On my way home from Montpelier, Vermont and the successful completion of a two-year low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This last residency went by so fast–it’s hard to believe it’s over.
Both my lecture and reading were on January 1st. And graduation was yesterday.
This morning, breakfast at the Skinny Pancake. Then a drive to Burlington and a flight to JFK. Now waiting to board a flight to Atlanta. Then I’ll have an hour and a half drive to Columbus.
As many of you know, I love traveling and airports. Today, especially, it’s nice to have all these hours in transit to mark the transition.
Why do you refuse to admit that in poetry, as if in a mirror, I attempt to collect and to see myself, to pass through and beyond myself.
Last week, for a few days, it was doing nothing–long walks on the beach, listening to the ocean, watching the sea foam extract itself from the waves that produced it and scatter down the beach. Staring at the flower of a jellyfish, remembering being stung as a kid.
Oh, this innate bad habit of always existing in places where I do not live, or in a time which is past or is yet to come.
One week until I send in my last packet. In seven weeks I’ll be in Vermont. In a little over eight weeks, I’ll have graduated.
The memory of it would have vanished utterly had he not enclosed it in a fortress of words…
No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf (born in 1929) is a different kind of book than what I usually read. Wolf is a German author, who in this slim volume writes about the imagined meeting in June of 1804 of an unknown female poet and a famous male writer at a social gathering “for tea and conversation.” One hundred nineteen pages of almost no action and some dialogue. Mostly, it’s the back and forth of the relentless minds of these two characters, as if their minds were communing, on the subjects of life and death, the freedoms of men and women, the necessity of art:
That time should bring forth our desire, but not that which we desire most.
The repressed passions.
We are not worthy of that which we long for.
We must understand that longing needs no justification.
For a writer whose days are mostly spent by choice by herself in front of a screen, eleven days of amazing and stimulating workshops, lectures, and readings–connected by speaking to people, finding seats, speaking to more people, making plans for dinner, and speaking to yet more people–can be quite disorienting.
I used up all my words.
The people in charge of the residency encourage us to get away from it even while we’re in the middle of it. So I would often run, or take a walk and take photos.
One of the main events at residency is the announcement of the advisers for the next semester. The list is posted around 7pm on a bulletin board. People trickle in, huddle around, emit small sounds or large ones, sometimes kick things.
My adviser for my last semester will be my first choice–Douglas Glover of Numéro Cinq and the author of, among other books, Elle, which won the 2003 Governor General’s Award. This semester I will finalize a creative thesis of 75 pages, write a 45-minute lecture, and prepare for a 20-minute reading. I will give the lecture and the reading at the winter residency, on the last day of which I will graduate, ending this wonderful journey.
I have this thing for the ocean. But in a pinch, a pond, a creek, a river will do.
The Winooski River flows through Montpelier, Vermont. From the balcony of the old Victorian, we could actually see the river.
And when I was out running, I discovered the cool bridge below:
Yesterday, I drove from Montpelier to Boston, flew from Boston to Atlanta, drove from Atlanta to Columbus, where I pulled into the driveway about 6:15 last night.
I had big plans for today, but I’m just drifting from one thing to another, not getting anything done.
11 days at VCFA, and now a series of photo posts to unwind myself, to spit me out into the world again.
And I have loved every second of it–the residencies, the packets, the advisers, the community of writers.
In the spring of 2009 I decided to pursue my MFA in Writing because I seemed so close to something but not quite reaching it. I thought an MFA program might provide the missing ingredient.
Some people need the requirements of deadlines to sit down at their desks. Not me. I adore sitting at my desk to write. Others are looking for a community of writers. I was already in a writing group. Some people want feedback, but my writing group exchanges manuscripts four times a year. Some people just want to make writing a priority. It already was for me.
Still, I have received something that has made pursuing my MFA in Writing invaluable.
Immersion is the only way I know to describe it. An absolute dunking in all things writing all the time. Not just feedback four times a year but feedback every four weeks. Not just writing but writing about writing. And not just that but having a packet due so that even when life was full of other things and even when I was writing, I couldn’t just write–I had to produce thirty pages in three days because the other days of the month had been full of other things, which meant staying down under longer than ever before.
Did I mention confidence? Pursuing my MFA in Writing at VCFA has given me confidence.
I’ll return to campus one more time in December to give a forty-five minute lecture, a reading, and to graduate.
Here’s what’s up and coming at
THE WRITING LIFE:
1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY - Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)
2) AUTHOR VISITS - interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors
3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS - large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)
~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss
~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman
4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY - coming soon - postcards from the organizational side of the writing brain
5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life
6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS - coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.
Check us out here
In 1999, my first writing workshop: Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Yes, in the Napa Valley. St. Helena. Mark Doty was there. David Lehman. Jane Hirshfield. Richard Bausch. (I always get him and his brother confused, never remembering which one it is I met. Which is terrible, given that we actually had a conversation at the picnic about Atlanta.) Elizabeth McCracken. Lynn Emanuel.
