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

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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!

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The chapel panorama

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The chapel

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The clubhouse

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The Mississippi

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Hell’s Kitchen

 

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#346: I Drove Through the Desert and Back Over a Mountain to Get Home

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I drove for three hours, through the desert and back over a mountain, to get home. Listening to XTC the whole way, I felt every twenty minutes or so tears of gratitude welling up, which I staved off, because I was driving at sixty-five miles per hour and singing along to every single song, neither activity conducive to weeping, even though I felt like weeping, even though I kind of wanted it.

I drove through the desert and back over the mountain to get home. Sometimes, you feel luckier than you deserve, you feel somehow unworthy of this kind of life, even with its bullshit struggles, even with its blights; these are your bullshit struggles and your blights, your insecurities and idiosyncratic hang-ups and disappointments, but you still feel lucky. You think about the people you love in your life and you want to cry for that richness. And you think about these strangers you just spent a weekend with, and you feel love for them too, and privileged and honored to know and serve them, and that makes you want to cry.

I drove through the desert and back over the mountain to get home, and I felt that way, stupid and lucky, flawed and happy, unworthy and honored, in awe and full of wonder for this life, on the verge of tears, while Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding sang to and with me, and every sign I saw along the drive said the same thing: You are here.

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#344: I Drove Over the Mountain to Get Here

I drove over the mountain to get here. I drove over Mount Hood. I drove over the mountain into the desert. Eventually, I ended up close to three other mountains, the ones we call The Sisters. I drove over the mountain to get here. This is the place where I will try to help people look inwardly. This is the place where I will observe the silence. I drove over the mountain to practice listening, next to these other mountains. I drove over the mountain to a town called Wonder, or Solitude. I drove over the mountain to create community with complete strangers. I drove over the mountain to this place. Look up: the sign says, You Are Here.

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A Single Dispatch After the AWP Conference

The lanyard. My glasses.

Oh my god, after three days of the kind of intensity that only a conference of thousands of creative writers under one roof could generate, I am spent. And yet, at 4:30 on Saturday, as I walk away from the Oregon Convention Center at the end of my last session at the Association for Writers and Writer’s Programs Conference, there are dozens of friends from across the country still somewhere lost in those throngs–closing up the book fair, attending or participating in the last afternoon lecture or panel, perhaps preparing for one more night of readings and some kind of culminating dance party–and I feel a deep sadness walking away without being able to say goodbye to each of them. What saves me from despair is that right before I get up to walk to my car, I get to see and chat briefly one more time with one of my first English College Professors ever, 36 some years ago now, in Writing 122, Tim Barnes. He looks great, happy, and he wants to publish one of my prose poems in the Friends of William Stafford Journal and Newsletter. And I am off, returning home for the last Saturday night and Sunday at the close of Spring Break.

Now I’m going to try, in a kind of breakneck and fragmented way, to describe my experience of the last three days at the AWP Conference.

First of all, to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of each day’s offerings, here’s ONE page covering ONE day in the events schedule, followed by a map of the book fair, each tiny number representing a table or a booth run by a big small press, a small press, a tiny press, a writing conference, a writing getaway, or an MFA program in Creative Writing. It would be possible to spend 3 days in the book fair alone and not exhaust the possibilities. But as you can see looking at my copy of the schedule, I allowed myself only about an hour and a half each day to hang out at the book fair.

One day of three. Too many choices!

The book fair map.

Some thoughts on the offerings:

Unless one makes an unwavering commitment to forever and only publish in small presses, a fiction writer in want of a publisher needs an agent. While most of what this panel of five women from New York agencies revealed I already knew, here are a few takeaways or nuances from Agents 101:

  • For non-fiction you need a proposal; for fiction you need a complete manuscript. This seems a little unfair to fiction writers, but given the market for non-fiction compared to the market for fiction, I kind of get it. But I don’t like it.
  • As a fiction writer, you need to know something about the agents you’re sending work to—whose books they’ve sold, generally, what their tastes might be, whether or not your work fits into these parameters. But this strikes me as absurd in some ways, when I think about my limited time on Earth. Let’s say, if I’m lucky (and I have not been), I send my book to 20 different agents before someone wants to represent me: how much material did I need to be familiar with in order to really know how each of these 20 agents might be right for my work?
  • An agent, after they have agreed to represent you, may ask for as many as six revisions of your novel. Okay.
  • Agents, at least these ones, did not seem to have a problem with the idea of representing a work that had been previously self-published by the author. Hmm.
  • The stage was low, like, non-existent, and every single agent on the panel sat at a table. While I listened closely to every word, I never saw a single face, could not at the end tell you which agent was which. This seemed super dumb to me.

