Tag Archives: creative writing

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Tropical Flesh Mandala

I slept for seven hours cuddled up with my tiny electric fan–literally.  I thought maybe I’d roll over in the middle of the night and knock it off the mattress, or, worse, dreaming that I was snuggling with this machine, I might wake up with my hair caught in the fan blades.  No, it was safe and I was safe.  I didn’t move and the fan, sitting right next to me on the mattress, whirred me to sleep, kept me cool, and finally, on the fourth night at Wally Writer’s Camp, I slept well enough to be downright jazzed about attending this morning’s first class, having something to do with the iconic Buddhist, Hindu, sometimes Christian, oftentimes secular symbol or practice of the mandala. For readers who may not know what a mandala is, rather than define it, here’s an example I pulled from the mighty web in a 30 second google search:

SmallMandala

The class was taught by my new Wally buddy, the poet Michael Collins, and he facilitated the class in the best way, or perhaps, the only way in which to facilitate such a class with writers.  He had 20 or 30 different mandalas spread around the room.  In an hour Michael spoke less than 3 or 400 words.  Instead of talking about them, he orchestrated for us an experience with them. We looked at mandalas; we wrote about mandalas; some of us moved around from mandala to mandala; some of us remained faithful to one the entire time. In silence and on our notepads or notebooks, we described, told stories around, and dialogued with the mandalas, and then finally we made one of our own.  For about twenty minutes we were coloring, and it was exhilarating.

But here’s the thing for me that speaks to both the power of this kind of work and of the mandala specifically, but, more importantly, to the synchronistic quality that often percolates through a Wally Writer’s Camp experience.  After describing and narrating the particular mandala each of us had chosen, Michael instructed us to dialogue with it.  And, after giving us a few quick descriptors about what that might look like, he made an offhand quip to put us at ease and make us laugh: “You know, maybe you’ve got a character that talks to art.”

As it so happens, in my current project in fiction writing, I have a character that talks to art.  My dialogue had nothing to do with that, but with the particular mandala I was looking at, a series of four trees around the circle, each tree in a different stage of its year, bare, leafing, blooming, fruiting. But Michael’s comment stuck with me, and the mandala that I created later represented the four characters in my novel and their interconnectedness, and then, later, when I squirreled off by myself to write in my sky room (once more unoccupied!), I wrote a scene in which my character talks to art.

Today, in part because of a good night’s sleep, in part because of Michael’s fortuitous class, and in part because René just texted me a picture of my son, I have been grateful and happy almost beyond comprehension.

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P.S.  This is not the mandala I was looking for, but t’will serve.

P.S.P.S.  Oh, here it is, right in front of my face.

Photo on 7-2-14 at 3.48 PM

The mandala I made for my characters, while useful, was ugly.  I won’t be posting it.

 P.S.P.S.P.S.  And this, for Michael Collins, who has never heard of Robyn Hitchcock, is a song from his 80’s solo album Globe of Frogs, “Tropical Flesh Mandala.” The piano solo during the end fade is especially brilliant and terrible.

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Organized Chaos

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Well, to begin with, a Wally boy who shall go nameless (after doing an absolute killer reading from his new novel) came down to the porch at about 10 o’clock last night wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, and for the rest of the conference, I predict we will be asking him over and over what a friend of mine asked this practically naked Wally as he appeared on the porch last night: “You going for a swim?” No, he was not going for a swim. He had locked himself out of his dorm room. His rescue, or his reunion with his room, was not an easy task. Were there spare keys? Who had them? Call the college. Not outside business hours. Call the Wally organizer. Not on campus. He lets us know over the phone who has the spare keys. But where is she? We haunt her floor. Calling her name. Knocking randomly on doors. She must be asleep. Finally, we learn her room number. She wakes, produces a key, and all is well.

Today I’m thinking about organized chaos, in particular, the organized chaos of a first person narrator who is, essentially, like Huck Finn, like Nick Carraway, like Holden Caulfield, talking all the time. Of these three representative narrators, perhaps only Huck and Holden could be said to be “talking,” whereas Nick’s formality and philosophical musings seem to represent the more deliberate and intentional act of the written word. My narrator is talking—all of the time. He’s not the kind of guy who would write a book, but he’s got a lot of stuff to say.

