Monday, October 27, 2014

Bay Path MFA goes to International Online Learning Conference

On my way to the 20th Online Learning Consortium International Conference!  My BPU colleagues, Mary Wiseman and Peter Testori, and I are giving a presentation about creative collaboration within an online creative writing program, our MFA in Creative Nonfiction.  Educators, writers, and faculty from colleges and universities around the world will be sharing ideas for making the online experience more interactive, dynamic, and (the buzzword) "multi-modal" than it already is.

Key for me, though, is always how to help students deepen their writing practice.   How to stimulate workshopping discussions that get at the artistic and emotional heart of a piece.  How to apply what the lessons we learn from good writers -from John McPhee to Vivian Gornick, from Phillip Lopate to Diane Ackerman to Richard Rodriguez - to our own creative work.  How to direct students to literary publications and writing resources that can advance their career and strengthen their craft. How, in other words, to participate as serious writers in the digital world we live in.

I'm looking forward to learning new ways of teaching, new ways to enhance my students' experience in the MFA.  (And, it must be admitted, to four days in Florida.  No reason faculty development and 82-degree weather can't go together!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Breakfast with the Muse: guest post

I'm a member of a national writing community of women writers, She Writes.  She Writes is a publishing organization, a website where guest writers blog and members form groups, and a place for writers in all genres to share resources and work.  The organization sends out a weekly newsletter and also offers editing and other services for writers. It's a fantastic community and a good place for aspiring and established women writers to network.   Recently, I enjoyed this post by Jill Jepson, "The Delicate Balance of the Writing Life," on her blog "Breakfast with the Muse."  In the spirit of muses (and breakfast!), I'm sharing it this morning with you.  Make yourself a good cup of coffee or tea and enjoy.


Welcome to my new Breakfast with the Muse blog. I’m delighted to be posting on She Writes and hope you find this blog as helpful and inspiring as I’ve found other She Writes blogs.
As I was thinking about what I could write for my very first Breakfast with the Muse post, it struck me that every bit of writing advice I’ve ever given was true only half the time. The other half of the time, the opposite advice was true.

  • Learn to write fast to increase productivity—but also learn to write slowly for excellence and grace.
  • Write every day—except when you need rest and space, then don’t write every day.
  • Show, don’t tell! But sometimes tell.  

This conundrum has led me to the First Law of Writing about Writing:

For every piece of advice, there’s an equal and opposite piece of advice.
It all gets down to this: The writing life is complicated and paradoxical. It’s full of ambiguities, contradictions, and exceptions. It’s a life of fulcrums: points on which you must pivot with delicate balance, choosing between one technique and another, this method or that. There are dozens—maybe hundreds—of such balancing points. Here are three:

1. Write for your audience / Write for yourself
Creative writing classes often start by telling us always to write with an audience in mind.  “Do you want to get published and be paid for it, or are you not really concerned about other people buying and reading your book?” asks writing coach Kip Langello. If the former, he says, write for your readers.
But blogger Jeff Goins disagrees. Write for yourself first, he says: “…it is the only way that you can be true to your art—the only way that your writing can have the impact you dream of.” 
2. Listen to advice / Ignore advice
Ignoring advice has always struck me as a sure sign of an amateur--especially when that advice is coming from people in a position to know what they’re talking about. Learning to listen to the wisdom and experience of editors, teachers, and coaches is essential for all writers.
Imagine being lost in a strange city and being handed a roadmap with your destination clearly marked. Ignoring the advice of a publishing professional is like throwing that roadmap away.
But not always. Editors and teachers aren’t right 100% of the time. They make mistakes—sometimes big ones. A certain amount of writing advice is simply personal taste, and some of it is just plain wrong. So some of the time, the best thing you can do is to ignore it.
3. Follow the rules / Break the rules
Rules are landmarks leading to excellence. Following the rules of perfect grammar and punctuation helps us present ourselves as impeccable professionals. Knowing the rules of a particular genre are often essential to getting published in that genre. Rules exist for a reason, and learning them will make you a better writer.
Then you can break them—some of the time, at least. Push the envelope, shatter expectations, be bold and different and unique. That is good, too.
You’ll notice I’ve presented both sides of each of these balancing points—but offered no advice on when to go to one side and when to go to the other. It’s easy! Just use your intuition. Or ignore your intuition and use reason. Or use neither. Or both. 
The fact is, there are no clear guidelines about when to do one thing and when another. The choices we must make are subtle, unique to each writer, and constantly changing. All we writers can do is leap off that cliff and hope for the best.
And that’s okay! It’s what gives writing its adrenaline rush.
After all, writing isn’t rocket science. It’s something much harder: It’s art.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Learning to love the second (third, fourth, and fifth) draft

A few days ago, I attended a faculty development workshop on writing across the curriculum. Since all I teach is writing, it seemed to make little sense for me to be there - isn't this more appropriate for history or sociology or political science professors?  But it popped up on my calendar, which meant the assistant to the dean put it there. Which meant: you better go.