In a session called Page to Stage, I saw Taylor Mali perform in the flesh. I’m a fan. This was exciting. He’s a performance poet, runs a reading in New York City and invites all kinds of poets, is trying to break down the distinctions and barriers between performance poetry (slam poetry) and page poetry. Afterwards, I said hello, told Mali I appreciated his poetry about teaching, told him I was a 30-year veteran, and he gave me a sample pack of his Metaphor Dice.

In How to Talk About Yourself in Non-fiction, the most enlightening figure on the panel was renowned non-fiction writer Phillip Lopate. He was the only one on the panel who did not speak from prepared notes, but he struck me as being totally authentic, honest, funny, insightful and encouraging. His idea that the internal story is just as important (if not more so) than the external story, I found especially relevant: “Your intellectual life is part of your life!” How to distinguish between self-reflectiveness and self-absorbtion? See yourself as comic, he said. And see yourself at some distance. And be forgiving: “Everyone is narcissistic to some degree.” And writers—geez—none of us would write a word if we did not in some ways love ourselves. Right?

I saw Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout, and Joan Silber, author of Improvements, (a former teacher of mine!) give short readings of their new work and sit together for an interview and discussion. What an odd but terrific pairing. Takeaways? From Joan Silber: it is not the job of fiction to tell us what we already know. And this: neither writer admitted to reading their work out loud in the creative process. This blows my mind. I read every word I write out loud before I share it with anybody, and I advise my students to read their work out loud whenever they can as a sure-fire effective way to know what’s working and what needs work.

Colson Whitehead spoke for an hour about fried chicken and it was glorious. Best keynote ever. I haven’t read him yet. The Underground Railroad, anyone? It’s on a priority list for me.

In a session called Translating the Dark, most memorable were the contributions from C.J. Hribal and Goldie Goldbloom, both Warren Wilson MFA program compatriots. Goldie spoke about the myth of the likeable character, gave us a dozen examples of great main characters that were anything but likeable, talked about the importance, if you want to write the unlikeable character, of abandoning parts of ourselves, those parts of us conditioned to be “nice.” C.J. spoke about juxtaposition, tonal and narrative, counterpoint, how often writers approach the dark and then swerve. A reminder of the old adage (I don’t know who said it first), that one must go through the darkness in order to come out the other side. Can’t go around. Big ol’ cup o’ nope.

Real Women Talk Dirty, it turns out, is a true statement. Feminist women writers write about sex, yes, they do. English, I understood from Merritt Tierce, is a bad language through which to talk about genitals. Our options are limited, vulgar on the one hand and clinical on the other—very few choices in between. Metaphor is useful. Here’s a few more: plot doesn’t stop for sex. Sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

I have a personal stake in this topic, in that human sexuality and sex expression is a topic that fascinates me, that I have written about, albeit, more bravely and openly when I was younger than I have in recent years, and never on the blog, except in the most oblique way. I ended up writing a note to myself in my journal: “How much do I hold back, not just about sex, but about politics or religion, because of my public position professionally, my efforts, as Ms. Goldbloom discussed in a previous panel, at being ‘nice’? I don’t like the idea of waiting for retirement to be brave.” There’s that.

On a related note, David Shields signed my copy of The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, in which I am quoted twice, once in the very first paragraph of the book.

I saw Tess Gallagherand Ilya Kaminski read together Friday late afternoon and it was phenomenal. I had an image in my head of Gallagher from the 80’s, so it was kind of a revelation to see this 75 year-old poet. She still is vital and relevant and funny and awesome every which way. I had never read or heard Ilya Kaminsky, but I had seen his name often mentioned in the poetry circles. Another revelatory reading. I had never heard anything like it. He’s a Ukrainian-born, Russian-American poet, his accent was thick, and his performance style was more akin to chant or incantation or singing than it was to the reading of poetry—very intense, sometimes reaching a kind of fevered pitch and usually ending in almost a whisper. His reading was accompanied with a big screen projection of his poems, which I was thankful for, but I still had to work pretty hard to keep tracking. The audience members who knew his work reacted to him as people do rock stars. Women around me were weeping. Check out this new collection, Deaf Republic. Mind blown.

