Category Archives: Literature

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Next Frontier

Look, a metaphor!

Remember that on July 3rd we campers were treated here at Mt. Holyoke College to a fireworks display of stupendous proportions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July, it was quiet. I’m not kidding. After the reading I sat on an Adirondack chair in the dark sipping whiskey in the middle of the lawn and I watched some stars shoot across the sky in relative silence. Not a single explosion. Well, maybe one or two, intermittently, distantly. Whoever was in charge of the display from the night before must have wanted to get all the pyrotechnic ya yas out early. That’s fine. It seemed to have worked swimmingly. I’ve become kind of a grump about fireworks. They are beautiful to watch if you can forget that they are, after all, mostly a gussied up reenactment of warfare. Not to mention the expense. Someday, perhaps, in a perfect world, in a new frontier, people will celebrate the fourth of July by blowing soap bubbles.

At the end of a class yesterday that described the literary history of American frontier exploration, both literal and symbolic, Alison asked us what we believed would be the next frontier. It was a brilliant, thought provoking question. And our responses were revelatory. We began, as you would expect us to do, with some more literal predictions. Well, there’s space, still, the infinite expanses of the universe. There’s quantum physics. My understanding is that there’s a boat load of stuff we still don’t know about the ocean. The human brain remains mysterious territory. Medicine. There will be technological advances every bit as revolutionary as the one’s we’ve experienced over just a few short years. That kind of stuff. Then the discussion got darker. As Alison’s talk had culminated in a description of Dystopia as the most recent literary “frontier,” we began to discuss the bleak, depressing, backwards, and absurd state of affairs in our country in the age of a Trump presidency. The new frontier seems dark, indeed. It was inevitable that we should land here, our first writer’s camp since the election. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess is that as creatives, as artists, as makers, we are in this community nearly unanimous in our outrage over the current state of American politics. We are all still smarting and trying to figure out what role we have to play in these next months and years.

And then the conversation shifted.

Bookstores are inundated with readers looking for rigorous political satire. African women are writing science fiction novels. People like us are here, in this place, in this time, coming together to write, talk about writing, celebrate each other, learn from each other, lift each other up emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Literature matters still. Literature teaches us how to be human. Literature teaches us how to be more empathetic and compassionate. Literature teaches us how to love. It was decided: we have to keep writing. And there, in this conversation about the power our words might have to make substantive difference in the world, someone suggested that the new frontier is in relationship, deep understanding and connection, the way in which our behavior in the world and our way of relating might have a ripple effect louder and farther than any firepower ever could.

And then we moved from that wonderful, enlivening conversation to an experiment with receiving and giving feedback about writing. So accustomed, as we are, to “workshops” in which the writer cannot speak but must listen as others try to communicate, sometimes helpfully but often narcissistically, what the writer needs to do to improve their work, what if instead the writer spoke the entire time and in response to honest, open questions from peers and friends, the sole purpose of which would be to elicit inquiry, reflection, discernment, to inspire the writer’s inner teacher to speak?

We tried that. The results, I think, were stunning. I believe there is almost nothing in the world more affirming than to feel and be heard. I know from personal experience that almost every moment of conflict in my life with another human being was the result of my inability or unwillingness to listen or from the perception that someone I loved or cared about was not listening to me. But what’s especially phenomenal and important and potentially transformational about this idea, is that this same gift can be given to or received from relative strangers.

There were individuals who had never met before yesterday partnered up to have this kind of conversation around writing, where one writer described a dilemma in his or her practice and then the other asked only honest, open questions and allowed the writer to speak in response. No suggestions. No advice. No fixing. No judgement. We listen attentively to others, we listen to our own responses, later, we help each other hear  and see what we might not have been conscious of, and this listening then percolates its way into clarity–immediately in some cases, in a few hours sometimes, or after weeks or months of slow cooking.

So the new frontier might be a transformation that occurs when individuals, when groups, when cultures, when whole nations learn to listen. I’m no Polyanna. But I do sometimes tend toward rose-colored glasses, or glasses half full. I’m pretty disgusted with a lot of things, but I am also heartened and hopeful where I see sense, integrity, decency, kindness, compassion–and that stuff is all around us. Over the last four days I’ve been soaking in it, Palmolive-like. We start where we are. My friend Mark insisted that we begin with those in our immediate reach. It will ripple outward, like fireworks, only softer, like soap bubbles.

Try this at home.