And so I went, and listened to a thoughtful presentation about the importance of drafts.  No news there.  But a few faculty members objected.  "That essay better be right the first time," one said.  Others agreed.  I listened to the argument for a few minutes and then jumped in, unable to help myself.  Writing IS drafting.  There is no such thing as a perfect first draft, except perhaps in an alternate universe, where polished prose flows effortlessly from the fingertips to the page.  I would like to live in that universe, but while I'm waiting to be whisked away there by some form of literary magic, I'm teaching - and practicing - the necessity of multiple drafts.

Anne Lamott comes right out and calls it the "shitty first draft" phenomenon.  Writing is a layered process, akin to making music. First, the melody - or maybe the rhythm, or the beats. Next, lyrics, then the voice, then harmonies and instrumentation.  It depends on what I am writing, but my first drafts of personal essays are messy, words streaming directly from the creative unconscious.  The narrative follows a symbolic or visual logic like the logic of dreams.  It is not linear.  It is not "crafted."  The craft comes later, draft after draft.  That's when I translate the language of feeling, memory, impression, sensation, and intuition into the language of structure and sense.  It takes time.  Trying for a "perfect" first draft almost always leads to stiff, constrained writing, lacking depth and imagination. Even in academic writing or narrative journalism, the same is true. Thinking is better, arguments are more nuanced, insights are greater with each draft.

I've learned to enjoy this act of translation. Maybe (back to the music analogy) it's a little like a musician in the recording studio, headphones on, sound engineers at the ready.  The raw material filled out and arranged, deepened and expanded, note by note, until the song is a complete artistic creation. In my writing studio, I arrange the words.  Stop and listen.  Arrange again, rewrite, polish. Listen again.  What might seem tedious has, over the years, become a deeply pleasurable act.

My students are learning to trust this process.  If there is anything I can give them, that would be it: don't let your inner "editor" write your first draft. Let the artist speak first, and then invite the editor in.  Both are necessary, and both will will serve your writing.  And both, over time, can be richly rewarding - if you give each the time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Guest blog post: Eating Cake on 9/11

Kate Whouley, a memoirist and instructor in Bay Path's MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, wrote this beautiful piece, "Eating Cake on 9/11," originally published in Obit magazine and which I'm sharing today with you.  Why today and not yesterday?  One reason is that I find the official commemorations sometimes drown out individual voices on the actual anniversary. There are speeches, civic events, news articles.  The booming language of the official - the codified gestures and words of public memorializing -  make it hard to hear one person speaking.  One person illuminating, in a quiet voice, what it was like to be alive that day - and the days since.

And so I post Kate's essay today, September 12.

Eating Cake on 9-11
         This year on 9-11, I plan to eat cake. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing—my mother’s favorite.
         My mother turned 67 on September 11, 2001. It was a time in her life when she went to a lot of doctors. Accompanying her in the weeks and months—and even years—after the attacks, I felt wary whenever I provided her date of birth. I tried out September 11th, rather than 9-11, hoping to skip the beat of stunned silence before a receptionist, a pharmacist or a health professional would ask, “What was the year again?”
           On that blue-skied September morning ten years ago, I planned to fly to New York.  I’d meet with my clients—who published law books—and by late afternoon, I’d be back on Cape Cod. Just in time to pick up a cake and prepare my mother’s birthday dinner. 
For reasons I no longer remember, I postponed my 9-11 meeting, opting to catch up by phone instead. Strange, I thought when I made the call: no voice mail, no receptionist, just a fast-busy. It wasn’t until I made another call--to a friend in Chicago--that I learned why I couldn’t reach anyone in New York. 
 “Do you want to come over to watch my TV?” my mother asked me, when she called a few minutes later.  I didn’t.  I didn’t feel any need for video verification. Instead, I wanted to make phones calls and send e-mails and perform a sort of virtual-shepherding.  I was especially worried about my friend Tina, a Boston-based flight attendant for American Airlines.
“Should we still have the cook-out tonight?” I asked my mother when I called to report Tina was fine—or at least on the ground.
I hoped she’d postpone.  In the face of so much loss, it felt wrong to fire up the grill and keep on living. Maybe by the weekend, I thought, we won’t feel so numb, so sad. But my mother did not favor a change of plans.
“This is not a time,” she said, “for us to sit in our separate houses.”   

