Category Archives: Camping and Travel

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: All Good Things. . .

IMG_6279

Our time together had come to a close and I was alone in the dorm where we stayed at Macalester College for the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. It was strange, that quiet, after all that activity, after all that brilliant conversation, after the nightly readings and daily classes, the meals together three times a day, the walks around surrounding St. Paul, and the laughs and drinks around the common room way into the wee hours. It felt kind of spooky, surreal. Where’d everybody go? And this was not my school, my town, my home, and my plane would leave late–so there was a bizarre sense that I’d been abandoned here. On top of that, after a week of near perfect beautiful weather, it was raining. It was cloudy and dark and thunderous.

And yet, my heart and head were brimming, practically exploding with gratitude for this week of treasures and this incredible community, the likes of which I have experienced in no other place.

And after a lonely day in the dorm by myself, packing, napping, a little light reading of things I have written and some things written by my friends, I had the great pleasure and honor of an early Thai dinner with my dear friend and co-coordinator Terri Ford before she took me to the airport and sent me on my way.

I have started a practice, each time I attend a Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, of doing a series of blog entries under the heading, “Dispatches from Writer’s Camp.” In some years, I might do a whole string of them, almost every day of the week-long conference, but I notice a significant change when I am coordinating in some official capacity. This year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was coordinating in some official capacity. I wrote a dispatch two days before I arrived, during the conference I wrote zero dispatches, and here I am, back home in Portland, Oregon, writing the only official dispatch from the conference, several days after the fact. I was too busy to write, mostly, over the past week, and when I did have time to write, my focus was on generating new creative work.

I’m not sure how to capture the week. The task, in full blown prose paragraphs, seems daunting. I will try instead a number of bullet items that, I hope, will succinctly capture the highlights of the week.

  • Macalester is a beautiful campus surrounded conveniently by a commercial district, making it super easy to forage on foot for things we needed or to find interesting distractions if a break or some good exercise was in order.
  • In a novelty gift shop almost across the street from campus, I found a set of cocktail glasses–because it’s difficult to drink good whiskey out of a plastic cup.
  • One could walk, and many of us did, to the Mississippi River!
  • Terri Ford took me to Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast! OMG!
  • We volunteered to teach classes to each other and there were scads of great ones to choose from: the fiction of Joan Silber, the mystery and history of memoir, collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts, Jung’s shadow archetype, marketing strategies, persona poems, issues of misappropriation, the lyric essay, Elizabeth Bishop, a round-robin reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in full!), diction enhancements, supportive strategies for getting started, a table reading of a play by one of our campers, and finally a film/memoir project enriched and deepened by the revelation of family secrets! Oh my!
  • This last class around Family Secrets had many of us diving into our own family histories–super relevant to moi, in particular, and to the writing project on which I am about to embark.
  • A group of us meditated every morning, opening and closing our silence with poems by Mary Oliver, William Stafford, May Sarton, and Margaret Wheatley.
  • We heard 42 absolutely stellar readings from our campers.
  • One of our esteemed Masters of Ceremony, Helen Fremont, threatened readers who went over the ten minute limit with super soaker squirt guns. Happily, these weapons were never employed or deployed.
  • We gave our readings in a church, the campus chapel–until the PA broke down–and then we moved into a space that felt more like a night club. Both venues, totally appropriate.
  • We held two writing contests, one of which was a 25 word lyric to be sung to the tune of. . . Much hilarity ensued.
  • People were workshopping all over the place in small groups, sharing their writing with each other, receiving generous and supportive feedback, learning about the enormous gifts of their fellow campers. I heard nothing but rave reviews from people in these groups. All of us, having experienced at one time or another the nightmare MFA workshop, have learned in our practice together how to jettison all of that baggage. No writers are ever harmed, damaged, or traumatized at an Alumni Conference workshop. That seems to be a given.
  • We held a noisy silent auction to raise money for Friends of Writers. Two of the most interesting auction donations: an impersonation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on your voicemail message, and a performance of an opera aria–and lucky for us campers, the winning bidder requested that the aria be performed at the conclusion of our last night of readings. Can you say “transcendent”? I knew that you could.
  • And no alumni conference would be complete without a dance. So we danced.
  • We had 47 campers! Many of them had come to previous conferences, but a good number this year were attending a conference for the first time, and a number of those were brand new graduates of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Cause for celebration, indeed. But for me and others, we were sorely missing some of our buddies who have come before, but for some reason, couldn’t make it this year. And every year for the past three years we have grieved the loss of our beloved Carlen Arnett. We miss her so much, and yet, she is always present.
  • We all learned so much from each other. But on a personal note, I learned something about my own process, and perhaps, that deserves a paragraph.