 

 

 

 

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#234: On Rereading a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously
marked in three or four
colors of highlighter and
underlined and bracketed
and annotated with pen and pencil
seven different ways to Sunday.
I’ve read and reread
and reread this novel perhaps
eight or nine times now,
but this time I choose
a clean, elegant copy over
my raggedy-ass classroom
copy and it’s like reading
it for the first time again.
I’m a sucker for fine editions
and could not resist this one.
I can smell the ink.
I can feel the lettering
engraved into the spine
like braille, or like the text
carved into a tombstone.
And my reading this time
is not cluttered by my previous
readings, marked up by
some earlier version of me
who thought he had answers.
I complain sometimes
about the time I lack to
read new work because
I am always rereading to
teach. And yet, with this gem,
I might be happy if it were
the only book I could ever
read until I died.
Every time I read it
I find new things to love
and new reasons to mourn or hope,
and I understand more deeply
how tragic our history,
how tenacious our ghosts,
how all the repair work
in our country that needs doing
(now more than ever before)
springs from this, from this.

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#186: On Writing Retreat

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On Writing Retreat,
December 5, 2015, L. L. Stub Stewart State Park, Buxton, Oregon

It’s raining so hard here,
it would be unthinkable
to go outside for a walk.
So I am stuck in this cabin
without internet access
and there’s only a few
things to do: listen to
music, meditate, read,
eat, or, the thing that I
have come here intentionally
to do, write. I am writing.
I will break now and then
to listen, breathe, read
from the one book I brought,
Labyrinths by Borges,
grab a bite to eat, and at
night, I will drink some
wine and write straight
through until I can’t do it
anymore. There’s no one
to talk to. My neighbors
in other cabins stick to
themselves and I rarely
see them. I am happy to
be able to stand myself,
to be in my own company
and not feel bereft or alone.
That’s a good sign, I think.
And on retreat I find
the necessary and absolute
lack of distraction and
freedom from responsibility
to be the crucial
ingredients that make it
possible for me to really
come to the page, to be
present with language
and thought in a way I can
never be or rarely be
in the routine of the
day to day. So here,
on a cliff that looks out
on to the mountain range
that separates the Willamette
Valley from the Oregon Coast,
in Buxton (a town in my
own state I never knew existed),
half way between Banks and
Vernonia, I forget about the
difficulty of getting here, and
I write about work,
I look into my new novel,
plan a course of reentry after
a months-long absence,
and I write this poem
in praise of solitude, in
thankfulness to my beloved
who made it possible,
and in wonder at having
another 24 new hours
to myself .

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

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The Audio Book Experience: Musings on Being Read To and Reading Out Loud

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I have never been much of an audiobook kind of guy. I like reading. I’ve always felt a kind of snobbery about the audiobook, as if somehow the actual reading of text on a page and making all of the voices and inflections and imagery happen in one’s head is a more rigorous endeavor, that listening is kind of like cheating. This may or may not be true–and it comes from a guy who loves to read out loud for a listening audience, be they students or readers of my fiction or fellow writers. Maybe it’s the actor in me–but I think reading out loud to an audience or being read to can be a kind of transformative experience.  More on this later.

I recently tried audible.com, and some time ago I finished listening to my first ever unabridged audio book: Robin E. Black​’s  Life Drawing. I loved the experience. The writing, clearly exquisite and wise, but the performance by Cassandra Campbell was pretty phenomenal. And I’m amazed, but not surprised, how the audiobook experience can be so totally shaped by the performance of the reader.  After that first successful round I tried a sample of another book I have been interested for a long time in reading, but the voice of the reader bothered me to such a degree that I could not go through with it.

I tried again with a book I have on my shelf, started reading some years ago now and for some reason gave up on, Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I love Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel Housekeeping is still for me one of the greatest American novels of the last half of the 20th century.  So I didn’t give up on Home because of a lack of interest, but rather for the reason I give up on a lot of reading projects these days: I get distracted and I move on to another thing.  It’s not a characteristic for which I am especially proud.  So I downloaded Home from audible.com.  It took me awhile, but I finally, on Father’s Day in fact, listened to the novel’s conclusion–but with this exception: for the last 50 pages or so of the novel, I pulled the book down off of the shelf and I read along with the audio.