Traffic was eerily absent when I ventured out to pick up a birthday cake; the whole world seemed to have stopped. My errand felt absurd and almost sacrilegious, disrespectful of the dead.  At the bakery, I was the only customer. A yellow-haired woman about my mother’s age was patient with me, pointing at each cake, repeating as I failed to take in the information.  The one with the white and yellow roses, I finally decided.  The baker loaded her frosting pen and squeezed, spelling out Happy Birthday Mom in green cursive before she pushed a tiny candleholder and a single yellow candle into the center of the cake. 
“It feels so strange to get a birthday cake today,” I said. 
“It is a terrible day,” she agreed. Like me, she had been listening to the radio since she first heard the news. “But even so, your mother still has to have her birthday.” 
 A few hours later, my mother, her companion, Bill, and I sat on the deck, eating hamburgers spiked with chopped tomato and onions, miso, beer and black pepper. We shared reports we had heard; we swapped theories and we shook our heads.  Both Bill and my mother had memories of Pearl Harbor; both Bill and my mother agreed we’d witnessed another act of war.  But none of us knew exactly what war it was. Not then.  Not yet.
After dinner, I carried the cake to the table, placing it in front of my mother, instructing her to make a wish before she blew out the single flame.  One wish did not seem enough that night. I should have loaded her cake with candles.
We moved indoors to eat the cake, and for a few minutes, we were lost in its goodness, and in the memories of cakes past—all delicious, and all from the same yellow-haired baker who wanted my mother to have her birthday.

            I wonder now whether my mother already knew—or feared—that something was amiss. Did she depend on Bill to drive that night because her always-challenged sense of direction was morphing into an inability to find her way? Did she notice she was losing her car keys more often, and forgetting how to use the coffeemaker?  Or did she inherently understand that that every day, every moment spent with those we love is precious?
Four and a half years after our 9-11 cookout, my mother moved to an assisted living residence.  She participated in the selection process; she agreed to move.  At least that’s my version of the story.  Hers was much different.  “You had no right to just pack me up and send me here.”  For many months, she was angry with me. “You are the only kid in the family who put her mother away. You took the path of least resistance.  You should be ashamed of yourself.”  My English-teaching, Latin-speaking mother could no longer spell—even her signature was hard to write, but she hadn’t lost her ability to string a sentence together.  Sometimes, we exchanged harsh words.  But I came to realize she never remembered them.
It was about this time that my mother—a lifelong reader, writer, and promoter of language arts—embraced the role of editor.  She blue-lined the less pleasant elements of her life story. As her memory grew less reliable, her disposition improved.  It was as if she were happier, as if her living were lighter when freed of her old sad stories, freed of the memory of her younger, troubled selves.
Visiting, we laughed together; we had fun. I might show her a picture: the black and white shot of a glamorous young woman directing a high school play—or share a story I remembered from her bouffant-hairdo days. 
“Well, wasn’t I something!”
“You still are something, Mom.”
The next day, she would complain on the phone: “You haven’t visited in ages.”
Eventually, I stopped reminding her that I’d visited the day before. I came to understand what she meant to teach me with her birthday cook-out: we must not only seize the day, but make the moment matter. Even when we know the moment will be forgotten.
As my mother changed with her forgetting, I considered how many variations compose a single life. “She just wasn’t herself anymore,” said an unthinking mourner at my mother’s wake. 
Who are we, anyway—any of us, at any time? If we are lucky to live long, we are all—a hundred, a thousand—different people.  I am not the same person who picked out that birthday cake 10 years ago.  Minutes after the attack, no one in our country could claim to be unchanged.
When I light my mother’s candle this year, I will think of all the souls who left the planet prematurely, of their friends and families, who begin another decade of living without them.  I will think of my mother—in all her versions and variations.  And I will not eat my chocolate cake alone. My mother and the bakery lady were right. In joyfulness or in sorrow, in celebration or in mourning, in remembering or in forgetting—now or then—this is not a time to sit in our separate houses. 
 copyright 2011 by Kate Whouley
 This essay originally appeared in Obit Magazine

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Will Teaching Enrich Your Writing Process?

Many times I've heard writers who teach complain about the difficulty of sustaining a writing practice when reading, grading, and discussing so much student work.   It's a legitimate problem, especially for writing instructors who care about their students.  We spend many hours thinking about their development as writers, how to give feedback that will strengthen what they do well and address what they have yet to learn.  We read every word of every draft they produce; we recommend books and essays to read; we spend hours in our offices talking over writing issues with students (and often, other issues as well).  Soon, it can seem as if our students' voices have infiltrated every corner of our lives, talking to us even in our sleep.

I've been thinking about this problem as our fall semester has gotten underway and I've become immersed, once again, in student work.  But I haven't found that teaching is taking away from my own writing or leaving me too drained for creative thought. In fact, the opposite is true: my students are inspiring me.

