Tag Archives: MFA programs

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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Second Things First: Publishing My Debut Novel

It’s happening.  I have set the wheels in motion.  I have submitted a final manuscript.  I have written the bio and the blurbs for the back cover and the inside flaps.  I have submitted an author photo.  I have enlisted an artist friend to design a cover.  I have let my baby go.  It’s happening.

It will be my first published novel but not the first novel I’ve written. I suppose, it could have happened in the exact same way, if I had gone the traditional route of agent and publishing house, that, querying two works simultaneously, the second novel might have found a home before the first; so I imagine that there’s really nothing strange about this at all.  But somehow it feels strange all the same, as if I’ve sent the one baby off to school and abandoned the other one on someone’s doorstep.  There’s a little bit of guilt about that.

Here’s the deal.  If you’re a person, like me, juggling a bunch of important things in the air, a marriage, a child, a teaching career, a vocation as a musician, and fiction writing, and you’re trying not to drop any of these important things on the ground, it’s going to take a half a million years to write a book.  It took me a half a million years to write my second novel, so, as it turns out, my first novel was conceived and composed a full million years ago–when I was a child!  That’s not true.  I was 30 when I started and maybe 37 when I finished.  Okay, I’ll tell the truth: that was really “only” a decade ago.  Thus, the decision to self-publish came also with this choice–do I publish my first novel, or do I publish my second novel first?

No brainer, you say? Publish the best one first, you ninny. Sure, that’s all easy enough to say.  But there are problems.

I wrote my first novel in the comforting embrace and loving arms of an MFA program for writers.  I had tons of readers, willing and otherwise.  I received scads of feedback.  I revised like a fiend while I was composing based on the response, facial expressions, and nervous ticks of my peers, thoughtful and wise criticism from faculty, the ubiquitous workshop experience, and the heady influence of master classes, lectures, and readings. That first novel may be a better novel, but it was written, I sometimes feel, by about a hundred people.  That’s not true.  I wrote the damn thing, but I wrote it, the whole thing, I think, seriously under the influence of others.

My second novel has been read in its entirety by two people, only one of which gave me a critical response, meaning feedback. And the novel has been read in part  by another three or four people who also provided some critical readings, but early on in the process. So I feel, right or wrong, better or worse, that this second novel is truly mine, in the way that maybe the first novel was not.

But I might, if I read them both again back to back at a stretch, come to the conclusion after all, regardless of the argument above, that indeed  the first novel is the stronger work.  Another problem rears its head.

The guy who wrote that better book–I’m not sure that guy is me.  I’m no longer him.  Twelve years is ancient history.  I had other concerns.  I had issues.  Different ones. I was not a father.  I was wild.  I was, philosophically speaking, immature, even in my 30’s I was unsettled and squirrelly, morally emerging, and ethically in training–and, I think, my first novel embodies all of that.  Do I want to share that other guy with the world?

The answer has to be yes. Yes, but not yet.  Not yet, mostly because the decision has already been made; it’s happening, remember. I’m publishing my second novel first because I like it, and it’s fresh, and it hasn’t been workshopped, and it represents me in the mostly Now, or, it represents several moments moving through me mostly in the Now. 

But I will publish that other novel, that book that is me but not me, because, ultimately, it was a true book then, as true as fiction can be, it still resembles me in many significant ways, and may, in the way that novels can do, perhaps speak to someone now (or whenever it arrives) who is more like how I was then, or who remembers how it was to be like that, unsettled, squirrelly, morally emerging, ethically in training.

The poet William Stafford said once that there were many things in his poems that he wouldn’t stand by in life.  I like that.  It gives the work permission to exist on its own terms–and if it was good then, it will still be good now or later, and it doesn’t have to represent the author accurately to be a viable work of art.  That baby has just as much right to see the world as that other baby does, this new kid.  So, yes, that first novel will one day see the light of day, but not yet.  For now, my debut novel is all about putting second things first.

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