Roundabout Writers and Betty’s Cafe: PLWP Summer Institute Marathons 2016


As has become tradition in the Prairie Lands Writing Project, we opened and closed our Invitational Summer Institute with writing marathons.  Both times, we invited our Summer Scholars to travel around sites in Saint Joseph and the surrounding area to write, share, and explore with their writing groups.  We’ve found this to be an excellent way to begin the Institute, both for bonding the writing groups and for plunging teachers head first into their identities as writers. 

For my own group, a trio of site leaders who had never facilitated a Summer Institute before, it was a great chance for us to bond as writers and to re-center ourselves in a core NWP practice.  Dana, Elisabeth, and I enjoyed writing at a coffee shop (with amazing lavender-lemon-white chocolate cookies), but our most memorable writing stop was at a fountain at the crossroads of Folson and N. 25th Streets.  It’s a great spot to write, nice and quiet, with great views of the lovely neighborhood, but it does place us in the middle of an intersection.  Our experience of interacting with people in this public space, this inviting roundabout, let us to name our group “The Roundabout Writers.”  People waved at us as they went by. One guy in a truck slowed down and says, “Mornin’.”   I spent most of my writing time recording our interaction with a dog and his owner.

A woman with a well-groomed yellow lab walks by.  The dog is lagging behind a bit, the way some dogs do when they realize that they are heading back home.  The owner stops to chat with us.

“Such a nice spot,” she says, and we agree.

“That’s a good-looking dog,” I say, in return.

She thanks me and says that his name is Lincoln.  They found him on the side of the road in Lincoln County, Oklahoma.  She says that they still have some work to do in terms of crate training, that she suspects the poor dog was kept in box in his previous home.  I sympathize, telling her a bit about my own rescue dog’s struggles.  She smiles and nods.  She says, “We just never know what we’ve been though, do we?”

Lincoln comes up to me and lets me pet his smooth head and soft ears.  I repeat back to him the same words a vet tech softly said to my dog not long ago at one of our check-ups.  “You got you a good home now, huh?  Good dog.  What a good dog!”

For the final day of the Summer Institute, we went again on a writing marathon, returning to our roles as writers for one more day with our writing groups before the SI experience came to an end.   We wrote with our groups, then we all gathered for the final read-around and delicious lunch at Boudreaux’s.

For this marathon, Dana and Elisabeth and I invited the two remaining members of their group to join us.  I was excited because we decided to write and eat a famous spot in St. Joseph’s “South Side,” the beloved Betty’s Café. 

At first, it was a bit dicey.  The place was tiny and packed with what seem to be a crowd of serious regulars.  We waited a bit for a table, then added a chair to a four top.  We scanned the menus, then got out our notebooks.  Soon, the magic of Betty’s wrapped around us…

“So what have we got goin’ on here?” asks our waitress.  “I see y’all got your own notebooks.”

She is totally, absolutely, efficient and yet welcoming.  She looks like a veteran athlete, trim and tan in beige capris and a bright orange Betty’s Café t-shirt.

The back of the shirt proclaims in bold lettering: “This isn’t Burger King.  You don’t get it your way.  You get it Betty’s way or you don’t get the darn thing.”

“We’re writers,” I explain, then tell her about one of my students who wrote Betty’s for one of his major writing projects.  She nods, takes our orders of assorted grits, eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy–and doesn’t bat an eye at our five separate checks.

“It’s ok,” she says with a wink.  “You’re at Betty’s now.”

And I believe her.



  1. My favorite part of the Prairie Lands was the writing marathons. It is like I was given the chance to be a version of myself that I could have been if my life had gone down another path. Maybe that sounds weird, but in my normal life I don’t get to leisurely explore and write down my surroundings. It is something that I wish I could do more of. Thank you for reminding me of the wonderful experience that PLWP gave me.

  2. I love how writing marathons are what you make them. A marathon with the same stops can lead to different revelations for each individual. I always find it interesting that even you, who has been on numerous marathons, get something new out of each and every one. Sometimes, I think we’re afraid that to “redo” an experience will wield the same results as the first time. But, as a reader, I know that reading a book again means that you open yourself up to a richer experience. Our experiences are what we make them.

  3. When you sent us out on the first day, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was with 3 ladies who couldn’t be more different than me doing nothing more than just reacting to a place and putting it on paper. At our first stop, I didn’t share a thing…even though that wasn’t the way you had told us to do it. By the end, it was so liberating. This was a perfect way to start my SI, it brought out such a different person than what I expected to be when I arrived for that first day.

    I remember the other writers in your group and their stories about the traffic circle. I even remember you telling us about the dog! Shared experiences (at least partial) make writing that much more sweet in my opinion.

  4. I remember you reading the piece about the lady and her dog at the Institute! Of course I love that you’re giving the best PLWP SI a shoutout 🙂

    Before the SI, I never knew that a writing marathon could be so powerful. It truly is something that must be experienced to fully appreciate.

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