How is that?  There are a lot of reasons but here's the most important one: I'm working with people passionately dedicated to writing.  Who are sacrificing sleep, free time, Netflix, vacations, dinners out, lazy Sunday mornings and god knows what else (I hope not food) in order to make the most of their talent.  To learn to be stronger writers and better readers.  To contribute something meaningful to the world of literature, in the best way they possibly can.  Watching my students take risks (can I really be this honest?), try things they never tried before (can I really use a strange image like this?) is an honest thrill. In three weeks, I've already seen students get stronger, their voices more confident. And there are gems everywhere.  One student, after reading Ted Kooser's essay, "Hands," wrote about the touch of her father's hand on her knee after she had fallen asleep on the rooftop of their house, where they had gone to look at the night sky during the first moon landing.  Another student wrote about ears that "don't hear"; a third described her burying her nose in the grandmother's nicotine-scented blouse  - this grandmother who lived a life of hard labor and told stories about snakes and birds, and also gave her granddaughter a blank book with the whispered instruction to write her own stories down.

When I see my students taking creative leaps, how can I do anything less?  It's exciting to witness, and hold a space for, the act of artistic expression.  And holding a space for my students reminds me to do the same for myself.  They are committed to their work.  We teachers must be committed, too.

Recently I got an idea for a new essay, about women, midlife, and folk-tale archetypes.  It's time to get started.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The beginning of a new journey

My first cohort of twenty MFA students begins today.  I'm excited and honored to help guide these gifted writers on their journey as literary artists - and as members of a new creative writing community.  Students have come from all over the country - California, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire.  Some are coming in with memoirs already in progress.  Others are interested in exploring different genres: food and travel writing; arts criticism; personal essays about family, feminism, wellness, the body.  Each has a personal voice and style already; each is ready to discover and explore everything that writing has to offer.  

I remember the way I felt when I entered my MFA program.  They first day: taking my seat at the long table in a cramped classroom, glancing at the unknown faces of the other writers and wondering who they were, what they were writing about, why they were chosen...and why I was.  Did I belong there?  Was it a fluke?  Did I know enough, did I have something to say?  Whatever it was, I couldn't remember it that day.  Too nervous to eat, I was lightheaded, susceptible to the old voices in my head that doubted my ability, my agency, my worth.   Who do you think you are to claim your space at this table? Come on.  
Do you really think your voice matters that much?

Well, enough of me did think I had a right to claim my seat in that classroom.  To believe in my gift and to take it seriously.  My voice grew strong during those two years - and stronger still in the years since.  And the friendships I formed during that time are still some of the most important relationships in my life today. People with whom I continue to collaborate, share work, give feedback, travel to writing conferences, go on writing retreats. People who know my deepest heart, and I theirs.   

Audrey, Susan, Wendy, Ben...I am thinking of you as I write this today.  It's not only the years of teaching that guide me as I direct this MFA program.  It's the inspiration and support I receive from you.  I hope my students find the same joy that I did when I began my writing adventures with you.  I have a feeling they will. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reflections on the "right to write" - who owns the story?

I've been following with interest the discussion in response to Roxana Robinson's recent New York Times blog post, The Right to Write.  She poses the question: Who owns the story, the person who lives it or the person who writes it? 

It made me think about an excellent panel I attended at the AWP Conference in Seattle in March: How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction Five writers, including one of our MFA faculty, Susan Ito,  discussed the cultural and political implications of writing characters of a race or ethnicity not the writer's own.   It is "allowed" for a white male, for example, to write from the point of view of a black female, or even simply about her?  If he does, is it tantamount to cultural theft?

Robinson's piece stretched beyond race into questions of background and experience, raising the question of whether a person who has never been in combat can write about war.  But the dilemma is the same.  How can any writer claim to represent a culture she doesn't know from the inside?  

I think this is a legitimate question.  Yes, writers are artists, and should have the freedom to write about anything their imagination can conjure. If this weren't true, we'd never have Mrs. Dalloway, which memorably features the breakdown of a traumatized WWI veteran.  Virginia Woolf knew a great deal about the inner workings of a breakdown, but she had never been in a war zone, never dodged bullets, never witnessed people being blown to pieces.  And yet Septimus, who has, is one of the most vivid and sympathetic characters in 20th century literature.  

But what if she had failed?  What if Septimus had become a caricature, an offense?   Would Woolf then stand accused of "stealing" the veterans' story?  When Faulkner created Joe Christmas, a black man passing as white in Light in August, did he have the right?

As a white person living in a mixed-race family (my husband is African-American, our daughter mixed-race), these issues are very real to me, and not only as a writer.  I've seen over and over again the way it hurts my daughter when young black women are consistently depicted as "sassy" or "trash-talking" - if they manage to appear at all.  The way it disgusts my husband to encounter a sea of white characters in literature and film, with the only people of color showing up as bus drivers, janitors, addicts, colorful thugs.  Or occasionally, as mystic saviors who exist solely to advise (usually with a warm twinkle), the white people around them.  (See the excellent essay by the reliably witty, wildly gifted Roxane Gay on this persistent trope.)

So how do writers negotiate this landmine?  The world around us is diverse.  Not to write about it can be a kind of cultural blotting out, but writing about it is tricky.  How can we do justice to a culture we don't know from the inside?  (This question applies equally to issues of gender, class, ability, and sexual orientation as well as race.)  The comments made by the writers on the AWP panel in response to the issue were illuminating and thoughtful.  It was a lively and occasionally tense discussion, but it boiled down to a few key points:

1) Give your characters a nuanced inner life (which you want to do anyway, right?).  Allow them complexities, contradictions, and depth.   Don't let stereotypical behavior or attitudes stand in for the hard work of creating a human being. 

2) Think about why you want to write about this particular person. Are you adding "flavor" or do you really have something to say? Don't write about cultural difference as a way of "juicing up" a narrative.   

3) Never assume you are "speaking for" a group of people.  You are creating individuals embedded in a cultural reality. 

4) Do your research.  If you want to write about people different from you, it helps to know them.  Know them well.  It helps to have substantive conversations, as Robinson did when writing about Marines.  Ask questions.  A lot of questions. Find out as much as you can.  Travel, if you're able, study, read books and articles.  Inform yourself.  Do your homework. 

There are some who argue that it's never permitted for writers from the dominant culture to tell the stories of those who are not.  Some go even further, insisting that we speak only from our own experience, no one's else's.  I think it's more complicated than that. But to avoid the complexity is to skirt the responsibility we have as writers.  And that, I think, is to do justice not only to our characters, but to the art of writing. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Shebooks: a new publishing model

In late August, two months from now, Bay Path’s inaugural class of MFA candidates will begin their online studies in creative nonfiction with some of the most gifted writers and teachers in the literary world.  They will be writing personal essays, working on memoirs, studying arts and culture reporting, reading great writers from Virginia Woolf to Annie Dillard to Louise Erdrich. To say I’m pleased to be at the helm of this venture is an understatement; I couldn’t be happier if the sun shone in New England for 100 days in a row. 

One of the things that most excites me about our MFA is our emphasis on new publishing opportunities for creative writers.  The publishing landscape is changing daily, opening up avenues for writers to share their work in ways unimaginable a decade ago.  Yes, finding an agent and getting one’s book published by a major press is in some ways harder than ever, particularly for women writers.  But that is no longer the end of the story. 

The brand-new Shebooks, for example, publishes short e-books by and for women.  Its co-founders, Peggy Northrop and Laura Fraser, launched the online publishing venture in response to what they saw as pervasive sexism in the print and digital marketplace.  Northrop has been editor-in-chief at four magazines, including More and Real Simple; Fraser is journalist, author, and New York Times bestseller for her critically praised memoir, An Italian Affair.  

Together, they launched Shebooks to highlight and distribute the work of talented women fiction and nonfiction writers, and their publications so far are outstanding.  Writer Susan Ito, who teaches Contemporary Women’s Writing in our MFA, just published the stunning novella “The Mouse Room” with SheBooks, which is how I heard about the press and its new campaign, the Equal Writes Campaign 

But let’s hear from editorial director Laura Fraser herself:  

Shebooks wants to change inequities in publishing by giving great women writers a platform. We want to raise their visibility not only to our own readers but to other publications.  My partners and I—the third is Rachel Greenfield, who was the EVP of Martha Stewart Publishing–have been excited by the explosion of digital media, which is giving readers new ways to find compelling stories. And we’re pleased to see writers find fresh ways to work and make money outside the usual channels. was the result: a new media format, real money for writers (our writers all share in our profits), and engaging stories that women can’t wait to read, which fit the corners of their busy lives. We’ve been amazed at the quality of writing we’ve been able to publish. Please pledge to join our Equal Writes Campaign! 

That does it for me.  I'm joining. And I would add, if you're interested in Shebooks, make sure to check out their fiction and nonfiction offerings. I've been blown away by the quality.  Create a refreshing reading hour (or two or three) for yourself this weekend.  Grab an iced coffee, go to your favorite spot, open your laptop, and dive in. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Own Your Story: My Day in the Listening Booth

Two weeks ago Friday, I found myself standing behind a black curtain in a tiny recording booth on the second floor of a convention center in downtown Springfield.   A microphone stands between me and the woman sharing the booth with me – someone I’ve never met before, but who is about to tell me about a signal event in her life. She has never told this story before.  Her friends haven’t heard it; her family knows nothing about it.   “Begin,” says the sound engineer, sitting outside the booth with giant headphones and a tangle of recording equipment.  We take a breath, looking at each other, and she begins to speak.  Five minutes later we emerge from the booth electrified, connected to each other by the powerful current of her story.  During those few minutes, in the sanctified darkness of the recording booth, she was the storyteller and I was her listener, bearing witness to the most intimate details of her life.  And then it was over.  We embraced and she was gone.  But she left her story with me and it’s now a part of my consciousness, something I’ll carry with me as a memento of our human connection, like a tiny, gleaming stone in my pocket.

Along with my colleagues Aine Greaney and Tommy Shea, I repeated this experience over and over again that day in my role as “story coach” at a Record Your Story booth, a project inspired by National Public Radio’s StoryCorps.   We were there as part of Bay Path College’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference, which this year featured the groundbreaking journalist Barbara Walters.  The theme of the conference, “Own Your Story,” is a directive I take seriously as a writer and as director of an MFA program in creative nonfiction.   Apparently 2,000 other women (and men) felt the same way, filling the convention center and lining up at the recording both. 
For nine hours straight, Aine and Tommy and I took turns as interviewers, hearing deeply felt, passionately told stories (in some cases, in a whisper) about divorce, coming out as gay, losing a mother or father, going back to school in middle age, surviving cancer, being mentored by a caring grandmother, tending to a child with a life-threatening illness, escaping domestic violence, starting a business to help other women.  

When the day ended, were too full to speak.  We didn’t need to.  We knew what we had witnessed: the power of story and the way it transcends the common, everyday barriers between people.  It was a privilege to bear witness to these stories, a rare gift of human connection in the midst of our busy, turn-up-the-volume, media-saturated world -  a world full of frightening news and sometime savage judgment, where mockery often takes the place of empathy.  It’s so easy to stand in judgment of another person, so much harder to do so when you suddenly learn the private story, the quiet heartache or secret joy beneath the public face. Is it possible to “love” a stranger?  Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps,  believes it is and published a book about it: Listening is an Act of Love.  Last Friday, I knew exactly what he meant. 

This “listening love” is something I experience as a reader as well.  I feel it every time I read a painfully honest essay or personal reflection, a short story that takes a risk, a novel that shines a light into the hidden crevices of human experience.   Reading good literature, I’m invited into people’s lives, into their unseen thoughts and complicated hearts.  As a writer, I extend – or try to – the same invitation to my readers.   I try to get down to the truths that lie beneath every memory, idea, experience, even (maybe especially) those that reveal the unpolished self.  The self that isn’t always striding jauntily into the office in the morning, cellphone buzzing and briefcase swinging (actually, I don’t have a briefcase).  The self that is capable of jagged, irrational thoughts and moments of blind panic.   The self, for example, that is trying to imagine, and can’t, what this Sunday will be like – the first Mother’s Day without my mother.

As I wait for Sunday to come, I read –what else?  - stories.  Stories that will give me honest truths about what it means to be alive when someone I love isn’t.  About the way it’s still possible to rejoice in something very small (my young daughter bringing me a glass of water at night when she heard me awake, my husband getting up early to fill my car with gas).  Stories like Kate Whouley’s beautiful essay, “My Mother Taught Me It’s Okay to Forget,” about helping her elderly mother remember not only who she once had been, but what warm clothes are for:  “I told her stories of good times, reminded her of former glories. She would smile, nod, express admiration for her younger self and her achievements, which were not inconsiderable. Remembering is what I did for my mother—not just the big life-event sort of remembering, but the putting-on-a-coat-because-it’s cold outside remembering, too. It’s the second kind of remembering—the kind that is actually harder on everybody.”  

Stories like that – truths like that – reach me when nothing else can.  They keep me going.  They are the reason I write, the reason I teach.  And the reason I never get tired of listening.

More about the power of stories and their ability to engender “radical empathy”:

Anna Deveare Smith is playwright and “collector” of community stories, author of the play and book Fires in the Mirror, the first part of an ongoing project called On the Road: A Search for the American Character.  Written as a series of monologues condensed from personal interviews with 26 people in a Brooklyn neighborhood riven with racial violence, the piece explores the myriad ways in which people signal their identities, think about people from different cultures, and try (or don’t) to overcome barriers.  "My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other," Smith writes in her introduction to the play, "but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences."  

I taught a course on Smith’s work at John F. Kennedy University in California, in which students conducted interviews with people from backgrounds different from theirs, transcribed the interviews, and then performed the speech for the class in character as that person.  An African-American student performed as her reserved white mother-in-law.  A star athlete performed as his disabled friend, a young man with cerebral palsy.  A Jewish woman and feminist activist performed as her lab colleague, a conservative Palestinian woman.  It was an exercise in exploring voice, expanding one’s sense of the world, and submitting to what I call the “shock of empathy” - that second when every good reason to judge the person in front of you is washed away.  Letting go of that judgment, is to my mind, essential to being a good writer.   