Concerning my own creative output, I have discerned a pattern, one that I realize now I have been repeating all through my writing life. I will have an idea that I believe is worth writing about but I won’t know how to go about it. For example, I have, over the course of my entire career, wanted to write a book about teaching. I wrote poems here and there, I wrote essays and blog entries, letters, and sometimes (often) would work teachers into my fiction. But none of these, while satisfying in their own right, were trending toward the book I wanted to write, a book that, instead of advocating a particular practice, strategy, or argument, would instead just accurately and engagingly capture the life of this vocation I have chosen. It has taken me 30 years to find finally a form or structure that will contain the idea. It has taken the shape of a collection of micro-essays or prose poems that I have titled, “Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List.” I doubt that I would have made this discovery without the gifts of the Alumni Conference. Finishing, or close to finishing that manuscript prior to arriving at camp, my challenge this year was to figure out how and what I can write toward a title that I have had swimming around my head for years now. And I think, as a result of some inspiration from the folks at Rinky Dink Press and continual inspiration from my fellow campers, I have finally found a form for the new project, a memoir written in short numbered bursts of no more than 50 or 60 words. Don’t ask me why, but this feels like a fit–and I have now discovered some momentum towards a rough rough draft.

Recently, one of those inspirational memes has been making the rounds, a list of three things you can do in order to fail at life. In a nutshell: blame, complain, and be continually ungrateful. I have decided, that in large part, my tribe of graduates of the Goddard/Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and in particular the miracle of this unique alumni community and my sense of profound belonging within it, has made it virtually impossible for me to fail at life.

Cheers. Until next year!

IMG_6272

The chapel panorama

IMG_6271

The chapel

IMG_6351

The clubhouse

IMG_6347

The Mississippi

IMG_6283

Hell’s Kitchen

 

2 Comments

Filed under Camping and Travel, Writing and Reading

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

5a33169770e96c54650cfd983616caefe86c22a2

There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Camping and Travel, Writing and Reading

T@B Diaries #4: Steens Mountain 

IMG_4397

In my second year of camping inside the t@b, I returned yesterday from my most ambitious solo trip to date. The following images provide evidence of these new experiences:

  • With my brother Dave and his friend Dave (that’s not a joke) in another car, and towing the t@b behind the new Honda Ridgeline, I drove all by myself to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort, located right along side a funky little historic town called Frenchglen, Oregon.
  • It was the longest drive I have ever done in my life. About 7 hours from Milwaukie to Frenchglen.
  • It’s the first time in my life I have ever been this far Eastern Oregon.
  • We stopped at a rest area in Brothers, Oregon. I found it so lonely and quaint, I had to take a picture of it.
  • My brother Dave and his friend Dave stayed in a “cabin” and I had my own full hook up rv site. The cabins in this park, while functional and comfortable enough, were really just single wide mobile homes, the kind you’d find in the most low rent trailer parks in America. That’s not a criticism.
  • I took pictures of my brother Dave and his friend Dave. In almost every panoramic shot I took, one or the other of them ended up on one end or the other of the panorama. The one panoramic shot my brother took caught Dave at the very edge of the photo taking a piss.
  • On this trip, in particular around the Steens Mountain loop and around Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge, there were lots of occasions for panoramic photos.
  • Panoramic pictures are very strange things. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but my panoramas wrap themselves in this bizarre fold, so that rather than seeing a wide scene looked at straight-on, you see a single road, for example, going two directions. Almost impossible to describe in words. Take a look.
  • There’s a strange satellite tower at the peak of Steens Mountain. Alien observation? I don’t know. Communications to the outside world? Doubtful, since most of the time I had no or little phone access, although my brother Dave’s friend Dave seemed to have all kinds. He called his wife from the top of a mountain. I’m told this is the highest accessible peak in the state of Oregon. It was awesome. I mean, really. In the true sense of the word: full of awe, awe inspiring, awful in a good way. And dirty. Very dirty.
  • My brother Dave’s friend Dave’s car was covered in dirt.
  • I’ve never seen so many butterflies.
  • Or Jack Rabbits.
  • Or Owls (1).
  • Or mosquitos.
  • My ankles are a swollen itchy mess.
  • We drank some Scotch in Eastern Oregon.
  • I talked politics with my brother Dave’s friend Dave.
  • On one evening it was cool enough to have a tiny campfire.
  • We visited several towns that had only one or two buildings in them: Frenchglen, Diamond, Plush, Fields, and Denio, Nevada. There’s a town in Oregon called Remote. I challenge Remote to be as remote as these towns were remote.
  • Yes, we went to Nevada. Having driven all the way around Hart Mountain on super rough gravel roads, we decided to drive an extra 150 miles on pavement over to Nevada and back again, rather than return on that gravel washboarding hell.
  • I learned a new word, or, a new use of an old word: washboarding.
  • On the way back to camp, we found cows wandering around on and near the roads.
  • Sometimes we’d drive a half an hour or 45 minutes before seeing another car.
  • We camped for four days. We spent almost half of our time, outside of the time we were sleeping, in a car.
  • The sign on the Hart Mountain Store in Plush said: A small drinking town with a cattle problem.
  • On the early morning of our departure, I left my trailer to get some clean clothes out of the truck. When I came back to the trailer, the door was locked. The keys were inside. Now, it’s impossible to lock the trailer door from the inside unless you use the dead bolt–in which case you would not be able to open the door, walk out the door, and shut the door again. The dead bolt would be sticking out, right? So, my guess is, and this is messed up, that somehow the locking mechanism engaged itself, locking me out of the trailer and the keys inside. After I panicked, I thought, clearly, this door cannot be locked, really. No way. So I went to get my brother to see if he could help solve the mystery. We ended up concluding that the door was, in fact, locked. I panicked. I was sure that the day before, as I set about to fire up the air conditioner in this 100 degree heat, that I had locked all of my windows. My brother Dave said, did you lock all the windows? I said, yes, I locked all the windows. He went around and checked. I had NOT locked all the windows. I climbed back into the trailer through the emergency exit window and happily liberated my keys and my sunken heart.
  • I learned NEVER to be without your trailer key.
  • And then I drove home for seven hours.

