Friday, March 21, 2008

long catchup letter to Amy

Dear Amy,

I’ve been thinking of writing to you specifically this week—I could easily write any of a dozen fabulous writers I know to tell what this stretch of days feels like, but you’ve considered me a writer of some sort since my days of letter-writing, perhaps 20 years ago. So I think of you first.

To tell you about today, the wind on this green, green isle is almost brittle with cold: my winter gear and layers will only protect me for twenty minutes or so before it feels painful to be outdoors. Still it looks like the Irish countryside, all moss and florals and even the cliffs are green. At the end of this short street is a beach covered with smooth stones of all colors, then Puget Sound, then Port Townsend on the other side, then the Olympic Range beyond, snow-covered and mostly cloud-covered, too. By now all my oddities and foibles seem exposed and embraced by my classmates, and they send me out into the cold to see how much of those peaks I can see. They refuse my invitations for Frisbee today: too cold.

Indoors, we are in a converted army barracks, I believe, a utilitarian structure characterized by thin walls and a loud heating system that bangs, and throughout the day the wind has thrown open doors and rattled window panes. In the main room, though, the podium is flanked by two elegant floor lamps, tall green plants, and strings of paper lanterns hanging from heating vents—the furniture looks like it’s been scavenged from dorm lounges, but that is fine. It’s comfortable and it works. When no lectures or readings or classes meet there, folks treat it exactly like a dorm lounge. Half a dozen students are gathered there now, reading lyrics off a huge projector screen (Simon and Garfunkel, just now, music far older than these young singers). I’m upstairs in my utilitarian room. I can hear everything in the building. This reminds me so much of our Beach Project days, and the inescapable quality of community life. You know me: I’m mostly charmed by all the hubbub.

This MFA group is thirty students, I believe, and seven full-time faculty, two chaplains, plus guest faculty including Patricia Hampl and David James Duncan among others.

You in particular would appreciate Patricia Hampl, both on paper and in person. She’d be the first to admit that her life is modest, middle-American, relatively quiet, and yet her prose transcends the ordinary circumstance and draws connections that surprise. Several of her essays can be plainly described as “perfect.” In person, she is a woman of faith, she is witty and warm, and she can teach. When I asked her questions about how to learn to write “a fluent personal essay,” which she said every writer needs to do, I explained that I have no formal background in literature.

“Oh, so you’re one of those feral writers!” she exclaimed and we all laughed. I’m picturing long fangs, big claws, and speed, claiming the title for my own. Feral! I love that! She suggested we develop a ruthless desire to “rob” from the skills of other writers, learning like artists do, by copying, by dissecting other’s reading, by being willing to sacrifice some of the pleasure of reading, in the service of the writing craft. I will need fangs to do this. She assures me “feral” is not a bad place to be, as long as I find some ways to discipline my writing.

I wrote about David James Duncan earlier—he’s a joy and a ferocious challenge, and I’ve been learning from other writers’ responses to him.

Another writing friend expressed envy of my experience here this few weeks, and I’d be envious from the outside, too. Not only do I get these great teachers, and to examine my own writing, but I get to hear my fellow students’ work, and to come to a good place in my strategy for the coming year. I’ve chosen a final manuscript project (the Karen stories), but I’ve not started really digging and overhauling the work yet. So I get the goodness of being settled and happy about “this stage” for a few more days, until I get home and expect to get back to work. I’ve got a reading strategy set for the next ten weeks: I’ll be studying memoirs that explore the lives of writers, starting with Scott Russell Sanders’ A Private History of Awe. I will likely map out my next critical paper, too, looking at Sanders’ use of reflection and summary in addition to “scenes.” I get to use highlighters and scissors and get physical, figuring out how the writer gets from “here” to “there.”

I know this is a very “practical” letter, with just a small glimpse of life here. We discussed Temple of the Holy Ghost (O’Connor) this morning, and then an insightful panel discussion about “writing mistakes, professional mistakes.” Two poetry readings, both engaging.