Interestingly, I just read a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, about students from two very different schools in New York City, one private and privileged, the other public and struggling, who took Deveare’s idea a step farther.  Students interviewed a stranger from the rival school in partners, transcribed their partner’s answers, and then performed the results as a speech , in character, in the presence of the person they had interviewed.   A powerful experiment, which turned out to be yet another testament to the healing power of stories.  Maybe not enough to  tear down an entire wall of mutual mistrust. But enough – more than enough – to open the door.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Best Parts of AWP: a reflecton

I've been back from the AWP conference in Seattle for nearly ten days now, and am still digesting the experience.  "Digesting" is an apt description, as the conference was like a huge writers' banquet, a groaning board of literary delicacies and delights that left me so full I could barely stagger to the plane when it was over.   Have you ever felt as though your brain was literally stuffed?  That is the sensation I had on the way home (and probably the explanation for some deeply strange and vivid recent dreams).   

I love the experience of feasting on ideas - and I equally love the post-feasting time, when I "de-stuff" by turning over the new information in my mind, reflecting on what I want to keep, what I want to understand better, and what will matter to me in the scope of my creative life. 

Here is selected list of what I want to keep:

* At a panel on "Writing and the Sacred" with the great spiritual writer Kathleen Norris, this quote:  "I take my seat not at the dais, but at the common table." Not the power and the glory, but the human and the humble (and the source of all truthful writing).  And this, connecting the structure of the trinity to physics: "Quarks come in three, and they're indivisible."

* A memoir reading by Literary Mama contributor Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air, at a beautiful neighborhood bookstore and cafe (yes, they still exist - patronize them!).  The intimacy and warmth of the gathering, the irreplaceable magic of one person telling a story to a group of attentive strangers in a small, brightly lit room filled with books.  And the spell of the story itself, about motherhood and birth, hospitals and hope, love and medicine and maternal strength  - a highlight.

*A literary reception in a Seattle apartment (Air B&B is a wondrous thing) with the dynamic editors of the new e-publishing venture, She Books.  The offer a curated collection of short fiction and nonfiction e-books, written by women, for women - and all of it brilliant.  

* Joining VIDA, the activist organization that tracks the numbers of women writers in top publications around the country.   One look at their eye-popping pie charts tells the whole story.  Because of VIDA, many editors have made a commitment - and many have followed through - to publishing more women writers in their pages.

What else did I learn?  Never expect good coffee in a hotel, even in Seattle.  Don't bring too many books to raffle off (no one wants to drag books home on the plane).  Arrive a day early if you want to see the city, because the rest of your time will be spent in a fluorescent-lit convention center, rushing up and down escalators to packed conference rooms.  Say "yes" to unexpected invitations, as they will turn out to be more rewarding than half of what you had planned (see reading at bookstore, above).  Don't try to do everything, you can't, so let go of worrying about the hot panel you're missing on the third floor.   Jot down the best parts of the day in a notebook when you get back to your hotel (you think you'll remember anyway, but you won't).  

Oh, and one more thing.  Relish the connections you make, not because of what they will do for you, but because the connection itself nourishes you.  Those moments of vibrating sympathy remind you of who are you, give you something to draw on when you wonder why you write, and for whom.  Remember the whispered conversation you had with the first-time memoirist, as you sat side-by-side in your folding chairs, waiting for a long-winded speaker to sit down; the glass of wine you shared with the famous poet as she told a story about her difficult mother; the laughter in the room when a quiet young writer, daring greatly, told a joke to all assembled - and it was damn funny.  Those are the things I brought home with me, too, and those I'm going to keep. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the way to AWP

I'm on the way to Seattle tomorrow to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference - the largest literary conference in North America. There are 650 exhibitors at the bookfair this year, including the brand-new Bay Path College  No-Residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction, the only program of its kind in the country.  We'll have a table with our faculty books and program materials, where I will be joined by gifted writers and fellow MFA faculty Susan Ito, Audrey Ferber, and Jan Freeman for book signings, talks, and outreach.  Our goal?  Make contact with as many of the 12,000 conference attendees as we can and spread the word about what we think is the most exciting new MFA in the literary landscape.   

Goal #2 is, frankly, to revel in the abundance of creative inspiration: brilliant writers like Annie Proux, Sherman Alexie, Tobias Woolf, and Amy Tan, who will be there to give readings and participate in talks about writing and books.  Panels on everything from publishing in the 21st century to social media for writers to the broadening horizons for creative nonfiction (the magazine Creative Nonfiction is hosting a can't-miss 20th anniversary reading).  Social events including a "Tweet-up" for writers and a literary bash on Saturday night. 

This event, for writers and teachers, is a dizzying celebration of all things literary, a four-day bacchanalia of books and conversation, where lovers of language and writing can binge on the pleasures of lit-talk 24/7.   Think of it as a writers' nirvana (albeit in a corporate convention center), where we can learn from another, make new discoveries, and remind ourselves why we do what we do.  To say I'm excited is a profound understatement.  I going to take as much as I can to bring back with me, fill my rucksack with rubies and diamonds, as it were, and return to share them with you.  So get ready.  Literary riches are coming your way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Eat, Write, and be Merry

Some days start off out of sync and stay that way.  Monday was a day like that: an alarm that failed to go off, a latte that exploded in the car, a meeting to which I arrived late (with a coffee stain the shape of an erupting volcano on my shirt), a server that went down, a flat tire on the highway.  In the freezing cold.  So cold I could feel a layer of ice forming on my teeth as I waited for the service truck. 