Realistic talk, even storytelling that appears to us in the course of conversation, is rarely neat and tidy. There are disruptions, interruptions, distractions, tangents, repetitions. And composing a work of fiction around this type of point of view can be taxing, especially in the earliest stages of drafting. If the narration wants to feel spoken, there’s a degree of chaos that ensues. And of course it’s kind of a ridiculous conceit: who talks non-stop for two hundred pages? And who’s listening? Who’s the audience? And how might the speaker organize that chaos so that the writer’s hand in it is negligible or invisible. A first person narrator like Faulkner’s Benjy is probably not even viable in today’s publishing and/or reading climate. I sometimes wonder what’s becoming of our contemporary Faulkners. They’ve probably all gone the way of Shakespeare’s sister from A Room of One’s Own, nuts and then dead. That’s terrifying. I don’t want to go there. So I am trying to organize my narrator’s chaos. I am trying to help him get back into his dorm room so as to not have to haunt the halls of Ham, nearly naked, calling the name of the key-keeper.

Today, I did a lot of cutting and pasting, moving text around, trying to remember what this guy has said already and where he said it, trying to make sense of the chronological sequence. Once, I fell asleep in a chair. I watched a Pomplamoose video and then I jumped up and down, danced a bit. Then, instead of going back to my narrator, I started to write this. See, it’s not only that my narrator is telling his story; his story, in fact, takes a bit of a back seat to the stories of two other characters who have told their stories to him. Unlike Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is speaking and not writing, but like Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is what we call a peripheral first person narrator. His job seems to be to tell somebody else’s story. But he tells it, is compelled to tell it, because it has touched him in some significant way, but he’s got to speak in order to make sense, and as he speaks, he decides (sometimes on the fly) what to reveal and in what order, and hopefully, he lets me in on the plan. My job is to listen. Who’s holding the key to organizing this chaos? My narrator has the key to my dorm room. Luckily, I am fully dressed.

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The Power of Retreat

St. Mary's College, Moraga, California

St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California

The truth of the matter is I didn’t read a single word of Moby Dick. I remain today on the same page I was on a week ago. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my wife and son, I have been on retreat for a week at St. Mary’s College in Moraga for the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, to write, to learn from and listen to and play with the best writing community my world has ever known, and, with some extra time left over, to read Moby Dick.  Only the last thing on this list got absolutely no attention.  I’ve forgiven myself already, mostly because the rewards of these other items were so immensely bountiful, and so I want to spend some words today reflecting about the power of this thing I’ve been able to do, the power of a thing from which everybody could probably benefit no matter what their work or vocation, the power of retreat.

Retreat: a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.  Well, yes, sort of.  But this sounds kind of like a vacation to me–only one that strives to avoid the usual hustle and bustle of tourism or the kind of camping trip that is chock-full of activity.  My sense of retreat has to do with a certain amount of quiet or seclusion, yes, and a level of rest and relaxation, yes–but a rest and relaxation that comes with work that one truly desires to do, work of the soul or heart or mind, creative work, work that sustains rather than exhausts.

I know of two such  retreat experiences in my life.  They have become for me pivotal, profound, powerful touchstones, helping to revitalize my work and my mind, providing inspiration for my creative output and the heart to pursue with humor and courage the more mundane aspects of life, domesticity, and gainful employment.

The first of these is the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference.  Every summer, thirty to forty individuals who have graduated at some point in time from (I think) the oldest low residency MFA program for creative writing in the country, descend upon the campus of St. Mary’s in Moraga, of Mt. Holyoke in Amherst, or of Warren Wilson in Swannanoa, to recreate in a week’s time only the best aspects of their experience at Warren Wilson, jettisoning any and all of those parts of the program that made them anxious, tentative, or afraid.  What results is a veritable love fest (mostly platonic) between a huge diversity of individuals who have these things in common: they burn for the word, they revel in the art of poetry or fiction, and they benefit mightily by geeking out on all of this surrounded by a great number of highly talented, extremely generous, immensely forgiving, and supportive fellow writers.

We teach each other cool things we’ve learned about craft; we explore writing questions we don’t have the answers to; we turn each other on to new and old writers; we read each other’s work closely, honestly, kindly; we listen to each other read each night and applaud with wild abandon; we hole up in a dorm room or a library carrel or an outside porch somewhere and write for hours at a stretch; we buy each other’s books; we sing sometimes or drum on chairs; and finally, without fail, we dance.  No conference is complete without dancing.  And to say something about the unique gift of this experience, it is about the only place on the planet where you will see this writer dancing. And I do dance. Wildly.  At the alumni conference I retreat inside my fiction writer brain for a week’s time in a community that is intent upon supporting this nutty endeavor for each of its members, in whatever shape or form it takes. And I made no progress in Moby Dick because I was retreating in the way I most needed to retreat, and apparently, as it turns out, this did not include Melville’s novel.  I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  And I danced.

