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.  

7 Comments

Filed under Writing and Reading

The Final Exam, Annotated

Unknown

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.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching, Writing and Reading

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

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

3b8990934a5695883fb0365c28398c41

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

#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

2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

#314: To Whom It May Concern

vintage-postcard-back1

To Whom It May Concern
Wherever You Are
City, State, Zip Code

Hello to Whom,

I think this may concern you. I’ve been thinking about you, lately more than usual, I guess, ever since the weather turned. There’s been a disturbance. It’s been too long. That thing people say on postcards: I wish you were here. It’s a true statement. The trees are beautiful and the water is fine. The food is super edible and you should see the horses, all the pretty horses. Goats too. And too many boats to count. Too many boats and goats. Mares eat oats and goats eat oats and little lambs. I’ve always felt sad about that. Hope you are well and that someday you return to us in your customary way–because we like your customary way. Please write. Send words. xoxoxo

Michael

2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

#313: The World Is Too Much All Up in Here

old-tarot-cards-full-deck-world-colorful-major-arcana-card-vintage-hand-drawn-engraved-illustration-mystic-symbols-67139358

I have no idea what any of this means. 

(my advance apologies to anyone serious about this stuff, and to Wordsworth)

My world card tells me
that I’ve got time in my pinky,
a king on my ring,
twenty one flip-off capacity,
death in my forefinger,
and a sun up my thumb.
But I’ve got the whole world,
as the song says,
in my hand (repeated over
and over again), literally,
inside the palm of my hand,
and some random stuff
floating around that I’ve
got no ideas about, such as
400 of something, the symbol
for pi, a dagger especially effective
at engraving question marks,
some twigs with leaves,
and most importantly,
an M that leads both north
and south, into the clouds
and down under dirt,
towards the heavens and
into hell, loud as the number 11
and pianissimo on the other end.
The world is too much all up in here,
late and soon. It’s a damn
hot potato, a sordid boon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry