shoes never worn. “What do you think is the story behind that?” I queried.

“The shoes didn’t fit,” offered one.

“The kid liked to be barefoot,” said another.

“The fellow needed money and hocked the shoes,” shouted a third.

I praised their ideas and added that many possibilities exist for a story within this simple six-word one. “Perhaps, the buyer of the shoes never got to visit the baby; perhaps the baby died; perhaps there was an abortion.” The fellows looked serious.

Their six-word stories varied in appeal. Later, I asked who had a longer story to read. Only one hand rose – a white guy in the back of the class. He strode to the front and with a booming voice delivered his tale. He told of being 17, getting drunk with friends, being chased by police cars, crashing his car and subsequently being arrested and expelled from high school and never returning to finish his education. The guys laughed at parts. He recited this story in a way that showed he naturally understood narrative thrust. After complimenting him on his ability to hold everyone’s attention, I advised he may need to add a paragraph with the takeaway message – what he had learned from his misspent youth.  He stood there a full minute, thinking hard. I waited with anticipation. Finally, he said: “Don’t drink and drive.”

Everyone hee-hawed. I didn’t belabor the point he might want to expand on the inspiration.

The third time, the chaplain greeted me in a hound’s-tooth jacket and matching bowtie. The mic worked he said and repeated how much the guys enjoyed the class. I noticed unfamiliar faces toward the back and realized the occupants of the shelter change. I read a story published in a Chicken Soup of the Soul anthology called The Power of Gratitude because I know these guys are retraining their brains to think differently to act differently. The latest studies on happiness conclude that the key is feeling gratitude, so I read my story about almost drowning and about subsequent problems I’d experienced due to a bubble of blood which formed on my brain from the adrenaline-fueled effort I expended to survive. At the end of my rendition, they burst into applause as if I were a theatrical star taking a bow.

The sixty faces – mostly all attuned – stared at me, but no one offered to read his story. I always have a back-up plan, so I read an essay written by Terri Elders about how she defended writing inspirational stories when a would-be novelist called that genre “smaltz-y.” When I concluded the excerpt, the fellows applauded loudly again. The chaplain gestured to a fellow, who had a story he wanted to read. I asked him the title.  “Loverboy,” answered the nice-looking black man. He read his account about a knock at his mama’s front door and a knock at his mama’s back door. At each door stood a woman he was dating who had found out about each other because one had given him a ring which he turned around and had given to the other, and the one who gave it recognized the ring on the other woman when she spotted her at McDonalds fulfilling an order. His, too, was a fast- paced narrative and entertaining. The story resonated with the group, and fellows laughed loudly during the story telling about his dilemma, and how his mama insisted he must talk to the ladies, but instead he jumped out a window and fled. After we all congratulated him on his tale which certainly kept our attention, I asked him for his takeaway message and told him he must tack on something inspirational. He pondered a long time and finally said: “Date women from different states.”Maybe I taught them something? Maybe we shared a few laughs which brightened their day? Maybe I’ll return when a new group matriculates into the rescue mission? And what about me? What did I, at my 60+ age, learn from my experiences with folks down on their luck who most likely come from a different world than any I’ve known. I learned no matter a person’s financial status, gender, race, age, IQ, physical attributes or ability to learn, we all are joined by certain emotions, and although we’ve not experienced the same mode of life as another, there will be things that resonate for all of us.  We have more in common than we have in differences.

That’s my take-away.

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman lives with her better half in Chapel Hill, N.C. Her children are grown and having their own children. So now she spends a lot of time writing, reading, and thinking. Her mystery “Why Mama” was published in the spring of 2019.

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21 Responses to “The Takeaway Message”

  1. Eileen Williams says:

    I love your take away. It is hard to remember that we are more alike than different. Also, wonderful that you have attempted to make a difference in someone’s life.

  2. Great essay.
    Great story.
    Also great that you devoted your time and talent to those men.
    And great that if you only made a difference to one man in the group,
    you’ve shared your knowledge and accomplished something good.

  3. Terri Elders says:

    Funny story, as usual, Erika….and fun indeed to see my rationale for writing “smaltz” included.

  4. Sally M Moore says:

    Very entertaining and very meaningful again. I love knowing that so many of the men were interested in the subject.

  5. Janice Andrews says:

    I enjoyed reading your story. You are very entertaining and so thoughtful.

  6. Nancy says:

    Sharing our differences makes all the difference!

  7. Susie Kim Park says:

    Wish I was there with you to see these men who
    laughs with you! Good job, keep it going!!!

  8. Lois Bartholomew says:

    Great essay, Erika. Teaching people who want to learn is soul-satisfying. Thanks.

  9. Margaret Toman says:

    You created atmosphere and vivid imagery using clean sentences and spare descriptions. I could see and hear those men and the chaplain in his bowties!

    Far beyond words is the inner alignment that occurs when personal gifts become gifts to others. Never stop.

  10. Lisa Tomey says:

    Love this and the work you do! Making a difference matters most!! Great read!

  11. Vickie says:

    As usual, Erika’s essay is very clever and entertaining. I love the fact that Erika devoted time and effort teaching this unique group of men how to start writing a story.

    Vickie

  12. Cora Brown says:

    Inspiring and encouraging story!

  13. Maureen O'Brien says:

    Great tale. Nicely done, Erika.

  14. Linda O'Connell says:

    Love this one! Everything about it.

  15. Ann Goebel says:

    You’re as inspiring to me as you were to the men you taught, Erika. You were able to strike a cord with many of them, which is in itself a great accomplishment. Besides taking my thoughts in new directions, your essays always impart an unfamiliar word or two – Urkel. Reading your pieces is a great learning experience which I appreciate. Thank you

  16. Carol Trejo says:

    That is an awesome story! It’s great to be reminded how fun it can be to give back to others and how much we actually learn when we teach.

  17. beth fallaize says:

    that was intersting you never know what to expect from a large grouplike that. what will get them moviated,that is wonderful

  18. beth fallaize says:

    that was very intersting what an experiance to teach these men and to have a good outcome

  19. beth fallaize says:

    great story

  20. Sally Wehmueller says:

    Wonderful story. Easy reading and fun!
    thanks so much.

  21. Rose Ann says:

    This is one of my favorites, Erika. Makes me wish I could have taken that class! Love reading and writing “smaltz.”

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