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.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Everyday Magic, Day 839

IMG_2442That’s why I’m inside all day and night as much as possible. In Vermont these days, it’s officially wicked cold with a high of zero yesterday, and tomorrow big winds rushing 50mph in to splash the super cold all over us. Unlike my life in Kansas, where heading outside, even staying a while during this crazily mild winter, is a thing of beauty, here’s it’s gorgeous, freezing and deadly. We’ve been told by the college to not walk alone because of wildly low wind chills predicted.

Meanwhile, there is the need to get from Point A to Point B, which required vast planning and exact execution of many layers of clothing, from Cuddle Duds to outer layers of down. Getting dressed is serious business that entails wool socks under other thick socks, and the covering up of as much of the face as possible with hat, scarf and hood.

IMG_2417Then there is the step outside, which usually feels anti-climatic. “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” I think to myself for the first ten steps. Then I take the eleventh step, and I no longer think such thoughts because my legs, even in their layers, are freezing as is my nose, knees and arms. The snow and sky shines or shades itself in its loveliness while I move as fast I can in so many pounds of clothing. Then there’s a distant, then closer, doorway to enter a building and the heavy fogging of eyeglasses ensues. “Oh, it’s you,” people tend to say when I start zipping myself out, but since I can’t see them either, this works out.

From then on, there’s no running back to the dorm for a cat nap because it’s too darn cold (naps must be taken instead on my office floor). I plan my day with minimum exposure to windows or doors and maximum exposure to carbs, grease, meat, and hot tea.

Finally, when it’s time to return, I walk back bundled up and amazed at how cold my eyeballs are and, at the same time, how the new snow pouring down makes such extremes shimmer its old light to guide me home.

Through the Looking Glass of Goddard: Everyday Magic, Day 607

I’ve compared being at Goddard to Brigadoon (the magical place that comes awake for only one day every 100 years) as well as to falling down the rabbit hole (go ask Alice). But actually Lewis Carroll’s Alice might apply far more although there are many such Alices among us, all looking for what they might discover and how to find true home.

The air is warm and damp (mid-80s and humid) as opposed to dry and hot (like the 109 predicted for Kansas today). The rain comes often. The wind blows lightly. The nights cool to a glistening dark blue sky.

My work here is big at times, all-encompassing with days that start early and end late, and yet there are pockets of beauty, calm and surprise. Today, for example, after a 90-minute advising group meeting in the round room with the round table, I met with some students, worked on some evaluations of student progress reviews, did some email catch-up, and then slipped off to the near-by swimming hole where the water was bathtub-warm on the surface and clear and cold buying cialis online scams below. I swam across the pond (almost all the way) and back, thinking of how differently I swim than any of the Olympians.

Once back on campus, sat in a half-circle of students, friends and family to watch on of my students present her astonishing and powerful work on helping students connect with the natural world. Against the backdrop of tall trees, I watched the wind twirl an errant fern and the light dapple the leaves and all of us.

On the way back to my office, hoola hoops, which is not surprising given the environment of this Wonderland-Brigadoon-Rabbit-Hole where I get to live on too much passion and caffeine, not enough sleep or space to take it all in, and occasional just-right-ness when I can listen to someone’s truest stories, callings and questions while the wind skims the top of the firs and pines.

I’ll cross back through the mirror to my other home in less than a week, but for now, I’m at home in this wonder.

Dwelling in Uncertainty & Snow: Everyday Magic, Day 504

The view from my office on the cusp of the incoming storm
The view from my computer of two napping mandalas

When is it most difficult to dwell in uncertainty? When you’re exhausted and ready to be home and then, weather intervenes …..or not. It’s hard to tell what will happen now that a winter storm warning has been issued for the part of Vermont I and the airport are in when the warning extends until Saturday morning. All I know is that the snow is coming. It could be a few inches or well over a foot. It could turn to rain or, worst scenario, freezing rain and ice. The weather is iffy enough that the campus has just announced that the residency is officially over now so if people need to leave early to out-race the storm, they can…..that is, if they drive or have other means of getting from here to there.

Not having my own private plane, I’m here, like many others, and I’m thinking about this state of not-knowing. I looked to solace by re-reading Pema Chodron, my favorite writer on the shaky and unpredictable wiles of the life force:

Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground be-neath us suddenly disappears. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment —over and over again
The view of a campus wondering just how much snow will come

And there’s nothing like the weather outside the window or within our own bodies to bring us back to the present moment and also face-to-face to whatever habitual ruts we dive ourselves into when the going gets tough and keeps the tough from going. “Learning to stay,” as Pema Chodron writes, is about opening ourselves to the wild groundlessness of whatever ground we’re inhabiting which, in my case, is some hilly forests surrounding a small campus, all of it staring up expectantly to the sky for what will come next.

But while life is a series of travels through and dwellings in uncertainty, you could also say it’s a cabaret, especially here at Goddard where, despite the residency being over, a bunch of students are right now down the hall painting their faces, cross-dressing, rehearsing dance numbers and banging on drums in preparation for the unofficial cabaret, which begins in seven minutes. The snow may be coming, the program for tomorrow may be cancelled but the show, at least, must go on.

A Museum for the Particularly Curious: Everyday Magic, Day 503

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vermont is a place for the curious, eccentric and more-than-easily amused. So that’s where my students and I went for our field trip today, over hill and dale for 27 miles east until we arrived at the museum, which is like a museum piece itself with its monster-sized red bricks and garlanded stone lions.

Step from one display to another, and you’ll see three-inch long Chinese slippers for women, mummified dog legs, snow flake prints contrasting what happens between -14 degrees and 30 degrees, and miniature Victorian living rooms. There are also birds: many, many, many birds, taxidermized within an inch of their deaths, and gleaming in their display cases that sort them out by continent.

Nothing blows the mind as much, however, as the bug art. We’re talking about 10,592 colorful beetles arranged into stars, a portrait of Lincoln and quilt-like art. Or this design composed of thousands and thousands of butterfly wings. “Where did people find the time to do this?” one of my students asked. But the greatest fun was watching some of our Goddardites look at the art, read the description, and then generic cialis 20mg india yell out, “Whoa!” when they realized just what (and who) went into each portrait.

A lot also went into the stuffed animals, some of great size and texture. The bears — polar, grizzly and the like — greet you upon arrival. Besides being greatly imposing and obviously dead. they’re just gigantic talismans of the wild, reminding us of what’s beyond our usual view. Here, you can look closely at the size of claws (huge) and the composition of Indigo Bunting feathers (vivid). There was also a gorgeous gallery featuring photos of lightning over varied landscapes, and a giant globe that, if you touched the controls, you would turn into Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, or the Earth at night, during hurricane system, if and when the water levels rise, and in ancient maps.

By the time we finished padding around upstairs and down, around the corners and down the halls, I felt refreshed by the unusual and unusual juxtapositions. Kind of like what we study, explore and investigate here: like with unlike, and between the fields and traditions, all kinds of sparks that make for greater warmth and light in the world.