Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: More Songs about Buildings, Food, Flora, Courses, Lectures, Panels, Endings

 

This is the campus bookstore here at Dominican University. Just kidding. It is the building in which the bookstore is housed. It is an incredible building, don’t you think?

Look at this beautiful thing.

I don’t know what happens in this building, but I took a picture of it. And then I went up on the porch, took a picture of the front door, and took another picture looking the other direction.

There’s a building named after Shakespeare’s wife. It’s the Hathaway House. I’ve heard Shakespeare is big here on campus.

I haven’t taken any pictures of the food. It happens not to be very photogenic. But this is interesting: we can have tater tots at every breakfast. That’s not a joke. Other observations: I spilled coffee yesterday all over my arm and I did not get burned. Katherine has had nothing but chicken, eggs, and salad. The children on campus are quite messy. Precocious as they might be, they can’t seem to get the food scraps into the compost bins. This afternoon I stepped on a French fry. This evening the curly kind of fry was all over the cafeteria floor, and someone had left a banana on a chair. I did not take a picture of that either.

These plants here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know what they are; my botanical knowledge is somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a jade plant in this garden about the size of my Honda Fit. I’ve already mentioned the evergreen with the dangerous pinecones. I still can’t get over these gigantic palm trees. They look to me like giant pineapples.

I haven’t taken very many pictures of people. More precisely, I have only taken two. I took a picture of myself a couple of days ago. And then today I took this selfie right here of myself with Joan Frank, an amazing individual and a phenomenal writer. She taught a class yesterday about the dangers of political fiction–or rather, its potential pitfalls, described brilliantly by Emily as “liberal porn.” Joan told us that “story” must have dominion over message. Message, with a capital M, when characters become mouthpieces for the writer’s causes, no matter how noble and good, can make a novel or a story suck. Joan’s class did the best possible thing–it got people thinking and talking. We’re still talking about it a day later and we’ll still be talking about it after all of us go home, I’m sure.

I meditated so hard yesterday morning, first with my own little gathering before breakfast, and then in a class that Leslie Blanco taught about meditation, spontaneity, and creativity. I almost arrived on another plane. I was also sleep deprived. And I’ve never introduced or followed up a meditation session with a freewrite (a la Natalie Goldberg). That was revelatory.

Allison Moore talked in the afternoon about memoir writing, which I hear generated incredibly deep, profoundly personal stories from many. I would love to have been there. I find at these incredibly content rich retreats, that I cannot and probably should not go to everything. There’s got to be a place to recharge, or rest. And many of us choose to spend a lot of time just writing. The beauty of this work is that everyone is invited to get what they need. For example, some of us need to kill the tendency to read in “the poetry voice,” that tendency that poets have, even some of the best poets, of habitually falling into a particular tonal patten that is rather tortuous to listen to and has the potential of destroying otherwise perfectly good poetry. So, many of us went to Sara’s class: “Death to the Poetry Voice.” I wasn’t sure that I needed that, but I hear people had a wonderful time, so I have to forgive myself for missing that one as well.

I was on a panel yesterday afternoon about writer’s block. Interestingly enough, I was blocked; it took me almost forty minutes before I said a word–only because there was tons of energy in the room, lots of people sharing their stories, their woes, their strategies for that most terrifying of predicaments for writers: not writing. Finally, I shared my silver bullets, primarily forced creativity experiences (napowrimo, nanowrimo, powersongwriting, those kinds of things), but most importantly, at least for me, community. My writer soul would die without my Warren Wilson friends, without this conference, and without the empowerment and discernment and clarity that comes to me in Courage and Renewal work. Without these two communities, I would wither.

Can I just say one more thing? Peg, Nan, and Marian did a rocking panel discussion about the pleasures and pains of small press publishing. It was both pleasurable and painful but totally informative, completely honest, and super-uber relevant. Three cheers to these three wonderful women who opened their hearts and their experiences up to their fellow Wallies.

One more day and then we head home. Six days is just the right number of days. Five would be not enough. Seven would be too many. Leaving the conference Wednesday morning, I will be at once happy to return home and sad to leave.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Generative Muscles

No one told me to get off the lawn! 

Edgehill Mansion

Some flora. Apparently, this tree on the right has a reputation for producing dangerously large pinecones 

Our digs for six nights

I began this blog post on the first full day of Writer’s Camp surrounded by writers in a quick half an hour session of generative writing practice–the large group version of what fellow camper Lauren Yaffe calls a writing buddy system: two or three or more people sit down in a room or at a table and they write together. Peg has a box of prompts in the event of blockage. I cheat, pick through the prompts, more just to see what she’s thrown in there than because I’m stuck. I think I know exactly what I want to write about, but getting at it might be the difficult part. I realize I may have to write about what I want to write about before I can write about it. Working my generative muscles.