Thankfully, there are days that make up—more than make up—for the crummy ones.  Days like unexpected packages in the mail, covered with stickers and international stamps and hand-addressed to you. 

Today is a package day.   Literally: the book a certain Mr. D ordered for me as a V-day present has arrived, and it’s even better than I thought it would be.   Yes, sometimes that is all it takes to make me ridiculously happy.  As the writer Susan-Lori Parks says, “I’m hard to impress.  But I’m easy to please."  A philosophy that works for me.

So what is this book that’s transformed my day?  Why,  The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.  I first heard about it on the excellent literary website The Millions, which published a wonderful piece about it, “Zen and the Art of Pie Making,” by Janet Potter.  Two sentences in, and I knew I had to have it. 

But this is a blog about writing.  What does a book about pie have to do with writing?

I’m glad you asked.  Reading well-written cookbooks is a unique pleasure, allowing one to revel in language invented for the sole purpose of describing the infinite variety of the sense world: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch.  All come into play when cooking and eating, and all are evoked by descriptive writing.  I sit on the couch flipping the pages, immersed in this abundant sense world, tasting each pie, imagining the flavors, the aromas, the crumbly feel of the dough in my fingers.   And from there, memories effortlessly arise, about food and family, rituals and customs—rich material for any memoir writer.  

Food writer T. Susan Chang, who teaches the invitingly named course “Eat, Drink, Get Paid” for the Bay Path MFA in Creative Nonfiction, demonstrates these connections between food and memory in her stunning book, A Spoonful of Promises.   Less a cookbook than a memoir with recipes, it features short, sparking essays on the author’s life, each centered around a dish.  "I wanted to convey a sense that food isn't just about food, or that food is more than food," she says.  "I think of it as this unobserved companion that travels with us throughout our lives, helping to record our memories and lend meaning to even everyday happenings." 

Indeed.  My earliest memory, in fact, is about dough.  I’m lying on a stained linoleum floor, curled in a ball and weeping.  The source of my despair is four feet away from me: an alluring mound of fragrant cookie batter, Shangri-la in a mixing bowl, which a person I once loved as my mother is guarding like Cerberus at the entrance to Hades.  There will be no fingers in the bowl.  No sampling, no tasting, not a single lick of the spoon.  Hence, the collapse to the floor, the howl loud enough to rattle the bones of distant ancestors.   Hours later (it must have been hours), an exasperated hand descends in front of my face, holding a chunk of buttery deliverance.  I accept it reverently, chewing slowly as the room fills with light.  I am loved after all.  I can get up off the floor and live!  I think I may have heard singing, too, but memory is vague on this point.

What is not vague in the way in which food—and good food writing—serves as creative inspiration, a spur to use descriptive language in novel ways, a means to open up a scene from the small and commonplace to the larger canvas of life.  The acclaimed food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote about serving a meal to guests from a distant country, who as they dined tasted “not only the solid honesty of my red borscht, but the new flavor of a changing world.”

Food writing can be about the meeting of cultures and customs, or simply about the food and nothing more.  Here are Jane and Michael Stern, the “Roadfood” writers, describing their encounter with a slice of apple pie: “The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters.” This is food writing done so well it becomes a kind of evocative poetry. 

Which leads me back to T. Susan Chang.  Not only does she write beautifully about the linkages between food and feeling, food and family and love, she also describes food with a flair that can almost make a dish appear, ready to eat, on an empty plate.  In her talk at this Saturday’s Writers’ Day at Bay Path, “Finding the Flavor in Writing, or Escape from ‘Delicious,’” she will help writers learn to mine their vocabulary for fresh ways to write about food.  Such as this lovely little sentence, about panna cotta: "The final product was a subtly and sublimely decadent custard, which slid like silk stockings over the tongue."   Or this delightfully earthy paragraph, about ribs:

"In a lifetime’s and several pigs’ worth of ribs, these were exceptional, eyeballs-to-the-ceiling, swoon worthy.  There’s that “chunky rub” – an express train to flavor right there.  And then there’s that sour-sweet glaze, that alluring tamarind thing which balances the tart and the fruity in that kiss-slap!-kiss way I can’t get enough of.  It gilds the ribs front and back and reduces you to an absolute animal, if you aren’t one to begin with."

If, after reading this, you aren’t ready either to cook, eat, write, or sign up for Chang’s talk this Saturday, then I don’t know what will move you.  As for me, I’m up for all four.  Right now, though, I have a Caramel-Apple Cider Pie to make.  With any luck, I’ll write about its splendid success in my next post (without once using the word “delicious”…)!