Tag Archives: retreat experiences

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Resurrection of the Contest in Order to Exacerbate Feelings of Rejection, a Dongle Dilemma, When a Poem is Not a Poem, One Bad Dream, and More Blessedness.

 

This campus has a Hogwarts thing going on, don’t you think? I feel like I’m at Hogwarts.

Things started out kind of rowdy here at Mt. Holyoke. The microphone was wonky. There’s nothing worse than a wonky microphone. Better no microphone than a wonky one. One of our attendees was trapped in his room by tables of books. But he’s got the only refrigerator in the entire building in his room for some reason, so people keep going in there to refrigerate things or to steal ice cubes. Last night, July 3rd, a massive fireworks display lit up the sky and we had to yell at each other over the thunder.

We’ve been mixing it up. At reading number 2, the glorious, lovely and talented MC Thornburg resurrected the daily writing contest for silly prizes, despite controversies surrounding the last time this was done, concluding that the only way writers might thicken their skin against rejection would be to experience more rejection.  That’s not true. MC T actually suggested a kinder, gentler writing contest, one in which the winner would be randomly drawn from a hat, ultimately making sure that, like they do in California, every kid gets a trophy. No one was buying that. We require, as a group, more rejection, more suffering.

I had a question about dongles and many people misunderstood. Having arrived on campus with a computer that requires a unique kind of plumbing, I was just hoping to be able to make an appropriate and functional connection between the one thing and another thing in order to project some images on the screen during my class. People laughed and one of our Annies (we have three of them) thought I was being vulgar. She googled the word “dongle” and was satisfied. She still thinks it’s a dirty word, though, dictionary be damned.

The question has come up: just what exactly is a poem? It’s a relevant question for me, as I am writing poems now and have a manuscript on the cooker. Sheepish about my own poetry prowess, I think of my poems as extremely short prose pieces that I have broken into lines. But I call them poems. Because I can. Is a poem a poem because the person writing it says it’s a poem? Is it a poem when an audience that’s listening can’t “hear” the line breaks? Is it a poem if it’s not about pain and suffering and death and love? Is it a poem if it has no “music” in it? Is there a difference between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction? If so, what is it? If it’s narrative, but it’s not a narrative poem, and it’s not an narrative essay, and it’s broken into lines, is it a poem? My friend Dave says that he spent his entire MFA program experience at Warren Wilson trying to define the poem. And when he graduated and they gave him a big stick he realized that the answer was not really all that interesting or important. The question is interesting, I think, but I’m with Dave: the answer is not. Rilke said: Learn to love the questions themselves.

I have lots of questions about the dream I had this morning, which was really more like a nightmare. I dreamt I was being anesthetized for a surgery just as my sleeping self was trying to wake up. I was afraid I would be awake during whatever it was they were about to do to me. Then my sleeping body woke and I was shivering. It was icky. Then I went to morning meditation. All better.

The short stay conference attendees arrive today. Some of them arrived yesterday. That’s exciting, partly because their presence adds to this sometimes overwhelming abundance, one of the hallmarks or gifts of Writer’s Camp. I’ve said this before, but I always walk around at these things feeling this incredible lightness, a palpable fish of gratitude just swimming around in my system–all the time. It could be the caffeine–but I don’t think so; it never wears off. And I’m just giddy when new friends arrive. When the short stay people show up, things get noisier, more rambunctious–and judging from the rowdy quality of our first three nights of consistently exquisite readings from alumni, it’s gonna get crazy ’round here. Crazy in the best, most blessed, sermon-on-the-Mount-Holyoke kind of way.

Dear Wally friends: if you are not here, know that you are missed.

 

 

 

 

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#269: A Letter of Gratitude to My Wife and Son (another prose poem)


Dear family,

I am about to begin my journey home. Almost everything is put away and the trailer is hitched up (I never did unhitch); all I have to do now is climb in and start up the engine. It was a good trip. Even though I was with my brother and his friends, I spent a lot of time by myself. I read some and I wrote some and I listened to music and I walked and I rode my bike. I took in the good Willamette Valley air under cover of giant oaks, just like ours, but older and over miles and miles. Last night it was so clear; the stars were lovely and David and I kept the fire going until 10 or so. I slept well and ate well and it was easy to be good. I have some Easter surprises for both of you that I hope you will like.

Just before I leave I am thinking about how grateful I am for both of you, and how thankful I am that you both were willing to (maybe even happy to) have me out of the house, let me do my thing, allow me this space to travel both outward and inward. I love you both. I am enriched beyond words having the two of you in my life, challenging me and growing me toward this hidden wholeness.

Yours,

Michael

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The Post Writer’s Camp Blah Blah Blahs: How to Deal

 

Home, 2015?

Wally Conference home, 2015?

Of course I was happy to be home. Of course I missed my family and was immensely glad to see them. Of course I didn’t miss that ugly, tiny, springy, single dorm mattress and that sweltering dorm room. Of course it was good to sleep in my own bed on the second night home, having slept the first night home in my son’s bed with my son because he missed me and it was sweet and the right thing to do. Generally speaking, again, I was and am happy to be back home. And yet, a week later, a post-writer’s-camp-funk has descended and lingers on me like a gigantic black cloud. I’m a teacher on Summer break; it’s not like I had to jump right back into the work fray. I’ve got leisure, and I don’t have to work until August, but at home there are a thousand and one distractions and responsibilities keeping me (I imagine) from writing and reading and separating me from the rest of my camper friends, save for those I can find in the digital realm, a blessing, if Facebook could ever be said to be a blessing.

Writer’s Camp, for me, every time I’ve had the opportunity to attend, is like pure bliss, an extended, uninterrupted bliss.  Besides being occasionally tired as a result of not quite enough sleep on uncomfortable beds, or being too warm in Mass or cold in Cali by the bay, I am, at Writer’s Camp, continuously on fire with happiness, contentedness, gratitude, and full of creativity at a pitch unlike anything I experience at home over the course of the year–with very few exceptions.  Psychologically, I think I understand this.  Like a love affair, a vacation to some exotic locale, or a kind of high brow Trekkie convention, the sheer novelty of being in a place where everyone is interested in the same thing and equally supportive of one another, where most of our day-to-day distractions, worries, and dramas are for the most part absent, and where we feel like we are continuously representing our best selves while simultaneously experiencing others at their best, brings about a kind of heady euphoria that pales in comparison to the “real life” we live back home. So the challenge–and I do not believe it is a challenge that is beyond me–the challenge is to somehow bottle the goodness of camp, allow it to sustain me rather than depress me in its absence.  I’m up for this challenge, but it’s not an easy thing.  Here are some strategies:

I read the published works of my friends from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers; such a wealth of talent, generosity and literary richness and diversity I have found nowhere else in contemporary letters.

I negotiate with the family some writing time or mini-retreats; all I have to do is ask and plan ahead and my wife of 28 years and my son understand how important this stuff is to my health and happiness and wellbeing and I am eternally grateful for their support.

Finally, I look forward to next year’s camp in a big way: I have taken on the responsibility to host the next conference in my home town at my undergraduate and teaching program alma mater.  I pray to The Big Cheese that nothing goes haywire there.   I am confident and excited about its potential success. And what a gift that will be: my Writer’s Camp Buddies from the MFA Writing Program at Warren Wilson College will all be in my proverbial living room, at my table, in my backyard–and the idea of that (not to mention that I won’t have to get on a plane) will mightily sustain me until next summer!

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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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