I do not own a copy of Robin Black’s novel. I listened to that entire audiobook and, as I’ve said, it was a great experience, but I would find my brain, every now and again, drifting away from the narrative, trying to go somewhere else, and frustrated, I would sometimes have to listen again to entire sections–in the same way, I suppose, we have to reread a paragraph from an actual book when our minds wander away. Not a reflection at all on the quality of the writing or the performance of the reader–it’s all pretty much our fault, the fault of a recalcitrant brain.  But I found, when I picked up Robinson’s novel and read along while I was listening, something really wonderful happened with my level of engagement, my comprehension, and my emotional investment.  I was all over it.

I think I understand the appeal for most folks about audio books.  If you like to read but have to drive a lot and it kills your leisure time for reading, audio books are good.  If you like to work out, are a runner or a gym frequenter, audio books are a good way to exercise the mind WHILE you do the whole body thing.  If you can’t read, or don’t read well, and like the idea of experiencing this thing called a book, audio books may be of some help.  But I think I, as a recent convert to the audio book experience, appreciate the audio book in a different way–and who knows, maybe there are others in the same boat. As I said above, I love to read out loud, to an audience, sure, but often, if I can manage it, alone in the house or lounging in the yard, to myself. Yes, I love to read out loud to myself.  And here’s the key reason I find the audiobook, in particular the audiobook in companionship and in tandem with the actual analog book, to be so rewarding.

The brain wants to go places.  Specifically, the brain wants to go other places while reading. The brain has to have total buy-in and focus for its host human to be able to read well.  Some people are gifted as readers, or rather, they’ve worked really hard in the practice of reading, and this kind of concentration is second nature to them. Most of us, I bet, are not in this boat.  Sometimes as a reader, I’m on fire.  But most of the time, I have difficulty attending for long periods at a stretch, UNLESS, I am reading out loud.  Or, as I’ve discovered recently, I am reading with my eyes while listening to an effective reading performance recorded for my pleasure and edification by some professional voice actor.

Here’s what happens, and it’s what I would argue happens when I read out loud to students most of the time. The eyes are seeing the words and the brain is doing that whole incredible decoding thing, and on top of the decoding, the brain does that whole comprehension thing where squiggly markings become abstract sounds which become words which become concepts and images which strung together with other concepts and images become meaningful sentences that tell a story, prove a point, or a million other things. On top of that already sophisticated brain activity, the ears are hearing the sounds and the words and the sentences and the brain is decoding that as well and ultimately it’s as if the reader is reading twice, two times simultaneously.  Two times the comprehension.  Two times the enjoyment.  It’s like a chorus of understanding and appreciation. So that’s part of it.  I read better when I am seeing, speaking, and listening, or at least two of these three in tandem.

But there’s another aspect to reading out loud or being read out loud to that is not about comprehension but about community, connection, and intimacy.  I think there is something so integral and profound and ancient about the act of oral storytelling, first of all in public or in a public way, e.g., the public reading in classrooms, bookstores, libraries, and theaters, or the public availability and consumption of the audio book, but secondly, and more profoundly, perhaps, the reading out loud in private and in partnership.  I love to read out loud to my son. Before my son was born and we had more time, my wife and I used to take turns reading out loud to each other, a ritual I sorely miss. I don’t even know if I have the words to express what this particular practice has meant to me.  Would it be illegal to close by quoting a William Stafford poem in its entirety?  I’m going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.  It’s that good.  It’s that important.  Good night.  Find somebody who will read out loud with you.

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#140: I Was Raised By. . .

Another mentor text, this time the one we used with our freshmen, to inspire poetry about who or what we credit for “raising” us.  The wonderful thing about using a mentor text, learning explicitly the moves of a writer we admire, is that all the 14 year olds end up writing these lively, effective poems.  Theirs are likely as good as mine.  Here’s the video of Kelly Norman Ellis performing her poem, “Raised by Women,”  followed by my attempt at following the mentor text.

I Was Raised By . . .

(After Kelly Norman Ellis)

I was raised by Mom and Dad,
easy going with me (but not for my older siblings),
music listening, affection giving,
martini drinking, catholic practicing,
church going, money saving, penny pinching,
state park camping, trailer pulling, swimming pool
building, garden planting, perfume and after-shave wearing,
square dancing, forgiving, loving kind of Mom and Dad.

I was raised by older brothers and a sister,
8-track tape popping, reel to reel spinning,
turntable turning, drive-in working,
hallway fighting, irresponsible under-age
drinking, kidney dialysis machine fixing,
marrying too soon, having kids too soon
and divorcing, Jesus finding, Bible-thumping,
Precision Castparts working forever,
heating and cooling installation
kind of older brothers and a sister.

