Tag Archives: Taos Summer Writers Conference

Meditating on driftwood: intolerance and the #BLM-Sanders kerfuffle.

I signed up for a workshop with Jeffrey Davis at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference this past July. He uses mindfulness practices to smooth transitions between our multiple selves (writer/mother/wife/friend/asylum resident).

It’s the first writing workshop I’ve attended that blew the lid off my creativity (others have deepened and expanded my craft but not touched the how of my writing). Characters came faster, deeper and easier. My capacity to notice details expanded tenfold. (“It’s like a drug cabinet that is all in your brain.”) My understanding of my own process has resulted in the longest consistent stretch of daily writing practice I’ve ever experienced (as in, six out of seven days in the weeks since the conference, all while visiting friends, traveling, picking kids up from camp, going on family vacation, and getting kids ready for school).

Taos Mountain in the afternoon ...

Taos Mountain in the afternoon …

A colleague also participated in the Taos conference. Her afternoon workshop was in the same room as my morning one. And her workshop leader disparaged the driftwood that our morning workshop left in the center of the table. “This is disgusting, what is this, take it away, I didn’t bring that,” are all words my colleague reported her afternoon leader saying. Many of the other workshop participants, my colleague reported, “followed the leader” and joined in the disparagement, suggesting graffiti on the driftwood, etcetera.

Several years ago I would have been offended and upset. This year, I felt only sadness that fellow writers — aspiring and established, teacher and students  — engaged in this dismissive diminishment.

We cannot know what will work for another writer. For another human being.

And so when I heard that some #Black Lives Matter people took the microphone away from Bernie Sanders, I thought, well, maybe that’s not so bad.

Maybe it’s time to say: we’re going to do it differently. We’re not going to cede the microphone. We’re going to meditate on driftwood.

Maybe it is time for us white folk to sit down and shut up and listen. 

Maybe it is time to consider that meditating on driftwood could yield powerful stories.

Maybe powerful stories will lead to powerful actions.

Maybe powerful actions will expand our souls.

Maybe expanded souls would have room to hold the world’s simultaneous realities: our own experiences are true and the (different) experiences of others are equally true.

Maybe if we could hold the world’s simultaneous realities, we would also begin to transform our small scared parts, the parts so terrified of other that we would rather dismiss other than struggle to remain open.

May it be so.

To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor — an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

The Origami Penis

Disclaimer: there will be hardly any origami, and no male genitalia available for viewing or download in this post.

Origami fun

The “origami penis” phrase arose in a meeting of the New River Writers Project, when one of our members mentioned that his life is “too boring to blog about.”

No, some of us countered, your life is  not boring. Tell us about your eccentric clients! (I shall only reveal that he is a handsome fella of a certain age whose living demands he have extensive public contact. Not literal contact. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

The blog would have to be anonymous of course, someone added. You couldn’t reveal where you actually live. That’s true, he nodded. He paused. “I could call it the Handyman of Love,” he said.

Vulnerable

Vulnerable (Photo credit: S.H.CHOW)

We howled and moved on to the critiques, one of which was for a writer who’s hesitant about starting a blog without having at least a dozen posts ready to go. Another member joked that she didn’t really want to know what anyone else thought and would she have to receive comments on her blog? It was at this point that I slipped into writerly observation mode.

Ten of us were circled around a table; we all have stories in various stages of “polish” and professionalism; we write for a variety of reasons; we range in age from under-thirty to over-sixty.

But the humor within which we conceal-revealed our concerns led me to guess that we all share a worry that maybe we’re not unique enough, not literary enough, not funny enough, not interesting enough. Is this because we’re not in NYC? Because we don’t have MFAs from prestigious writing programs? Why do we think our lives don’t meet the “interesting-enough” criteria?

Spinning Tanoura

Spinning Tanoura (Photo credit: puthoOr photOgraphy)

Robert Boswell noted, in the Taos workshop I reference here, that writers must steal ruthlessly from their own lives. Writing is an ever-spinning dance: between arrogance (sitting down and writing my stories is worth the time and energy and money!), and humility (if I want anyone to read my stories, I need critiques of my drafts). Sometimes the whirl makes me dizzy. I am a Goddess! vs. I am a sh*t-shoveler in the lowest circle of hell. And who am I to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do?

I’m betting this is not a surprise to anyone who undertakes a creative endeavor. And as I write this, I’m thinking sheesh, so WHAT, everyone knows this, shut up already.

connection

But the responses I receive to my words surprise and humble me, and that’s the thing: when we don’t share our creative acts, we don’t know what connections we’ve missed.  The what-ifs are infinite. Every kind word suppressed because I felt self-conscious, every deleted phrase, every un-remarked-upon link between X and Y: each of these might have opened a whole other path to venture down. Not necessarily a better path, or a worse path, but certainly one with more connection.