Dinner. Imagine, if you will, thousands of writers at the Oregon Convention Center who, after the late afternoon reading, need to find a place to dine. Now imagine what it’s going to be like to find a seat at one of the restaurants close by. My friend Kathryn, her husband Tom, and another friend, Sandy, and I walked up and down streets, clocked a couple of miles, looking for a place to eat that was quiet and not too crowded. We did find a place to eat, but it wasn’t quiet and it was super crowded. Nevertheless, the food was delightful, the company was good, and I had the best Manhattan I’ve ever had.

The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers held a reception at The Doug Fir Lounge for faculty, alumni, current and prospective students. I love this community, am increasingly grateful for its role in my creative life, its transformative tendrils always working on me, keeping alive the fiction writer and poet in me. And what a gift it was to have that space to hang, to reunite with old friends, and to meet new Wallies, all of us on this journey through an artful life.

I have for a long time been drawn to and excited about the indy press that calls itself McSweeny’s. Founded by fiction writer Dave Eggers, it has become in 20 years’ time one of the most prestigious and widely recognized presses in the nation, known especially for its forays into adventurous and unique kinds of literary art and its beautiful and often whimsical design. If nothing else, this panel made me still more enthusiastic about the press, inspired me to get a year’s subscription to their quarterly, and to scoop up as many of their authors as I could. I’ve got a long list now of writers to explore: Lucy Corin, Patty Yumi Cottrell, C Pam Zhang, Deb Olin Unferth, Rita Bullwinkel, Sheila Heti, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Hilton Als, and Miriam Toews. The worst thing about this panel: it brought home to me how embarrassingly and poorly read I am in contemporary literature. I’m going to moan about this right now just one more time and I’ll be done: it’s a tragedy that public school English Teachers don’t have time to read much other than what they happen to be teaching. Some of us find time to write—but at the expense of something, I’m betting. I know that’s true for me.

My penultimate experience at AWP was Punk Rock Presses (rinky dink, Forklift Ohio, Cardboard House, The Wax Paper). I don’t know that I have ever been so thoroughly engaged and entertained and moved by a panel discussion, one that has, in practical matters, nothing to do with becoming “successful” as a writer. As Matt Hart revealed in his moving essay about his Punk origins and trajectory as an indy publisher, “Money turns everything to shit.” All four of the presses represented on this panel were DIY to the extreme, anti-establishment in every way, unconcerned about profit or fame, in it exclusively for the love of it, the fun of it, and the revolutionary potential of it to build community through art. Rosemarie Dombrowski was the moderator, editor of rinky dink press, and she was beautiful and funny and super smart and I think I am a little bit in love.

My last experience at the AWP conference was a visit to a panel on which three of my Warren Wilson buddies were participating, Katherine Schwille (the moderator, author of What Luck, This Life), Nan Cuba (Body and Bread), and Adrianne Harun (A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain), and they were talking about Reimagining Tragedy. Each of these three and two others (Claudia Salazar and Sunil Yapa) had written books that placed a fictional lens on real historical and tragic events: the space shuttle Columbia disaster, a serial killer in Texas who may have had as many as 400 victims, an epidemic and virtually unreported series of missing indigenous women in British Columbia, political and military upheaval in 1980’s Peru, and the World Trade Center protests in Seattle in 1999. What was most fascinating to me about this panel were the varieties of perspectives about the approaches to these events. The commonality seemed to be that each writer represented a number of perspectives on the subject or tragic events in question. Beyond that, a number of distinct and idiosyncratic approaches. I wrote down Nan Cuba’s advice: find the medium, then find the vehicle—and along with that,  choose the right tone and the right structure for the material. All of them researched exhaustively, which to me is impressive and heroic. Too much work for me. I just want to make shit up or write from my own narrow experience. I remember William Stafford saying something like “the research for the work is your whole life.” At any rate, I digress. These writers were all so gracious, articulate, honest, engaging and inspiring. It was a perfect way to end the three-day conference–

–except for the sadness of leaving—not the conference, but these wonderful people, all of whom I would just like to pack up and take home with me. Conference schmonference. This was only my second AWP conference in 14 years. Its overwhelming buzz and sensory overload, coupled with the expense of travel, as inspiring and wonderful as it is, are the key reasons I stayed away. I came this year because 1. it was in my town, and 2. my friends were there. I’m happy I chose to go. I learned a lot and had a good time. It turns out that this entry was neither breakneck or fragmented. I just had to get it down. A more abbreviated version just would not have done the trick. I hope you enjoyed the ride and maybe learned a couple of things along the way with me.

One of the only quiet spaces I was able to find. The skybridge with a view to one of the two gigantic glass spires.

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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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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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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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