Friday, March 21, 2008
long catchup letter to 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.