My second pivotal, profound, and powerful retreat experience is my continuing participation in a teacher-renewal, formation-work program called The Courage To Teach, inspired by the work of educator-philosopher-Quaker-writer Parker Palmer.  It’s a totally different thing, a thing during which there is next to no dancing, but a thing that does for my teaching soul what the alumni conference does for my writing soul. I believe that this retreat work has made it possible for me to be continuously engaged in and rewarded by teaching and has been a key antidote to burnout.  Impossible to describe effectively in a paragraph, the Courage To  Teach work eschews talk about what teachers do and instead focuses completely on who they are, recognizing that each teacher, each individual for that matter, has inside of them sufficient wisdom to answer all their deepest questions, to solve all their most difficult problems in work and in life; they only require a community whose job it is to help the individual listen to that inner teacher.  In a very intentional way, we write, we read poems, we draw pictures, we invite silence, we meditate, we walk and talk, all toward the goal of helping each individual to know and trust themselves better.  No one ever tries to fix you or give you advice. While having almost nothing to do with classroom strategy and practice, it has been the most profoundly influential “staff development” experience I have ever had.  Life changing and career saving.

These are my retreats.  I find retreat also whenever I have an opportunity to be by myself for a time to write, whether it be at home or over a short couple of days in a cabin or a tent somewhere, but in both the cases I’ve described above, a community exists in which the solitude of the artist is honored and supported; these experiences exemplify the paradox described by Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach, his pivotal exploration of the teaching vocation: “My inward and invisible sense of identity becomes known, even to me, only as it manifests itself in encounters with external and visible ‘otherness.'” This is the wonder and the gift of these kinds of retreat for me.

What does it for you?  How will you carve out of your life time for retreat?  And what might be the cost if you don’t?  Ultimately, it’s a kind of selfishness that I encourage.  Making yourself whole will send waves of positivity outward and benefit every one and every organization touched by your life.

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#3: Self Censorship and the Creative Writer (You Can’t Say That)

I hate it.  I wish it were not true, but whenever I have penned something delicious or exciting or in some way daring or brave, a series of questions begin nagging my monkey mind:  What will my students think of that? How will my mother react? Will my brother disown me? Will my wife want me reading this in public? Finally, is honesty worth the potential embarrassment or ridicule or backlash or anger in the service of art? To that last question I want to answer with a resounding, unequivocal YES.  And yet, a disconnect exists between the belief that the only art worth doing is the art that pushes an envelope and the realization that ultimately that envelope pushing will be attributed to me, and if there’s a piper to be paid, I will be paying the piper. Here’s poem #3 for NaPoWriMo, interestingly enough, in second person.

You Can’t Say That

and that’s why you write fiction

because it’s one thing to say what you mean
or to say what has happened
and it’s another thing, an easier thing
to attribute that meaning or happening
to an imaginary person
or an imaginary world.

These are not your experiences
or your crazy predilections,
this is not your philosophy,
this is not what you believe.
These are inventions, you say,
based on some studying you have done,
and that’s why the work is so convincing
because your research was painstaking
and meticulous, see.

You shrug at the question,
“how much of this is autobiographical”
in part because it’s a boring question
but in larger part because you don’t want to answer
that
 this is your story.

As a fiction writer you envy the
poet and the essayist
because they’ve put it all out there
and have not flinched
while your reality is disguised,
decorated, gussied up
for the first date
in order to make just the
right impression

Postscript:  I don’t know if I believe all of this–the jury is out.  While there is a part of me that sometimes distrusts the artifice of a novel, I know that some fiction tells the truth likes nobody’s business (Toni Morrison’s Beloved), while some poets might be just as likely to invent or to disguise their own reality in a persona poem or some other imaginative, symbolic way.  The essayist, on the other hand?  Here’s this bit by Annie Dillard: “The essay can do anything a poem can do, can do anything a short story can do; anything but fake it.” But still–the bottom line is this, at least for me: whether it’s an essay or a poem or a story or a novel, it’s always difficult to write about the most personal things, the things truly at one’s core.

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