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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: All Good Things. . .

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Our time together had come to a close and I was alone in the dorm where we stayed at Macalester College for the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. It was strange, that quiet, after all that activity, after all that brilliant conversation, after the nightly readings and daily classes, the meals together three times a day, the walks around surrounding St. Paul, and the laughs and drinks around the common room way into the wee hours. It felt kind of spooky, surreal. Where’d everybody go? And this was not my school, my town, my home, and my plane would leave late–so there was a bizarre sense that I’d been abandoned here. On top of that, after a week of near perfect beautiful weather, it was raining. It was cloudy and dark and thunderous.

And yet, my heart and head were brimming, practically exploding with gratitude for this week of treasures and this incredible community, the likes of which I have experienced in no other place.

And after a lonely day in the dorm by myself, packing, napping, a little light reading of things I have written and some things written by my friends, I had the great pleasure and honor of an early Thai dinner with my dear friend and co-coordinator Terri Ford before she took me to the airport and sent me on my way.

I have started a practice, each time I attend a Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, of doing a series of blog entries under the heading, “Dispatches from Writer’s Camp.” In some years, I might do a whole string of them, almost every day of the week-long conference, but I notice a significant change when I am coordinating in some official capacity. This year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was coordinating in some official capacity. I wrote a dispatch two days before I arrived, during the conference I wrote zero dispatches, and here I am, back home in Portland, Oregon, writing the only official dispatch from the conference, several days after the fact. I was too busy to write, mostly, over the past week, and when I did have time to write, my focus was on generating new creative work.

I’m not sure how to capture the week. The task, in full blown prose paragraphs, seems daunting. I will try instead a number of bullet items that, I hope, will succinctly capture the highlights of the week.

  • Macalester is a beautiful campus surrounded conveniently by a commercial district, making it super easy to forage on foot for things we needed or to find interesting distractions if a break or some good exercise was in order.
  • In a novelty gift shop almost across the street from campus, I found a set of cocktail glasses–because it’s difficult to drink good whiskey out of a plastic cup.
  • One could walk, and many of us did, to the Mississippi River!
  • Terri Ford took me to Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast! OMG!
  • We volunteered to teach classes to each other and there were scads of great ones to choose from: the fiction of Joan Silber, the mystery and history of memoir, collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts, Jung’s shadow archetype, marketing strategies, persona poems, issues of misappropriation, the lyric essay, Elizabeth Bishop, a round-robin reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in full!), diction enhancements, supportive strategies for getting started, a table reading of a play by one of our campers, and finally a film/memoir project enriched and deepened by the revelation of family secrets! Oh my!
  • This last class around Family Secrets had many of us diving into our own family histories–super relevant to moi, in particular, and to the writing project on which I am about to embark.
  • A group of us meditated every morning, opening and closing our silence with poems by Mary Oliver, William Stafford, May Sarton, and Margaret Wheatley.
  • We heard 42 absolutely stellar readings from our campers.
  • One of our esteemed Masters of Ceremony, Helen Fremont, threatened readers who went over the ten minute limit with super soaker squirt guns. Happily, these weapons were never employed or deployed.
  • We gave our readings in a church, the campus chapel–until the PA broke down–and then we moved into a space that felt more like a night club. Both venues, totally appropriate.
  • We held two writing contests, one of which was a 25 word lyric to be sung to the tune of. . . Much hilarity ensued.
  • People were workshopping all over the place in small groups, sharing their writing with each other, receiving generous and supportive feedback, learning about the enormous gifts of their fellow campers. I heard nothing but rave reviews from people in these groups. All of us, having experienced at one time or another the nightmare MFA workshop, have learned in our practice together how to jettison all of that baggage. No writers are ever harmed, damaged, or traumatized at an Alumni Conference workshop. That seems to be a given.
  • We held a noisy silent auction to raise money for Friends of Writers. Two of the most interesting auction donations: an impersonation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on your voicemail message, and a performance of an opera aria–and lucky for us campers, the winning bidder requested that the aria be performed at the conclusion of our last night of readings. Can you say “transcendent”? I knew that you could.
  • And no alumni conference would be complete without a dance. So we danced.
  • We had 47 campers! Many of them had come to previous conferences, but a good number this year were attending a conference for the first time, and a number of those were brand new graduates of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Cause for celebration, indeed. But for me and others, we were sorely missing some of our buddies who have come before, but for some reason, couldn’t make it this year. And every year for the past three years we have grieved the loss of our beloved Carlen Arnett. We miss her so much, and yet, she is always present.
  • We all learned so much from each other. But on a personal note, I learned something about my own process, and perhaps, that deserves a paragraph.

Concerning my own creative output, I have discerned a pattern, one that I realize now I have been repeating all through my writing life. I will have an idea that I believe is worth writing about but I won’t know how to go about it. For example, I have, over the course of my entire career, wanted to write a book about teaching. I wrote poems here and there, I wrote essays and blog entries, letters, and sometimes (often) would work teachers into my fiction. But none of these, while satisfying in their own right, were trending toward the book I wanted to write, a book that, instead of advocating a particular practice, strategy, or argument, would instead just accurately and engagingly capture the life of this vocation I have chosen. It has taken me 30 years to find finally a form or structure that will contain the idea. It has taken the shape of a collection of micro-essays or prose poems that I have titled, “Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List.” I doubt that I would have made this discovery without the gifts of the Alumni Conference. Finishing, or close to finishing that manuscript prior to arriving at camp, my challenge this year was to figure out how and what I can write toward a title that I have had swimming around my head for years now. And I think, as a result of some inspiration from the folks at Rinky Dink Press and continual inspiration from my fellow campers, I have finally found a form for the new project, a memoir written in short numbered bursts of no more than 50 or 60 words. Don’t ask me why, but this feels like a fit–and I have now discovered some momentum towards a rough rough draft.

Recently, one of those inspirational memes has been making the rounds, a list of three things you can do in order to fail at life. In a nutshell: blame, complain, and be continually ungrateful. I have decided, that in large part, my tribe of graduates of the Goddard/Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and in particular the miracle of this unique alumni community and my sense of profound belonging within it, has made it virtually impossible for me to fail at life.

Cheers. Until next year!

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The chapel panorama

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The chapel

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The clubhouse

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The Mississippi

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Hell’s Kitchen

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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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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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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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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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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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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Filed under Literature, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading

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: 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.

Photo on 7-2-14 at 3.48 PM

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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