I was raised by music,
drumming on tables, my big sister’s records,
my brothers’ records, the Beatles and the Monkees
in one room blasting, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
in the other, the pop and the rock in the same house,
inhabiting my musical skin, forging my tastebuds.
I was raised by my first record, “Captain Fantastic,”
my first stereo system, a hand-me-down from brother #2,
full blast home alone lip syncing with a tennis racket,
my first band jamming at the house,
neighbors yelling the line from “Joe’s Garage,”
“Turn it down!  Don’t you boys know any nice songs?!”
kind of rock and roll music. 

I was not raised by books at first, but
by television, monster family showing,
combined family living, night stalking,
creature featuring, witch marrying,
50’s diner hopping, and space traveling
kind of television.

I was raised by teachers,
novel reading, chalkboard scribbling,
overhead projecting, big hearted,
mostly generous and well meaning
“You have a gift for writing”
kind of teachers.

And finally, almost adult,
the life of the word finally adopted
and raised me, at first mostly men,
Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Milton, Orwell, Joyce, Beckett,
Ellison, Twain, Vonnegut, Barthelme,
and then my literary mothers, Atwood,
Robinson, Walker, Morrison, Oliver;
all these widening my perspective kind of writers
after the teachers and television and the music
and the family, I was raised, brought up finally by the word.

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The Post Writer’s Camp Blah Blah Blahs: How to Deal

 

Home, 2015?

Wally Conference home, 2015?

Of course I was happy to be home. Of course I missed my family and was immensely glad to see them. Of course I didn’t miss that ugly, tiny, springy, single dorm mattress and that sweltering dorm room. Of course it was good to sleep in my own bed on the second night home, having slept the first night home in my son’s bed with my son because he missed me and it was sweet and the right thing to do. Generally speaking, again, I was and am happy to be back home. And yet, a week later, a post-writer’s-camp-funk has descended and lingers on me like a gigantic black cloud. I’m a teacher on Summer break; it’s not like I had to jump right back into the work fray. I’ve got leisure, and I don’t have to work until August, but at home there are a thousand and one distractions and responsibilities keeping me (I imagine) from writing and reading and separating me from the rest of my camper friends, save for those I can find in the digital realm, a blessing, if Facebook could ever be said to be a blessing.

Writer’s Camp, for me, every time I’ve had the opportunity to attend, is like pure bliss, an extended, uninterrupted bliss.  Besides being occasionally tired as a result of not quite enough sleep on uncomfortable beds, or being too warm in Mass or cold in Cali by the bay, I am, at Writer’s Camp, continuously on fire with happiness, contentedness, gratitude, and full of creativity at a pitch unlike anything I experience at home over the course of the year–with very few exceptions.  Psychologically, I think I understand this.  Like a love affair, a vacation to some exotic locale, or a kind of high brow Trekkie convention, the sheer novelty of being in a place where everyone is interested in the same thing and equally supportive of one another, where most of our day-to-day distractions, worries, and dramas are for the most part absent, and where we feel like we are continuously representing our best selves while simultaneously experiencing others at their best, brings about a kind of heady euphoria that pales in comparison to the “real life” we live back home. So the challenge–and I do not believe it is a challenge that is beyond me–the challenge is to somehow bottle the goodness of camp, allow it to sustain me rather than depress me in its absence.  I’m up for this challenge, but it’s not an easy thing.  Here are some strategies:

I read the published works of my friends from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers; such a wealth of talent, generosity and literary richness and diversity I have found nowhere else in contemporary letters.

I negotiate with the family some writing time or mini-retreats; all I have to do is ask and plan ahead and my wife of 28 years and my son understand how important this stuff is to my health and happiness and wellbeing and I am eternally grateful for their support.

Finally, I look forward to next year’s camp in a big way: I have taken on the responsibility to host the next conference in my home town at my undergraduate and teaching program alma mater.  I pray to The Big Cheese that nothing goes haywire there.   I am confident and excited about its potential success. And what a gift that will be: my Writer’s Camp Buddies from the MFA Writing Program at Warren Wilson College will all be in my proverbial living room, at my table, in my backyard–and the idea of that (not to mention that I won’t have to get on a plane) will mightily sustain me until next summer!

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