Here we are at another new venue, Dominican University of California in San Rafael.  Another lovely Catholic institution welcomes our most un-Catholic proceedings. It’s very good of them.

So far, in the first 24 hours, we have snacked, eaten a meal, welcomed old friends and met new ones, enjoyed our first night of readings from seven fantastic poetry and prose writers, found a source for ice, and engaged in preliminary whiskey accompanied by loud and joyful conversation and laughter; we have slept in mostly very tall beds (I need a chair to step on in order to hit the hay); we slept late or meditated, and we ate breakfast with a lot of super young people on campus for other various programs; some of us have gone on short little jaunts into a nearby Trader Joe’s for supplies (I forgot shampoo and breath mints), and we have attended our first classes. An agent was here to talk to us about agenting, and we will have had, by the time dinner rolls around in about three hours, opportunities to nap, to learn about embodied narrative, narrative rhythm, and inventing what we desire–all very exciting stuff, especially that last bit. Tonight, there will be another 8 readers. This goes on for five days! It is glorious.

I’m reading tonight and that’s very exciting. Best, most appreciative and generous audience ever, as long as you do not exceed the ten minute time limit. People read from books they’ve published sometimes, but mostly folks like to try out new material on this most trusted group of friends. I think I’ll sport my disco bowtie, but I’m not 100% certain, and I think I should shave. I should probably also practice a bit. I may have to miss that class about narrative rhythm so that I can decide on the bowtie, shave, practice, maybe nap, and work my generative muscle, by which I mean: work on that poem that I wrote about writing about this morning. Speaking of poetry, even though I’m a fiction guy here in Wally World, I’ll be reading poetry tonight from a manuscript in progress and nearly finished which I’ve titled,  Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. I’m hoping to record it. If it turns out nicely, I may share, but no promises.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. Such abundance. A momentary stay from the general chaos. I’ll take it.  

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The Final Exam, Annotated

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I pulled out a few choice sentences that students wrote for my English 10 final exam, which consisted mostly of an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

The monster ended up going on a killing spree because he read The Grapes of Wrath and got the wrong idea about human kind.

I have no idea how this particular student conflated Steinbeck’s novel with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The monster in Shelley’s novel had skills, no doubt, but time traveling was not one of them, as far as I can tell.

Then someone else gets killed because everyone thought she had killed everyone that was dying.

Killed to death, as they say, for dying too much. I don’t know who “she” is. Maybe this student holds the author responsible for all the death and destruction. That’s fair.

Here’s a pretty astute craft observation about Mary Shelley’s tone:

So it shows tone because in some sentences it has capitals for all the letters if someone is yelling. If they are just talking it’s normal writing, and if someone is whispering then the letters are smaller than the rest.

Indeed. I had not noticed before that everything the monster says in this novel is in all capital letters. No wonder I felt like I was being yelled at. How did I miss this?

Without teachers there would be no life. We would just be a big sack of potatoes.

I’m so happy to know that I am responsible for my students not becoming sacks of potatoes. Career win.

The monster learning to be good and kind was sort of pointless if he’s just gonna go around strangling people.

Indubitably. All that goodness gone to waste.

Here’s another craft observation, more heart-felt than brainy:

The writer’s choice is to mostly write words that hit your feels and make you think awhile on the life you have.

I know this holds true for me. The first time I read this novel (I was about 35), I got hit in the feels all over. I, too, like this next student, was making powerful personal connections:

My father had not made me very happy in my life. And I felt the same way the monster did at this point. The only difference is that I did not go and kill his whole family.

My connections weren’t about my deadbeat dad. My dad was anything but deadbeat. I was the deadbeat dad, although, truth be told, I wasn’t a dad at the time. I just, in those years, felt more like the mad scientist than the monster; in other words, I was the bad guy.

Here’s some inventive historical context:

Frankenstein is an 1818 novel in a time of pitchforks and torches.

Oh, those were the days. You couldn’t spit in any direction without hitting a pitchfork or a torch. Kind of like coffee shops today, or, in Oregon, pot dispensaries.

And then, apropos not of Shelley, but Galway Kinnell:

This poem is about eating blackberries and I don’t know why anyone would write a poem about that.

Crazy poets.

