Tag Archives: Warren Wilson MFA Program

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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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: More Songs about Buildings, Food, Flora, Courses, Lectures, Panels, Endings

 

This is the campus bookstore here at Dominican University. Just kidding. It is the building in which the bookstore is housed. It is an incredible building, don’t you think?

Look at this beautiful thing.

I don’t know what happens in this building, but I took a picture of it. And then I went up on the porch, took a picture of the front door, and took another picture looking the other direction.

There’s a building named after Shakespeare’s wife. It’s the Hathaway House. I’ve heard Shakespeare is big here on campus.

I haven’t taken any pictures of the food. It happens not to be very photogenic. But this is interesting: we can have tater tots at every breakfast. That’s not a joke. Other observations: I spilled coffee yesterday all over my arm and I did not get burned. Katherine has had nothing but chicken, eggs, and salad. The children on campus are quite messy. Precocious as they might be, they can’t seem to get the food scraps into the compost bins. This afternoon I stepped on a French fry. This evening the curly kind of fry was all over the cafeteria floor, and someone had left a banana on a chair. I did not take a picture of that either.

These plants here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know what they are; my botanical knowledge is somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a jade plant in this garden about the size of my Honda Fit. I’ve already mentioned the evergreen with the dangerous pinecones. I still can’t get over these gigantic palm trees. They look to me like giant pineapples.

I haven’t taken very many pictures of people. More precisely, I have only taken two. I took a picture of myself a couple of days ago. And then today I took this selfie right here of myself with Joan Frank, an amazing individual and a phenomenal writer. She taught a class yesterday about the dangers of political fiction–or rather, its potential pitfalls, described brilliantly by Emily as “liberal porn.” Joan told us that “story” must have dominion over message. Message, with a capital M, when characters become mouthpieces for the writer’s causes, no matter how noble and good, can make a novel or a story suck. Joan’s class did the best possible thing–it got people thinking and talking. We’re still talking about it a day later and we’ll still be talking about it after all of us go home, I’m sure.

I meditated so hard yesterday morning, first with my own little gathering before breakfast, and then in a class that Leslie Blanco taught about meditation, spontaneity, and creativity. I almost arrived on another plane. I was also sleep deprived. And I’ve never introduced or followed up a meditation session with a freewrite (a la Natalie Goldberg). That was revelatory.

Allison Moore talked in the afternoon about memoir writing, which I hear generated incredibly deep, profoundly personal stories from many. I would love to have been there. I find at these incredibly content rich retreats, that I cannot and probably should not go to everything. There’s got to be a place to recharge, or rest. And many of us choose to spend a lot of time just writing. The beauty of this work is that everyone is invited to get what they need. For example, some of us need to kill the tendency to read in “the poetry voice,” that tendency that poets have, even some of the best poets, of habitually falling into a particular tonal patten that is rather tortuous to listen to and has the potential of destroying otherwise perfectly good poetry. So, many of us went to Sara’s class: “Death to the Poetry Voice.” I wasn’t sure that I needed that, but I hear people had a wonderful time, so I have to forgive myself for missing that one as well.

I was on a panel yesterday afternoon about writer’s block. Interestingly enough, I was blocked; it took me almost forty minutes before I said a word–only because there was tons of energy in the room, lots of people sharing their stories, their woes, their strategies for that most terrifying of predicaments for writers: not writing. Finally, I shared my silver bullets, primarily forced creativity experiences (napowrimo, nanowrimo, powersongwriting, those kinds of things), but most importantly, at least for me, community. My writer soul would die without my Warren Wilson friends, without this conference, and without the empowerment and discernment and clarity that comes to me in Courage and Renewal work. Without these two communities, I would wither.

Can I just say one more thing? Peg, Nan, and Marian did a rocking panel discussion about the pleasures and pains of small press publishing. It was both pleasurable and painful but totally informative, completely honest, and super-uber relevant. Three cheers to these three wonderful women who opened their hearts and their experiences up to their fellow Wallies.

One more day and then we head home. Six days is just the right number of days. Five would be not enough. Seven would be too many. Leaving the conference Wednesday morning, I will be at once happy to return home and sad to leave.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Generative Muscles

No one told me to get off the lawn! 

Edgehill Mansion

Some flora. Apparently, this tree on the right has a reputation for producing dangerously large pinecones 

Our digs for six nights

I began this blog post on the first full day of Writer’s Camp surrounded by writers in a quick half an hour session of generative writing practice–the large group version of what fellow camper Lauren Yaffe calls a writing buddy system: two or three or more people sit down in a room or at a table and they write together. Peg has a box of prompts in the event of blockage. I cheat, pick through the prompts, more just to see what she’s thrown in there than because I’m stuck. I think I know exactly what I want to write about, but getting at it might be the difficult part. I realize I may have to write about what I want to write about before I can write about it. Working my generative muscles.

Here we are at another new venue, Dominican University of California in San Rafael.  Another lovely Catholic institution welcomes our most un-Catholic proceedings. It’s very good of them.

