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.


Linda said...

I am so glad that you are sharing your experiences with all of us. It feels almost like being there--and I think that is good!

Congratulations on your Moral Victory! As someone who still is amazed that when she and her friend met Billy Collins they didn't try to kidnap him and bring him home, I understand! :)

Hope the rest of your stay is healthy, with no more headaches.

Happy Writing!

Byron K. Borger said...

Say, did they change the lights for you, or was that just the evenings setting? Either way, glad it helped the headaches....

Denise said...

The lighting was changed entirely for me. Two administrative assistants enlisted my tall classmate Kevin to help them string lights. We spend a large percentage of the day in this room.

I read a theory (can't recall where) that making a setting "accessible" to someone's special need almost always renders the setting more "human" to everyone.

Greg opened last evening's reading by turning to me to ask, "Denise, what do you think of our lighting lighting?"

"I think it looks very becoming on you." Everyone clapped. I offered a deep bow. It's good to be loved in such a concrete way. The solution is a bit inconvenient, but everyone's face in the room is charmed and more charming.