Leave a comment

Filed under Camping and Travel

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

2 Comments

Filed under Camping and Travel, Writing and Reading

#269: A Letter of Gratitude to My Wife and Son (another prose poem)


Dear family,

I am about to begin my journey home. Almost everything is put away and the trailer is hitched up (I never did unhitch); all I have to do now is climb in and start up the engine. It was a good trip. Even though I was with my brother and his friends, I spent a lot of time by myself. I read some and I wrote some and I listened to music and I walked and I rode my bike. I took in the good Willamette Valley air under cover of giant oaks, just like ours, but older and over miles and miles. Last night it was so clear; the stars were lovely and David and I kept the fire going until 10 or so. I slept well and ate well and it was easy to be good. I have some Easter surprises for both of you that I hope you will like.

Just before I leave I am thinking about how grateful I am for both of you, and how thankful I am that you both were willing to (maybe even happy to) have me out of the house, let me do my thing, allow me this space to travel both outward and inward. I love you both. I am enriched beyond words having the two of you in my life, challenging me and growing me toward this hidden wholeness.

Yours,

Michael

Leave a comment

Filed under Camping and Travel, Poetry

#268: The Middle Way (a prose poem)


Somewhere between asceticism and an orgy of consumerism and excess lies the middle way. I must confess I have not found it yet. I tend to waffle in my struggle to find the center. Against my better judgment I tend to err toward excess. Here I am camping in comparative luxury with my new trailer and my new truck, and yet I am abstaining from alcohol, sugar, carbs, grains, dairy, beans, any thing artificial or processed. I continue to meditate daily. I fantasize about tiny houses. Living more simply. After seeing the film “Minimalism,” I have thought about whether I could reduce my closet down to 30 pieces of clothing, including socks, underwear, pants, shirts, shorts, and coats. I keep doing the math. It doesn’t add up. I must keep my disco pants and my disco shorts and my disco hoodie and my disco bowtie. That’s four. There are things too difficult to give up. And that’s the project, isn’t it? What can you live without? What’s necessary? Who do you love? Do they know? What hurts? What helps? Are you prepared to find the center out and hold on loosely, loosely, but for dear life? Beckett:  We try, fail, fail again, fail better. I’m failing my way toward the middle.

4 Comments

Filed under Camping and Travel, Poetry

T@B Diaries #3: Barton Park

The t@b trailer’s fourth voyage, third diary entry, and second father, son, and dog camping trip, this time to Barton Park on the Clackamas river . . .

  • during which frogs from a nearby pond sound off all night a noise not unlike the Australian didgeridoo, several of them, all resonating in different pitches;
  • during which Michael and Emerson get along pretty famously and the dog gets lots of attention and exercise;
  • during which Emerson feels bad on Sunday afternoon, sleeps for five hours in the middle of the day, wakes up hungry for hotdogs;
  • during which Emerson eats hotdogs for breakfast the next day;
  • during which Dad sits in a gigantic Adirondack;
  • during which we meet two former and favorite students working in the park, County employees, big kids, adults! Good on ya, Jacqui and Hailey! 
  • during which my son tells his uncle Dave that he loves him!  

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Camping and Travel