Why do we shy away from those connections? I have found that people, on the whole, tend toward decency and kindness. Those who don’t are great “testimony” for our writerly selves. Tell your stories!

That fellow-writer with a boring life? He speculated about making origami penises as part of a handyman of love business and sent us all into a borderline-hysterical orbit of giggling. He inspired my words here. Connections galore!

Craft, Chronological Age, and Life Experience

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am in Taos, New Mexico for the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved it so much last year, I declared to one and all upon my return that I am going to retire out here.  And, my Life Experience has taught me that sometimes the sweet honeymoon period in a beautiful new place isn’t, in fact, representative of what it would be like to live there. So this year I’ve rented a tiny one-bedroom house on the outskirts of the town, bought groceries. I’m cooking and doing a bit of laundry, creating a sort-of-like-I-live here experience in addition to wallowing in the blissfully rejuvenating mudbath that a writers conference often is.

I am also wrassling with the (usual) writerly anxiety: is the story I submitted to my workshop any good? Will anyone laugh at my effort, tell me to give up? I know, intellectually, that this is unlikely. And I suspect that the story I’m currently laboring- procrastinating on requires a mastery of craft that I am to-the-bone afraid I lack.

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X (Photo credit: scatterkeir)

I know my intentions for the story, my aim for the reader, but the way in which I imagine that happening requires a decades-leap-foward in time for my protagonist, and it’s a short story. I want to create something similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. But in six to eight thousand words. I’m not sure I have “the chops” to pull it off. I’m pretty sure she’s considered a genius, right? I am an increasingly-dumpy middle-aged woman who doesn’t do very well on those online IQ tests.

As I pondered this, I recalled a years-ago conversation with an acquaintance whose child was learning the Vivaldi double cello concerto, at the age of twelve. She didn’t think it was appropriate for someone who’d just entered puberty to attempt the music. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other parents and musicians: they’re too young to play (Mahler, the Bach cello suites, the fill-in-the-blank).

As usual, I am of two minds.

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Mag...

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I agree: the depth and breadth of technical musicianship some of our children possess outstrip the depth and breadth of their Life Experience. The layers of emotion available in much of the musical canon cannot possibly be expressed by those who have never had their heart broken; sat with a dying parent, spouse, or child; seen their world shift, sighing, onto its side after gunfire, bombs, mortars.

And I disagree: making an imperfect, shallow-er version of beauty is tremendous. Copying out the “moves” of another writer, observing how they got from point x to point y: fantastic. Doesn’t mean I can do it, but if I don’t walk down the path, how will I ever know if I’m getting closer? How will I know what is available to me when my life throws the Big Issues at me if I haven’t seen them, touched them, tasted them, before I need them, or before I’m “ready” to play them?

One of my (now long-defunct) book clubs had a member who declared that she didn’t want to invite anyone under thirty to join. “They just don’t have enough Life Experience,” she said. Being close to thirty at that point, I was pretty offended: who are we to say what another’s experience is based on their Chronological Age?

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reynolds Price wrote the haunting A Long and Happy Life when he was twenty five. He notes in a later interview that it was dumb luck, in many ways, but nonetheless: if he’d listened to those who say “you can’t because you’re too young” instead of sitting down and trying to write, we wouldn’t have that gem of a book.

Who knows what resides within us unless we grant ourselves the time, space and permission to try to express it? Given the privilege many of us currently have, of having at least some time and space, let’s give ourselves and each other permission. Even though this means I now have to go wrassle with my incomplete, imperfect craftsmanship.

Whee!

Whee! is how I felt when I received my copy of Stealing Time, A Literary Magazine for Parents, and opened to read my review of A Good Man by Mark Shriver. You can read it here: STM3_Relations_Howard

Schmoozing

Schmoozing (Photo credit: PTWithy)

And I will note, with my middle-aged-writerly wisdom hat snug around my sweaty summer brow, that I connected with this magazine via Sarah Martinez, author of Sex and Death in the  American Novel, a friend I made at Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Which I signed up for despite the fact that I dread schmoozing, I hate small talk, I loathe crowds and I drip with sweat as I approach the noisy rooms wherein crowds are making small talk and schmoozing. Yet every single time I go into a noisy rooms to make small talk and schmooze, I come out with an interesting idea, new acquaintance/possible friend, or, worst case, an idea for an appetizer to try at home. It is never all bad.

Gas line explodes, neighborhood burns

Horrible like this: Gas line explodes, neighborhood burns (Photo credit: lucy huntzinger)

But my body insists it WILL BE HORRIBLE. Every single time. How fascinating! How misguided. How not-evidence-based. And thus how also an opportunity for dancing on the edge of self-awareness and obliviousness. It is in my awareness of my dueling dual selves that I learn the most, connect the most, open the most doors.

It’s summer. All the doors and windows can be open where I live. I’m going to hang out, and schmooze despite my hating, loathing, and dripping sweat. Whee!