Tomorrow I’ll need to pack my suitcases as well as attend classes. Remind me to walk the beach ten times tomorrow, to hike up to the tiny lighthouse again. For several days I’ve wanted to tuck myself under the wings of all my classmates, and it’s a delight to “pull” for one another so fully. Leaving will be hard.

If I’m able to write again, I will try to find words for what it means to work with a mentor, what a great gift this is— I’m not sure I can find words at all. I get to witness a year of another writer’s life, and something about that tipped off tears today, and I don’t think it’s just because I am tired. Tomorrow, perhaps, I can say more, if I haven’t overwhelmed already.

Thanks for your friendship and support, Amy. Keep writing.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Day Seven of the writing residency finds us all sated with words and metaphors, and of no use to ourselves nor anyone in the outside world. This is grad school, yes, and in one way we are working our intellectual asses off—but in another way it’s summer camp for grownups, and no one wants to go home. We are punch-drunk, laughter far too close to the surface, and exhausted with people. We hate to waste one potentially fun or meaningful minute. We’re careful not to make eye contact with those who might make us laugh, in these close quarters. Still we begin to dig up flight schedules, to consider the three days left.

At nearly midnight, I’m in bed far earlier than last night, though a party up the hill will last late into the night. This is the first of the Poetry Reading nights, and after a wonderful set of readings by faculty (though I’m not a poet, these never fail to please me), we retired first to a large gathering for dramatic readings of Crab Artichoke Dip Haiku, then walked through a downpour to a small cottage where an Alaskan poet procured large casseroles of warm Crab Artichoke Dip.

Last night I arrived back in my room just about midnight, as well, when the clouds broke and a three-quarter moon shone brightly, a large ring circling round. I knocked on Alissa’s door, noting the bar of light underneath, and she agreed: beach walk. The foaming waves were lit bright enough to walk by the moon without flashlights. When we returned, I hoped to write a quick moon-note to Scott, to tell him if he were here, I would pull him from bed and make him walk all night—but the internet connection was down, and it has stayed down throughout the day.

I believe I saw enough of the Olympic Range to feel satisfied today, perhaps four-fifths clear and the rest only a little hazy. My classmates know I’m on the hunt for the fullest possible sighting of these mountains, and I am sun-deprived, so they announce to me each shift of the weather and each break between classes, (say, between one hour of Flannery O’Connor and the next hour of Brett Lott’s lecture on… Flannery O’Connor) and make pathways for me to run out and see. I get weepy at the smallest glimpse of these snow-covered peaks in the distance.

I hope to have a minute tomorrow to write about visiting faculty Patricia Hampl, and perhaps to write a little more about the work I’m doing. But it is time to collapse. One of the poetry faculty asked if we were “Whidbeyfied,” which might mean crammed airless into a tall can with a red and white label, under enormous pressure, a confection ready to spray whipped cream onto the nearest open hand, as soon as anyone asks how my week has been. It’s going to take a little aim and a little practice, not to explode.

I’m not ready to practice yet, though. I have three days left, and much to do. After sleep.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday lazy writing from the green island writing residency

For the first few days of travel, I woke crisply at 3 a.m., which would be six a.m. at home, and I struggled to get back to sleep, muttering to myself and finally conceding that horizontal is “rest” enough. I’m glad to shift this fifth morning, midway through my travels, when I wake at six a.m., ready for a dawn that won’t emerge for another hour, at least.

Each morning Anna, one of the new administrative assistants for the MFA program, rises at dawn too, and I hear her walk down the hall. Like me she is enthusiastic and like me her walk is heavy and unselfconscious on these long cold hallways. She will haul a cappuccino maker down to the dining hall and start taking orders as soon as she gets set up—she tells me she quit working at Starbucks six months ago and she misses it, she loves making people happy with good coffee.