So far, in the first 24 hours, we have snacked, eaten a meal, welcomed old friends and met new ones, enjoyed our first night of readings from seven fantastic poetry and prose writers, found a source for ice, and engaged in preliminary whiskey accompanied by loud and joyful conversation and laughter; we have slept in mostly very tall beds (I need a chair to step on in order to hit the hay); we slept late or meditated, and we ate breakfast with a lot of super young people on campus for other various programs; some of us have gone on short little jaunts into a nearby Trader Joe’s for supplies (I forgot shampoo and breath mints), and we have attended our first classes. An agent was here to talk to us about agenting, and we will have had, by the time dinner rolls around in about three hours, opportunities to nap, to learn about embodied narrative, narrative rhythm, and inventing what we desire–all very exciting stuff, especially that last bit. Tonight, there will be another 8 readers. This goes on for five days! It is glorious.

I’m reading tonight and that’s very exciting. Best, most appreciative and generous audience ever, as long as you do not exceed the ten minute time limit. People read from books they’ve published sometimes, but mostly folks like to try out new material on this most trusted group of friends. I think I’ll sport my disco bowtie, but I’m not 100% certain, and I think I should shave. I should probably also practice a bit. I may have to miss that class about narrative rhythm so that I can decide on the bowtie, shave, practice, maybe nap, and work my generative muscle, by which I mean: work on that poem that I wrote about writing about this morning. Speaking of poetry, even though I’m a fiction guy here in Wally World, I’ll be reading poetry tonight from a manuscript in progress and nearly finished which I’ve titled,  Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. I’m hoping to record it. If it turns out nicely, I may share, but no promises.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. Such abundance. A momentary stay from the general chaos. I’ll take it.  

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

IMG_2591

It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: A Wally By Any Other Name

The Warren Wilson College Campus

The Warren Wilson College Campus

I’ve never understood how graduates from the MFA in Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson College came to refer to themselves as Wallies.  It turns out to be an ancient practice, going back all the way to the year the program moved to Warren Wilson from Goddard College in 1981.  I’ve done a little research here at Wally Camp and, through the power of the mighty Faceplant, I’m no more wiser on the subject than I was when I began my inquiry, in that, I do not have a definitive answer.  But I do have some educated guesses, some vague recollections, a few wild speculative stabs, and a personal attempt to ultimately define or describe The Wally in his and her natural habitat. Here’s the rundown thus far:

  • Early in the program at Warren Wilson, some distinguished guest of indeterminate identity introduced or just simply spoke about the founder of Warren Wilson, Warren Wilson, as “Walter” Wilson, over and over again.
  • Here’s a convincing list of possibilities from fellow alum Paul Michel: “Actually, dispute over the eventual origin of the ‘Wally’ moniker actually preceded conception of the original Goddard program. The leading candidates for the name source currently are Wally Amos, founder (and loser) of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies (as well as Wally’s Muffins) and ‘Professor’ Wally Jay, the legendary Hawaiian founder of ‘Small Circle JuJitsu.’ Recent innuendo suggesting a connection with ‘Saint Wally the Mushroom Fucking Gnome and the Pokinholes,’ a release by the ‘Knights in St. Wally’s Service,’ have been almost entirely discredited. Should you have the opportunity to dance to this song, you’ll want to pass it up.”
  • From fellow Wally, the poet Robert Thomas:  “It’s from Wally in Dilbert, who best captures the spirit of Warren Wilson. According to Wikipedia, Wally is ‘an employee [student] so deeply jaded that instead of doing any real work, he spends all his time and effort successfully gaming the system.'”
  • And then, finally, Faith, one of my best Wally buddies, in whom I have absolute Faith, told me about the more pedestrian and perhaps the most logical explanation. Isn’t logic always pedestrian?  She said almost exactly this: that the name Wally simply came from MFA students, making fun of the new institution, making fun of themselves, calling themselves Wallies because it was goofy or silly or funny and so much better than referring to themselves as Warrens or Wilsons, which are both the names of famous pop groups. Adding some specificity to this origin story, Peter Klank, our august director of activities at this year’s Wally Writer’s Camp, said this:
  • “Somewhere in the first year or so after the move to Warren Wilson from Goddard, somewhere someone (actually, I’m sure, many people) asked what and where the program was, and of course, had no idea. Thomas Lux, commenting on Warren Wilson’s relative obscurity, observed that we might just as well be at Walter Winchell College. Thus, in my day (’83 – ’85), we were not Wallies. We were Walters.” So Warren became Walter became Wally and the rest is history, as they say.  

Far from settling the matter, at least much has become clear to me about my experience and my history with this institution and all my fellow Wallies from this inquiry and from my time here at Writer’s Camp.  Every year there’s a Wally conference, a writer’s camp for Warren Wilson MFA graduates.  It’s like a reunion, only it’s wide, covering graduating classes from 1978 (or thereabouts) onward;  it’s rigorous: people are thoughtful, reflective, open, helpful, generous, intent on developing further their own craft and helping their fellow Wallies do the same; finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s uproariously fun.  In between the serious conversations about the craft of creative writing and sometimes sobering conversations about the news of the day or the state of the world, and in between the solitude that most of us spend bashing out a draft of a new thing, and in between the intense workshops, manuscript reviews, classes offered voluntarily by alum, and the nightly readings, plenty of time is given over to pure joy, pure laughter, pure pleasure in the company of people who feel part of a clan, part of a family, like members of a gang mostly intent on making the world and this life richer and deeper through the making and sharing of literature, but who have jettisoned pretension and adopted this cute, odd, puzzling moniker: We Are Wallies.

Tonight, we read, we dance, we sleep a little.  Tomorrow morning, we all go back into The World.  Until next year, friends.

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

 

Mt-Holyoke-Science-wide-Ext-web

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

collegebuild

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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