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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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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

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The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp on the 40th Anniversary of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College

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The Warren Wilson College Campus 

First of all, I was sick with a cold when at 10:30 pm I boarded the plane for a red-eye from Portland to Atlanta, a nearly five hour flight through most of which I would be sneezing and blowing and stuffing kleenex into my own private trash bag that I kept discreetly stuffed into the storage pocket underneath my tray table, trying desperately not to annoy my seat mate strangers, sitting, as they do these days on planes, practically in my lap. Luckily, it was just a cold at the pinnacle of its heinousness, but even though I had no fever and I was not coughing, I was miserable, unable to sleep, jumping out of my skin, feeling my eardrums likely to burst, miraculously managing through the entire flight to remain in my seat. What was so important that I must suffer so on this cross-continental flight that would eventually land me in Asheville, North Carolina?

I was traveling to Writer’s Camp, the alumni conference of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, held this year on the campus of Warren Wilson College in celebration of the program’s 40th year. Some details about these 6 days are forthcoming, but for now, let me first skip ahead to the inauspicious ending of my journey.

As I had left my phone in the dorm while I was out on the last night of the conference reveling with friends, it began with urgent missed text messages from my lovely wife at 3 am eastern time. She’s wondering where I am and if I’ve missed my flight and why I’m not responding to her texts. And she leaves a voice message that says that she’s called the police to report a possible missing person. I’m puzzled and riled and certain that she has come to the airport one day early.  What I failed to think about, though, in this moment, is why for the love of monkeys would she find on the flight status monitors the correct flight number and arrival time, the ones I had given her earlier that day. Because she did.  So when I arrived this morning at the airport for check-in, the attendant could not find my flight reservations. I was not scheduled to fly!  It was then, nearly a month late, when I took a closer look at the itinerary sent to me by my travel agent. Sure enough, my flight was, in fact, yesterday, and I did, in fact, miss it.

A strange soup of emotions hit me when I realized my mistake. There was a momentary panic as I imagined the expense of a room for the night and a new flight home. And I experienced a deep, forlorn feeling, the kind I felt perhaps as a child realizing I was lost or otherwise in trouble, and kind of a profound sadness, a slight breaking in the heart. There was also a sense of shame, shame that I missed the mistake I should have found the moment the itinerary arrived in the mail, but also shame that I assumed at 3 o’clock in the morning that the mistake was my wife’s and I was angry when I should have been sorry, sorry for her inconvenience and sorry for her and my son’s fearful, somewhat traumatized response to the possibility that something had gone horribly wrong with my return journey. All these things made seismic impressions in my sleepy brain, but they moved through me more quickly than it took you to read this paragraph. Wonder of wonders, I did not get angry, I did not beat myself up. I simply called the helpline for Delta Air and within minutes I had a new flight plan for tomorrow and NO additional charges!

I was curious about why I did not lose my shit. I am prone, somewhat, to losing my shit when I make significant mistakes or am seriously inconvenienced or put out. Uncharacteristic cursing generally ensues. I did none of that. I wondered why. Could it be that I had just spent six days with some of the most talented, interesting, gifted, generous and kind people I have ever known? Yes. Could it be that, even though I was sad that many of my closest friends could not be there, others of my closest friends were there, and new people were there, people who I have never met who nevertheless, in one quick week, became fast friends, equally beloved. Yes. Could it be that over the last week I had felt nearly pummeled by blessings bestowed upon me by this singular alumni conference and the program that birthed it? Yes. Could it be that, even though the dorms were shitty, even though the pillows were made from some plastic composite, even though the scrambled eggs were runny, and even though the coffee was essentially just brown water, the classes were stimulating and thoughtful, the readings were magnificent, the conversations were serious and hilarious, the workshops rigorous and respectful? Yes. Could it be that over the last week I have been free, completely free, and inspired to write, and that I came pretty close to a complete draft of my new novella? Yes. Could it be that on six consecutive mornings, I meditated outside at 7 in the morning with a group of my writer friends? Yes.  Could it be that I have danced like a madman, that I have been to Snake Lake and looked up in silence at brilliant stars, that I have met the students currently enrolled and arriving for their residency and found them beautiful and funny and smart and kind, that I have seen and spoken to some dear teachers that I have not seen in 20 years, that I have seen pigs sleeping in their pens, snoring like pigs, and that I have missed my flight and gained several more hours to write? Yes, I said, yes, it is yes.

Dance

This is where we danced.

Write

This is where I wrote fiction.

Nap

This is where I took naps.

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A view from where I was writing and napping in the library.

Meditate

This is where we meditated.

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My friends Dale, Catherine, and Jeff at Snake Lake!

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This is where we read and attended classes. This is my new friend Ross teaching his class on “Strangeness.” This is the guy who showed me the stars at Snake Lake and the pigs in the piggery. He also helped Peter coordinate and run the conference.

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This is the building where, 19 years ago, René and I stayed on campus during my last residency so that she could attend my reading and my graduation.

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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:

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.

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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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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

 

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I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

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#139: Writer’s Camp

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I’m going to camp.
I’ll be alone most of the time
but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
and at least once every evening,
I will be surrounded by friends,
writer friends, people who know me
and who share the dream and the drive
or the dream of the drive or the drive
of the dream to live their lives as writers,
whatever that means.  Whatever it means,
for all of my fellow campers it is a matter of survival;
we do it, as my friend Joan puts it, because we have to.
I’ll squirrel myself away in the science building,
(if no one gets there first) with the great big windows
looking out at the surrounding hills of Mt. Holyoke
and down over the balcony at the tables shaped
like amoebae, and I will pound at the keys
a bunch of words that attempt to tell stories
about people who only exist in my mind
while all or most of my writer buddies
do the same elsewhere.  And in the end we all go out
dancing, as it should be, now and forever,
amen.

 

 

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