Tag Archives: writing retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s my dorm room back there!

Another view of the dungeon.

The Holyoke Troll

Looks kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test

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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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#188: On A Birthday Weekend Alone

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“Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”—Henry David Thoreau

My brother asked me
through a facebook comment,
are you spending the weekend alone?
And I wasn’t sure what the question
meant, whether or not it contained
a sub-text of surprise or dis-belief:
really, on your birthday, you want
to be alone? I could just be reading
that in, because my brother the pastor
must understand how the creative
work we do needs the quiet
of solitude to bring it forth; but
perhaps, for him, a quiet study is
enough without miles and mountains
between himself and the world.
I tend to require the miles and the
mountains. Mountains aren’t
necessary, but miles, yes. It helps
to have distance, to have a space,
a space that is unfamiliar
and possibly even beautiful. Here,
after a weekend of heavy rain,
on the morning of my departure,
finally the sun peaks through,
beckons me outside before it’s time
to pack up and leave this place
after a birthday weekend alone,
not lonely, on a planet in the Milky Way.

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#187: On the Difficulty of Getting Here

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Friday afternoon,
trying to prepare
for a cabin retreat,
a birthday weekend
of solitude and reflection
and writing,
I stepped in a pile
of leaf camouflaged dog shit
in the driveway.
I didn’t realize I had done this
until I proceeded to go
into the house with shit
all over my shoe. I removed
the shoe, put on other shoes,
went outside to
hose off the offending poo,
went back inside to clean up
the mess I had made in the house,
then I went outside again
with the new shoes
to look for the shit.
Couldn’t find a trace of it,
but when I came back in
I realized that I had
tracked through it again.
And then later, only
because it was most
convenient, on the way
out of Walmart with
sugar and ice,
I slipped on some other god-awful shit
on the floor (was it peanut butter,
more dog shit, barf, who knows?)
but it was slippery as hell
and my feet went flying
out from underneath me
and my sugar went way up into the air
while somehow I managed
to hold on to the ice and my hat
and miraculously
not to fall on my ass
or throw out my back.
This other dude in the store and I
looked up at the sugar together
almost as if it was suspended in air
or as if time had stopped.
Finally, the sugar came
crashing to the ground.
Organic, in a plastic container
with a lid, the sugar seemed
to have survived. The dude handed
it back to me, asked, are you all right?
I don’t even know what I said.
What the hell was that—something to that effect.
What the hell was that?
I will never set foot in a Walmart again.
I feel a little lucky to have landed safely
at my cabin destination—
but I feel that these events
with the driveway shit
and the Walmart shit are
working as metaphors
for my fiftieth year
on the planet and I immediately decide:
51 will be better. I repeat myself
for good measure: 51 will be better,
and it begins with Borges and beer,
a cabin in the woods and the rain
and 48 hours all to myself.

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