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A Town That Changed My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 859

With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John
With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John

There was a moment in 1981 when I was driving from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, where I had just gotten fired from my first job out of college, crying so hard that I could hardly see the road. My friend had given me a key to the now-gone anarchist house, where I vowed I would move as soon as I packed up my KC apartment. As she gave me the key, she said, “You’re not coming back.” I told her she was wrong, but as I was driving and crying, I realized she was right although I couldn’t say why. Sometimes a single moment, informed by a compulsion that doesn’t make sense, can change your life just in the way coming to Columbia in the first place changed mine.

In 1979, having mostly finished a community college degree, I got on a plane with my friend Kathy, our combined 11 pieces of luggage, and no idea where I was going. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I didn’t know from the Midwest. Over 17 hours later — a blizzard, several delays, a flight to St. Louis, and a long bus ride in the middle of the night — I arrived in Columbia. It was dark, the streets were piled high with fresh snow, and it was crazy cold.

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First and only dorm I lived in

I didn’t know then that when I woke up, the next day and many others to come, that I was waking up to a very different direction for my life than what my 19-year-old mind had diligently planned (get journalism degree, return to NJ, live near the beach, be reporter, marry boyfriend, write poetry). In fact, the only part of the equation that stuck was the poetry.

What Columbia gave me, most of all, was gumption. I learned — by necessity at breakneck speed after my father retroactively cut off my college tuition — how to support myself and aim toward where I was led rather than the conventional wisdom at the time (as in, “Write poetry? Better become a journalist”). During my two and half years there, I worked as a Dairy Queen parfait maker and floor scrubber, movie theater concessions pusher, mom-and-pop store cashier, reader for a legally blind woman, and night-shift newspaper shuffler (catching newspapers off the conveyor belt, and shuffling their sections together).

I also worked somewhat at school although I didn’t make going to all my classes the habit it should have been. After my meeting a diet-coke-swizzling mentor, historian Dave Thelen, who told me, “You don’t belong in journalism school. They’ll ruin you!”, I added history as a second major, which became my only major after the J-school booted me out. Mostly, I majored in grassroots organizing, working with labor-friendly student groups with silly plans (“let’s organize all the secretaries on campus!”) but earnest intentions. What I was learning about broadcasting and newspaper writing in my journalism classes was very helpful for making flyers, press releases, and even, on fabled (and still going strong) community radio station KOPN, doing a socialist radio show, “Saturday’s Children (Must Work for a Living)” with the now-editor of In These Times (our theme song was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins). Most of my free time was driven by trying to get myself loved in all the wrong ways, attempting to appear cooler than I was, and riding bikes in the rain at night with bunches of anarchists before splitting tubs of ice cream on the lawn of the V.A. hospital.

Columbia was my town, the IMG_4339place I felt increasingly like myself, and where I wandered at any hour in the night with a sense of freedom and friendliness. As Ken and I walked in the sweltering night (“200% humidity,” I told Ken, who later showed me how it was only 84%), I led us on a treasure hunt to find the places I loved. We stopped at the Heidelberg, where I tried my luck at being cynical with the other J-school students, and also partied with Spyro Gyra after their concert at MU (they were young, we were young). There was the corner where Shakespeare’s Pizza used to be; the now-defunct Chez Coffeehouse, where I volunteered by mixing coffee with hot chocolate for patrons while listening to Papa Joe, aka Joe Newberry; the ancient pin oak I hugged after my friend Gayle died from treatment for leukemia; and the Wilson Street house where I lived with Kathy and six other women (we told people it was the Feel My Thigh sorority), subsisting on Ramen noodles, cheap beer, and potatoes. The next morning, we found the dorm where I lived for six months with a lovely woman from a born-again Christian family, then the bungalow where I lived for a year, badly choosing to make the back sleeping porch my room (no heat in winter, so I ended up spending months on the floor of my roommate Gary’s room). IMG_4366

I also found my people in Columbia, and this week, I reunited with three of them: I hadn’t seen John in a mere 26 or so years, and Dave and Steve for over 34 years, but lost time didn’t matter. We ate breakfast burritos, shared orange-apple-grapefruit juice, and reminded each other of “the time that…” and “well, no one wore clothes then” stories in between passing phones around to show off grown kids.

Driving home, I asked myself why I hadn’t been back more, considering Columbia is just a 3-hour drive east, but then again, as with most Kansan-naturalized folks, I’m oriented to heading west. At least, I was until this weekend. Now with plans to reconnect there and go on adventures (“Let’s go to Yosemite! Let’s go see the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska in March! Let’s check out the Flint Hills!”), I’m home — in Lawrence, the other town that changed my life — with an unpacked suitcase and fully-packed heart, ready to return.

Teaching Writing for the Love of It: Everyday Magic, Day 841

Tom McAfee years before I met him
Tom McAfee years before I met him

Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.

I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.

On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.

In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy buy cialis tablet teaching.

Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”).  The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.

Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.