By seven-twenty, Vic will be arriving from up the hill, in his blue down vest, carrying his thermal coffee mug, waiting for breakfast to be served. Each day classmates arrive later and later for meals, but Vic is like clockwork, ready. I am not as consistent but I like knowing he will be there. Most meals I arrive at the buffet fifteen minutes after the official start time, or later, depending, so it’s a treat to eat with just one or two people. I need to gage whether I can linger over breakfast: here, too, are the flickering florescent overhead lights that tip off my headaches. I can find a way around the headaches by sitting near the window, or by just leaving the room with my food on a warm plate.

We will see sky today, actual open sky. I would run outside to view the stars (it’s been so long!) or celebrate the blue (long!) but I’m already freezing right here by my window. I wrap in blankets and the pashmina shawl, throw my dorm door open to the warmth of the hallway. I should’ve shown my classmates how to work the thermostat, since I am so forgetful, but then… I am so forgetful. Perhaps today.

Each morning a meditative prayer service is offered, shared between our two literary chaplains who seek sermons in Flannery O’Connor (!), who marvel daily that Flannery is a good read for Lent, for being dust and coming from dust. While it’s not in any way mandatory, who could imagine missing Luci Shaw’s sermon? Or Dave’s, either. Today is the first day I wonder about skipping it, since I’m getting tired—but I won’t skip it. Tomorrow is a full “day off” of classes, and I’ll find more open time then, to be alone.

Yesterday I learned The Weather Law of the Northwest: when the sun breaks through, you throw boots on and run outside. I’m reminded of the ways my family haunts the window at home on days of mix and sun, hoping to be the first to spot a rainbow. The Olympic Range is on the horizon, I hear—so far I only see glimpses and then the shroud closes over again. One little stretch opened yesterday morning, stark in the pink sunrise. I grabbed coffee and stared for half an hour with Dan (I knew he’d be there, too, at the water’s edge, the contemplative who is city trapped for most of the year.) Another stretch of sun during the day, I ran down the gravel path to see if the mountains were visible, only to find twenty other students standing and gawking just like me. The wind whipped through our coats or I’m sure we’d be standing there, still. The same bitter damp wind blew all night, while the thermostat was set far too low.

What else? I selected a piece and read aloud from my work yesterday. It went remarkably well—I stammered over a few words, but very few, and one of my classmates said my voice “went all Southern” and I know what he means, how I slow into Hoosier when I’m concentrating. I knew I’d enjoy reading, and usually I sweat profusely but I did fine, and hearing my classmates read is a great, great joy. Kevin read an amazing, touching, hilarious piece on Lincoln. Allison read about learning to live with her mother. I can’t wait for more.

Afternoon found me torn between those glimpses of sun and napping (waking at unfortunate times is leaving me tired, all this people time is making me exhausted), so I welcomed the cloud cover as a sign to nap.

I’m afraid all of this reads as sleepily as a too-early morning before the caffeine sources are properly available. (I could go downstairs and fill my French press, but I’ve become terribly spoiled by Anna. Still she’s not stirring yet. And I might.)

We ended last evening with another jaw-dropping heart-rending reading by David James Duncan. Because you can’t hear him in the flesh, I will try to say how he “is.” He is both incredibly lightfooted, prone to shoulder-shaking red-faced laughter that shakes his tall lanky frame, and prone also, more than anyone I’ve ever witnessed, to pause long, pause startling while reading his material, and it’s clear that while he was reading a prayer from The Upsinads in his writing (I may not be spelling it right) that he is praying it while he reads, and his heart is rent open. His tenderness to his own written material means he is near tears, near shaking, leg braced against the podium to keep him from flying through the air I think. As a writer, Duncan is fearless, and he reads fearlessly also, reading about anguish, sex, spiritual fervor, humor, deepest humility and wonder. This man is my favorite living author, and I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but he’s more than I expected. It’s a joy to be here for his visit. Today is his last day with us. I think he may be teaching my Creative NonFiction class this morning, after the worship service.

The sky is only now white, just now opening to blue, and I wonder if it will seem like a thousand shades of blue, like all the days so far have meant a thousand shades of green—and I would say gray, too, but the green is more prominent. My feet are warming up and Anna is nowhere in sight yet. Vic will arrive on the doorstep below, with his vest and his mug, in about fifteen minutes.