To write this post, I pulled out my file on the conference and found notes on a lecture Richard Bausch gave on the “Value of Exposition vs. Show Don’t Tell.” Which is basically what I wrote my critical essay on for VCFA in January. I didn’t know enough in 1999 to take it all in. Which was not the intended point of this post. Still, a good craft essay is worth rereading every six months or so, when we might be ready to absorb the next piece of the puzzle or when we might be struggling with some new aspect of writing.
In any event, I began this post to write about the poet Lynn Emanuel, who visited VCFA during the winter residency. I had a book of her poetry on my shelf that I had been rereading in the fall even before I knew of her visit. She had signed it, but I couldn’t remember where or when. At some point, I thought: Napa. 1999.
And yes, when I introduced myself after Lynn read on January 7, 2011, she confirmed what I just reconfirmed by pulling out my file. We were both there. In St. Helena at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in 1999.
Her book, Then, Suddenly, is filled with poems about writing, about inhabiting the other whom we become as we write. Lovely quotes from Italo Calvino, Albert Einstein. And from Edmond Jabes:
The book is the subject of the book.
Two excerpts from Lynn’s poetry:Far from The Dig and Hotel Fiesta I will study her longing for far, for everything to be more must travel by eye and she (that more distant I) will set no limits Persona from Then, Suddenly … On my finger I bore the tourniquet of his ring, and I was happy inside my lonely rayon blazer when a voice said suddenly– LYNN EMANUEL, IS THAT YOU IN THERE? No, I said, standing there clothed in the raiment of a dead man. No, said the voice of the dead man limping up and down the stairs of my voice. No, No, No, said the voice of the dead man limping down the long dark corridor of my throat. ~cross-posted at Contrary Blog
As part of a series at Douglas Glover’s Numéro Cinq, my childhood…
Roswell, Georgia, a small city rich in history on the north side of Atlanta, chose Robin Oliveira’s first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, as their Sixth Annual Roswell Reads Selection. At a reception for Robin Friday night, which included delicious gluten-free cupcakes and lots of conversation about reading, committee members told me they had wanted to choose a book by a woman and also one that touched on the Civil War, this year being the 150th anniversary of its beginning.
The read began in February and all sort of events took place around it, including civil war reenactments, “Follow Your Dream” photography contests, and weekend discussions. Previous selections included Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Terry Kay’s The Valley of Light.
The Archibald Smith Plantation, the location of the reception, was built around 1845 and is in wonderful condition, the rooms filled with Civil War trunks, slave-made baskets, corn-husk dolls, and two of the first TVs. And more… Apparently there is some value in never getting rid of anything. When the last of the family members died, the house was bequeathed to the housekeeper, Mamie Cotton, who lived in it until she died. True to the period, I had to go outside to the bathroom.
At her talk at a Literary Luncheon on Saturday to over a hundred people, Robin received a standing ovation.
Schenectady County, New York, also chose Robin’s book for their community read, which takes place in April. Robin will speak there on April 9th.
I was just going through a pile of papers that was teetering precariously and found a page I had torn out from “The Care and Feeding of the Work in Progress” by Catherine M. Wallace (Writer’s Chronicle, Mar/Apr 2008).
Writing workshops generally require you to read and critique the work of others. We do this at every residency at Vermont College. My writing group exchanges manuscripts every three months.
In the article, Wallace advocates not attempting to “fix” others’ work:
…the muddled passages are usually growing edges, and my “fixing” them will stop the new growth that might have happened.
She suggests thinking about “troubles” not as problems to be fixed but rather as doorways:
Picture platform 91/2 in the Harry Potter books: it looks like a wall, but try running straight at it and see what happens.
What she suggests:
to circle the “good parts” and put question marks whenever you get lost.
Our readers’ responses are a gift, she says. I agree.
Get ready for some name-dropping rock star highlights from awp 2011 in Washington DC: running into Josh Ritter in the bar Wednesday night…ricotta pancakes with sour cherries Thursday morning…sitting behind Jennifer Egan on Saturday and hearing her read “You (Plural)” from A Visit From the Goon Squad…seeing the millions of real live books on the book fair tables…listening to Josh Ritter give his first reading and listening to him sing…a nice, long visit with Robin Black…dinner in Adams Morgan with Benjamin Percy and Pam Houston, and Fenton Johnson and Pam Houston…seeing all my VCFA friends and wonderful conversations with Dave Jauss, Sue Silverman, Patrick Madden…lunch with my niece and a friend, listening to Charles Baxter on book reviews “to say a book is boring does not say anything about the book; it says something about the reader”… Elizabeth Cox on the dialogue in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”…Jill McCorkle: “She’d a been a good writer if there’d been somebody standing there with a red pen her whole life”…Richard Bausch on Hemingway edits…quick visits with Sheri Reynolds, Hannah Tinti, Maribeth Batcha, Bruce Machart, Robin Oliveira, Tony Eprile, Ellen Lesser, Richard McCann, Vivian Dorsel, Robin Hemley, Connie May Fowler…going to the book fair again and again and seeing all the millions of real books out there in the world, meeting in person Mike Curtis, Cornelius Eady, Lucy Corin, Richard Peabody, Megan Sexton, Matt Bell, Diane Goettel …books, bookmarks, buttons, and more…