 

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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#316: Chakras and Chi Balls (the Last Poem of April)

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Some people
associate a rainbow of colors with
various parts of their bodies and
they ascribe certain powers
or characteristics of their psycho-emotional
life to these various colors or energies;
Some people think you can concentrate
on a color, say, orange, and a body place,
say, your privates, and that somehow
your relationships will be more intimate,
the sex will be better, and you will
experience a kind of emotional centeredness.
And some people play with imaginary balls,
balls that contain something called Chi,
and that Chi Energy allows one to touch,
warm, or heal someone else
without laying a finger on them
or to feel their energy coming right back.
I held my imaginary Chi ball
and a couple of people moved their
hands around it and I felt pretty silly.
I just wanted to be quiet.
Or I wanted to look at a real thing,
say, my specific thinking about an
issue in my life and in the world,
or I wanted to read a poem
about dirt, or birds, you know,
something like what Mary Oliver would write,
and then just be quiet around that,
and maybe talk a little bit about it
with people who were interested in things.
And I don’t mind checking out someone
else’s energy, but I think I’d do that better
without the use of imaginary balls,
with my eyes open, looking at them,
hearing them talk, listening to their stories,
asking them good questions.
I’m not trying to debunk or
otherwise poke at anyone else’s Chi Balls
or Chakra energies, and I know it’s
wrong of me to call these things
imaginary; I just think I’m in a
different wagon, one that’s lower
to the ground, one that steers
toward the concrete, materialistic
world of stuff and things and the
myriad processes of the heart,
the brain, and all those other organs.
All my invisibles are manifested there.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt to color them up
like a rainbow, and I can imagine the
middle of my forehead as glowing
a deep purple color if I want,
but no matter how many times
I catch myself in the mirror, my
forehead is still going to be the color
of my forehead, and that eye,
the third one, has likely divided
and moved to either side of my head
where it has become ears that listen,
or it has submerged deep inside my head
where I think my thoughts and live my life.

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#315: On the Penultimate Day of April, the English Teacher in his Penultimate Year Writes a Long Rambling Poem Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s Burst of Productivity in the Months Before She Died

I’m not going anywhere,
but (having lost now both mom and dad)
I notice thoughts about mortality
enter the noggin with more frequency
these days. I’m reading, or rather,
listening to Life Reimagined, where
Barbara Bradley Hagerty argues
essentially that there is really no such
thing as a mid-life crisis for most
mid-lifers. Much of that belief is
myth, she says, and she’s beginning
to share a number of conclusions
she’s come to about how to maximize
the middle. And this, from Sylvia
Plath’s “Crossing the Water.”

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

Rosencrantz comes to mind,
who asks, do you think death could
be like a boat? Guildenstern’s reply is
that death is the ultimate negative, that
one could not NOT be on a boat.

Rosencrantz: I’ve often not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, what you’ve been is not on boats.

While I find these lines hilarious,
don’t ask me to explain what they mean.
I’m on deck, though, with Guildenstern.
Which brings me back to Hagerty’s
meditation on middle age, and back
to Plath, who wrote 67 poems in the last
ten months of her life, some of her best
work, I understand, though I’m no expert.
I love what I’ve read of hers, though,
and I’m sad when I think about her early
death. But she was a force, and I find
this burst of productivity at the end of
her life more inspiring than anything
else, having no reason to expect an
early demise, feeling healthy (give or
take 10 pounds and the discipline
to drink less and exercise more),
and having written 29 poems in
29 days, 315 poems over five years,
in short, I feel hopeful about my middle
and sometimes, manically inspired,
like there’s a bug or a boat or a voice
whose insistent refrain is create, create.
Make poems, make music, tell stories,
read books, walk in the woods, camp
under stars, and stop worrying about
those papers sitting on my desk right
now that need grading. Whether or not
this is in actual fact my penultimate year,
I nevertheless resist working harder
at the finish and instead continuing to
work smarter and better, to ignore the nag,
that other bug, boat, voice, cut-paper
people, those black trees casting a
shadow over all of Canada. I’d like
to go back to Canada. Live there, even.
But that, is truly, a digression.
And I don’t know how to close.
Let’s just optimistically choose
a new color and end with what
Peter Sears called poetry by corruption:

Blue lake, blue boat, three blue, true-blue people.
Why do the blue trees stop to drink here?
Their shadows, blue, sprouting their thick,
green, springtime oak leaves, shout O Canada,
because at the top, Victoria seems only like
a block or two away.

Postscript: Super cool Sylvia Plath website– https://plathpoetryproject.com

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