A friend wrote to say, drink every drop of this and I assured him that I am, for myself and for everyone who can’t be here. Thanks for all of your support and enthusiasm for my writing life—the residency is going well, and I’m eager to find what the day will hold. Looks like I better plan for my own coffee needs, and a shower, and a sunrise, my first in five days.

And there is Vic, earlier than usual.

Friday, March 14, 2008

day three of Whidbey writing residency

Where do I begin to describe Day Three, Friday of my Whidbey Island writing residency?

The rains pound and pummel—I just watched a new student, new friend march out into the downpour to throw a garbage bag over an offending streetlamp that shines too close to our dorm window. Alissa climbs the lamp in a knitted duster and the most elegant eyeglasses, speaks in worldwise measured cadences, and is not above petty vandalism for a good cause. I will sleep better, too.

It’s not overdramatic to say I began the day in despair and ended in gratitude over the same topic. Last night’s faculty readings were completely obliterated for me when the overhead lighting tipped off a migraine—and I’d begged for lighting to be changed, because I knew the flickering fluorescents would cause the burning first, the buzzing second, the numb aura and heart-sickness. But the readers could not see without light. I listened to the readings then afterwards rushed to bed in my clothes, head blazing inward, at nine o’clock, to douse the pain. I woke sometime in the night to change into pajamas and wash my face, wondering what the next week will be like if I must be in the room with fluorescent lights, and the lights must be bright enough for the reader to see by.

By morning the pain was down to a dull buzz across the bridge of my nose and the headache eased early in the first discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

While yesterday offered quite a bit of open time for reading, and reading, and reading, today’s schedule is full. Late morning we discussed the craft of creative non-fiction and early afternoon we “workshopped” two essays, meaning that two of us had 20 pages of writing critiqued by other students and our faculty mentor. The first workshopping experience in Santa Fe last summer was a bit of a fright and a shock to my system, not because the information was bad, but because critique is hard to take and hard to “get used to.” Nonetheless I agreed to go first, and the critique was WONDERFUL. The comments this time were insightful, rich—several suggested the exact rearrangement of pieces that I’d previously considered. Several offered questions that will guide me through the next rewrite. And I come away certain that I’m headed in the right direction. Throughout my essays I’m hoping my writing pulls readers into my own intrigue, and I find I’m being successful: this group of readers is intrigued right along with me. I can’t wait to write more.

My classmate’s essay is just incredible and the process of talking about it is just plain exciting.

Returning from our workshop, I see a car with a friendly face driving up this quiet, quiet conference grounds, and the driver is tall with dark curls and glasses and can only be David James Duncan, arriving early for a guest faculty reading. The man is one of my favorite living writers, and I’m concerned I will gush all over him.

Late afternoon, the sky cleared enough for a beach walk to a tiny lighthouse with a small bunch of friends and two photographers. I packed my foldable Frisbee which flies softly into the backs of people’s heads, especially the backs of heads of those standing still to frame photographs carefully. (Um, candids!) No article of my clothing will be spared from the smell of sweat. As far as I know there are no laundry facilities here, and we are only on Day Three.

As I arrived for dinner, one of my classmates Emily mentioned “did you know David James Duncan just walked through the room” and I replied, yes, and isn’t it amazing I didn’t follow him like a stalker. We walked toward the buffet line, too, and she responded, “So this not-stalking is A Moral Triumph.” At which point Mr. Duncan turned, along with five or six others, to discover what kind of Moral Triumph had just occurred. I hedged, “I don’t really like the word ‘moral’. But a personal triumph of the will, yes.” As all turned back to the buffet, I pulled Emily aside to say, “and look, I did not need to confess my Moral Triumph in public, thank God.”

“A Second Moral Triumph.” Alissa, whose room houses three stacks of David James Duncan’s books, whispers “shall we?” and points out that Mr. Duncan’s table is quite empty, and we three proceed like lottery winners to surround him and hope we don’t stammer overmuch. Dinner is a delight. Some students are pinned into the tables because of tight dining arrangements and Emily and I pick up dishes, bring back desserts. While filling coffee cups I say, “Moral Triumph Number Three.” When she asks what I whisper, “I believe I did not make an ass of my exuberant self while dining with my favorite living author.”

