Tag Archives: creative writing

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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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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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:

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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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