Tag Archives: Mt. Holyoke College

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Sermon on the Mount Holyoke

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Blessed are the writers who have arrived at Mount Holyoke College to participate in the 2017 Warren Wilson MFA Program Alumni Conference, for they are lucky bastards, and I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here among them.

Blessed is the writer who takes the red-eye flight out of Portland at midnight, sleeps through most of that four hour flight, is fortunate enough not to get completely lost in the chaos that is the Newark Liberty International Airport as he finds and takes a bus, yes, an actual bus, from one terminal to the next to catch a connecting flight, sleeps through most of that short little jumper, and lands safely at Bradley International at Hartford, Connecticut, where, unsure about which shuttle company he hired last time he was here, and loathe to pay almost $300 for a private shuttle, hires a damn taxi and sleeps through most of that ride and arrives safely but still wiped out on this beautiful 19th century campus of Mt. Holyoke College, home of Emily Dickinson, who may have been epileptic, some people say.

Blessed is the writer who takes what seems like the fourth and deepest nap over the course of a single ten hour stretch of clock-time in his dungeon-like dorm room, tucked away under a stairwell into the basement, where he will serve out his week as the resident conference troll.

Blessed is the writer who opens his suitcase to discover it’s full of a mysterious pile of black plastic shards, who, for many moments is in a panic about what he packed with him that is now utterly destroyed: glasses okay, cd jewel boxes okay, books bent somewhat but not alarmingly so, clothes okay but full of plastic shards. Everything must be shaken out, the suitcase overturned, and finally a pile of this debris accumulates on the second dorm bed. Blessed is this WTF moment that culminates finally with the conclusion that, holy crap, the plastic shell that allows one’s suitcase to maintain its general boxiness was somehow completely shattered into hundreds of pieces in the journey. Blessed is the writer who comes to Mount Holyoke with a hard case and will venture home in six days with a soft one.

Blessed is the writer who thought several months ago to start storing all of his creative work on an external hard drive, because, blessing of blessings, his computer dies a quite sudden death two days before coming to a writer’s conference.

Blessed was the first night of readings, morning meditation, and a first day free and clear of responsibilities. Blessed is the writer who reads tonight sporting his disco bowtie, who chose poetry this time, a first for this fiction writer, but following in the footsteps of dozens of fiction writers and poets who have chosen to cross that invisible genre boundary and did not die from it, but, on the contrary, were met by their readers and listeners with much rejoicing.

That’s my dorm room back there!

Another view of the dungeon.

The Holyoke Troll

Looks kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: A Room Of One’s Own With A View

I offer up a rumination about rooms, on this 5th day of Writer’s Camp for Wallies.  In the best of all possible worlds, if one is a writer, one needs a room of one’s own, but it would also be fine if it provided a view, a good view, of something either internally interesting or externally, something in the way of architecture, decor, design, or natural beauty.  It’s all good if you can get it.  And I have been very fortunate at this year’s writer’s camp to find these kinds of spaces.  Only one day thus far have I been skunked out of the sky room in the science building.  That’s my favorite spot.  It’s up high, three of its four walls are mostly window, looking outside on the campus of Mt. Holyoke and inside to the rest of the science building interior, a wonder of modern, contemporary design.  It’s private and quiet–I can sound my barbaric yawp in there and no one is the wiser–but it does have a kind of fishbowl effect, which is a bit disconcerting, because, while they can’t hear my yawp, anyone can see me in there when they walk around the corner to find the restrooms, and if I know them, and see them, and they see me seeing them, I feel obligated, as do they, to give a little wave. It appears then, that sometimes the view can be distracting.

When writing in my other favorite place, a classroom sometimes all to myself in the same science building, designed in miniature theatre style with tiered rows of tables in an almost complete circle, no one can see me in there and there are no interruptions except for the ones presented to me by the device I’m using to write fiction–my laptop.  After a half hour of reading out loud or typing furiously away on a new passage, I take a rest for a second and then find myself compelled, beckoned, cajoled, teased by the Facebook, by the Huff Post, by the Email, by the Blog.

So, feeling like I’ve been pretty productive this week making strides toward a complete draft of the new novel, I felt what I needed to do today was to allow myself some time to read.  I vowed after lunch to have a technology free afternoon.  I trekked to the library and I left my phone and my computer behind me in the dorm.  For two straight hours, the longest stretch of continuous personal reading time in recent memory, I found myself  back inside the Whiting Alcove in the library.  I’m reading Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and I read today perhaps the most exquisite and simultaneously straight forward explanation of exactly what this novel thing is, after all, and to the backdrop of a raucous New England thunderstorm.  Now, back in my dorm, the sky is mostly blue and it’s hotter and more humid than hell.

This last writing spot, my dorm room, is my own more than any of these other writing spots could be, at least temporarily, but if I want a view here, I’ve got to look outside, because the room, as dorm rooms often are, is ugly and bare and in need of TLC and wall repair and paint and anything that might make it kind of homey.  I’ve set up shop on top of the built in dresser drawers so I can write standing up, good for my back and convenient for spontaneous dancing. It’s too hot to dance and it’s almost time for dinner and I’ve got to cool down somehow.  Here’s to rooms and to views. Here’s to finding a place to write.  Here’s to intentional breaks from screens, even when those screens are helping us create something good.  Here’s to books.  Here’s to the novel.  Here’s to loved ones back home who blessed these schemes of ours.  All abundance and gratitude.

 

A room with a view.

A room with a view.

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A room of one’s own with a view.

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A view to a room.

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Another room of one’s own.

Another view from another room.

Another view from another room.

 

dorm room without a view

Dorm room without a view. Or: dorm room, stand up writing desk, with scotch.

 

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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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