“Moral Triumph Number Four: you made him laugh.” Not bad. I can live with myself.

Last summer I met the poet Luci Shaw in an elevator and for all intents and purposes I froze, aware of a hundred conversations I’d like to have, but feeling too stupid to start any of them well. We’ve had several lovely conversations over the past two days and I’m glad we’ve finally begun. David asked over dinner, “so you are focusing simply on becoming better writers in this program, and on making friends? That’s what you need, just this, a writing focus and friendships.” We nodded: that’s what we are doing. Just this. Our whole table enjoyed the conversation, though we were each staring at our plates at times—perhaps we all felt slightly nervous, like me.

Afterwards Alissa and Emily, who are rather quiet, offer high fives, asking when we might ever have a chance like that again.

When I arrived at the evening readings, all the overhead lights were turned off and the podium was strung with paper lanterns on strings of lights, casting a glow like the firefly lanterns in John Singer Sargent’s paintings, and the podium was flanked with two standing lamps. It looked like we should dance, and the room seemed warmer and full of merriness. I’m stunned to have my fury and frustration from last night’s headache utterly transformed, and readers commenting it felt like “A MidSummer Night’s Dream,” all hazy and warm and glowing: a human sort of lighting. I am so thankful, grateful, charmed for the grace of a human sort of lighting and the beauty of faces, and the opportunity to absorbed into the world of writing. The lighting is one grace, the writers and readings another, the fellowship of listeners and challenging material is another.

I can’t begin to encapsulate the readings themselves—both were amazing, and I am weary and ready for bed, now that the outside lamp has been doused. If I had a lamp in my room, I’d stay up and read, but my eyes are wearied by even the light of my laptop, and I’ve reached the day’s end. I know there are good conversations up the road in some of the cottages where the upperclassmen are staying, tempting, but…

It’s been a good day on this green gem of an island. Tomorrow is full, too, and if all goes well I will be reading some of my work aloud—a first. For now, the rain pours, a lovely music to sleep by.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Arriving on Whidbey

It is so good to be here.

It’s a discipline to simply go to bed and sleep in the midst of all this beauty. Classmates are so hungry to see one another, I know there is a gathering of people downstairs in this dormitory, or headed to the little cottages up the hill. I will stay up late and talk one of these nights, but not today. I can’t seem to locate myself in time, three hours from my home time zone. East and West seem all wrong today, and I work to orient myself. I can hear the surf outside my window, on a cool spring evening and I could just walk down to the beach… it’s a discipline to simply go to bed. Maybe when a few night’s rest are behind me.

A nine-hour sleep, a delightful conversation with my hostess’ boyfriend, a four-hour drive with fringes of mountains visible. Mexican lunch, Thai dinner, Italian dessert: it's been a day of many graces.

I’m living on a green isle, and the weather is early spring, vivid green. Daffodils and blossoming trees show color, grape hyacinth and English daisies dot the green, green lawns. We walked the beach without coats, tossed Frisbee on the giant green lawn until I was drenched.

My classmates and I greet one another, throw Frisbee or walk and ask, how is your work going? Headlong hugs, hand-shaking greetings, cracking jokes: we warm up to one another again. Our writing exposes so much of our lives, much that is intimate. But we need to learn to talk all over again—or at least I do. My eyes feast on everyone. People tease me that I brought a fold-up Frisbee in my back pocket, that I was tempted to skip lunch in Seattle to visit REI, that I get on my knees and greet each flower I pass in the landscape. They ask what I’m knitting these days (fingerless mitts in hand-dyed pinks and plums, and the same tank I was knitting last summer). They ask how my kids are. I ask, too, about jobs and families and all I can remember.

I spoke for an hour this evening with Luci Shaw, the conversation I've needed to have with her. I'm eager for the next one, too.