I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.

Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

The Things of a Life: Everyday Magic, Day 831

One of the photos his daughters found
One of the photos his daughters found

The shortest day of the year included taking apart, packing, hauling away and other redistributing the things that compose a life, in this case, the life of our friend Jerry. Yesterday, a bunch of Jerry’s friends, his daughters and their husbands all squeezed ourselves into his tiny apartment to point at, ask about, and then shift or lift lots of boxes, furniture, small appliances, photography supplies, shoes, books, clothing and more.

There’s something very tender, surprising, and even familiar about going through the things of someone’s whole life. I spent a long time in the bathroom, packing up bandages, thermometers, unused aspirin and matches (to take to live at my house); sheets, cleaning products, and spray adhesive (to donate); and occasionally special tokens (a ring that was perhaps Jerry’s wedding ring for his last marriage, to give to his daughters). What the family wants time to consider goes to a storage unit. All else either went home with one or another of us, to the Social Service League or recycling (did that man never throw away a box?), or to the trash.

What this looked like was people carrying out shelves and office chairs, bags and boxes, piles of well-read or never-read magazines, all of us dancing past each other in the apartment or backing up in the hallway. In Jerry’s kitchen, I found myself a pot and pan, and drank a bottle of water from his refrigerator, thinking about how it might feel to bring his stuff home to my kitchen, where I cooked up lots of meals for him over the years. I also found, a day after my blender died, a new blender, likely hardly used, among Jerry’s stuff. Carrying it and a scratchy pink wool blanket to my car, I imagined Jerry among us, divvying up his stuff. “You want this?” I might ask, holding up three wooden plates. He would shrug, gesture for me to take them, and tell me that he’s not going to need it anymore, which is practical but also very sad.

Besides discovering that Jerry’s propensity for buying high quality stuff and avoiding junk applied to most of his possessions (and not just his work clothes and cameras), I happened buy generic cialis 10 mg upon many notes he wrote himself. In the middle of the biggest piles of neatly-organized clutter (including saving much of his mail for a long time), his daughter held up a note about the value of decluttering. On the back of a pharmacy receipt, he wrote about seeing a flock of geese. Two calendars I took him so I could use them for collage were actually filled with his writing, listing all his plans, crossing out what he didn’t end up doing, and writing notes in the margins. He wrote on the bottom on one page, “I am going to live to age 98,” which he obviously missed by 35 years. I had no idea that he was dealing with so many health issues, often listed in the daily squares of the calendar, or that he recorded his daily weight, probably trying to encourage his slight body to put on more pounds.

Within a little over an hour, thanks to the work of over a dozen people with assorted vehicles – from compact cars with roomy hatchbacks to trailers – everything was carried out but what will move to the storage unit. It felt strange to be done so quickly when his place had previously been stuffed with so many objects holding within so many stories: all the unused framing supplies for his photographs, books on computer programs and the wisdom of the Native American grandmothers group he followed, photo albums from when his kids were young and guides to the rivers of Kansas, dress shoes hardly worn and hiking shoes well-loved. I realize he’s not there anymore, and that he doesn’t live in his things, but his things do convey the layers of his life.

Wherever he is, I know he’s traveling light and free. I wish him great joy, love, and homecoming as I sit here with one of his hair ties holding my wet hair off my neck. Soon I’ll do some cooking for our Hanukkah party, using some of his things in lieu of having him show up, as he’s done for many years, always late but smiling, ready to hug me in my kitchen in the middle of the the press of friends and friendship.

Getting Into the Swim of Life: Everyday Magic, Day 712

Strangely enough, jumping into a pool and doing laps has topped my list of what I feel like doing at any given moment, even surpassing the yearning for dark chocolate. I wake up and wonder if I might go swimming today. Or I stop whatever I’m doing mid-afternoon and head to the pool (keeping a bathing suit and towel in the car at all times is one of the best decisions I’ve made in ages). Or after dinner, I walk out to car to pluck out my bathing suit, put it on, and head back into town.

I only do breast stroke, a version I improvise on of sidestroke, and a kind of backstroke I hardly ever see in the world (kind of like breast stroke on my bath). I’ve never gotten the hang of crawl without inhaling water up my nose. Whatever I do instead barely gets me across the water, but it’s enough. Enough floating and moving forward. Enough immersing my face in the cool water and then rising up to take in the clouds and trees. Enough room in the lap lane to move slowly back and forth, steady for 30-40 minutes (the length of time it takes me to do 12-15 laps).

There are a lot of difficult challenges out of my control lately from the Kansas state government to one of my workplaces. I’ve been at several memorial services within the last week, not to mention landing back at the beginning of finding some ways for my new writing to reach publication. One of the cars needs work, and it could be expensive, and Shay the dog keeps scattering banana peels from the compost on the kitchen floor. But when I drop myself into the water and start moving, I’m enveloped in the motion of peace, which is why I’m ending this post to tug my bathing suit into place so I can head back to the pool