The schedule has some hours open tomorrow, and I hope the weather is as lovely as today. There are trails to explore, quiet to hear, woods to see, surf to hear.

But first. That sleep. Now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

green morning

It’s seven a.m. in Seattle and the sky has just begun to lighten. Flying into SeaTac yesterday, I could see forsythia in full bloom and the pink and lavender of blossoming fruit trees over the brillant green of grass and moss. This is what I remember about Seattle: something is always green, always blooming in The Emerald City.

Yesterday, too, I left Boston’s Logan Airport at six a.m., with a brilliant red rim of sunrise just peeking over the Atlantic. My coast has a distinctive shoreline and I could wave to the sleeping island of Cape Ann, a collection of lights on a map of black, against the nightblue ocean, as we began the westward ascent. Nine hours later I laid eyes on Whidbey Island as my plane banked southward toward Seattle.

In-between islands, I read essay after essay of my fellow students’ work. Since I write creative non-fiction, the essays are intimate, stories about their lives, about episodes each writer is puzzling to make sense of. One is about a fire and a desire for simplicity—riveting. One is about a search for intimacy with God and the disappointment along the way. Another is about teaching inner city children. More to read, today, to be ready for discussions tomorrow. We drive to Whidbey this afternoon, after a promised lazy morning.

I’m sleeping at my friend Beth’s home. She and Simon have a lovely bungalow with gorgeous windows, and a sweet guest room high in the eaves, where I slept nine luxurious hours on a very full stomach. Dinner was at Beth’s favorite restaurant, a vegetarian/local foods emporium where my entrĂ©e included sage polenta piled with butternut squash and gorgonzola, drizzled with a pomegranate/fig glaze… and a salad of baby greens, and a dessert of chocolate soufflĂ©. With Emily, Matthew and Allison gathered around the table, discussion flew from Flannery O'Connor to lives in cities, to reading and writing, and the meal was heavenly.

The sun is slowly coming up now, at a lazy pace, and I am tucking into my guestroom with another stack of essays to read.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Seattle is green and beautiful and filled with spring flowers.

Just back from an amazing dinner with friends, realizing I've been awake for 36 hours straight and I need to stop and sleep, now.

Friday, March 07, 2008

notes during a moment of calm

I turned in my assignments on time, Monday, with the exception of one book annotation, which I drafted tonight. I’m pleased.

The bathroom floor is 95% complete, after an embarrassingly long period of crumbling and entropy. The ceramic tiles are a beautiful blue. It’s the prettiest bathroom floor I’ve ever owned.

Madeleine and Brendan are snoozing soundly in sturdy loft beds. The futon mattresses arrived today and children tore into the packages with great glee. The sawdust is mostly gone, but the vacuum bag is exceedingly full and the kids’ stuff is… everywhere. They are thrilled.

And I promised we will dye Ukrainian eggs, tomorrow morning. (It’s oddly relaxing, I swear! Honest!)

Eric the Car Guy purchased a car for us. We will test drive it tomorrow and see if it’s a “keeper.” (It has a moon roof and a reputation for 30 miles per gallon. And it even sounds cute. I’ll keep you posted. Pssst: it’s the same color of blue as the bathroom floor!)

I fly to Seattle Tuesday, then drive to Whidbey Island Wednesday for ten gorgeous days of writing workshops and academics. I zipped open the giant wheeled duffle bag, and so far I’ve packed a) books to be autographed and books to be studying, magazines for the plane ride b) knitting, c) warm socks d) the Frisbee and hackysack. Soon I will add a billion pages of my fellow students’ writings. I hope there is room for clothes and makeup, mudboots and a coffee mug.

Remind me not to overpack, will you? And hem those new pants, so I don’t trip on them. After the Ukrainian egg dying, maybe? Still a million pounds of laundry to catch up from the week of house construction and car shuffling.

I hope to be blogging from the writing residency, though I may find out this is a crazy plan: I will be extraordinarily busy. Check in. All is going well—a bit chaotic, but well. Ask me questions if you like!