The Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day is Good Bones by Maggie Smith. I just heard this lovely thing read aloud at Kenyon. Maggie was a fellow in one of the poetry classes. Hooray Maggie!
Rebecca McClanahan: “I love nonfiction best because I love the world.”
Me, too. The personal essay allows me to not only let my mind wander and dart where it will, but encourages those wanderings and dartings. They are the very things that make a piece unique — only I can write this because only I had this bizarre series of free associations from a particular observation or experience.
Writing gives me the chance (excuse?) to investigate all the questions I can find, in a way I may not do otherwise. Another paraphrased Rebecca-ism: if your writing doesn’t change you, it’s just a hobby.
Dear younger self:
I know you have no interest in what I have to say, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.
You know how it feels when you wear clothes that just aren’t you? Maybe they’re bunchy where they shouldn’t be or squeeze something they shouldn’t. Maybe the texture sits wrong on your skin. Maybe they belong on a much older body, or a much younger, or a much cooler or much more composed body. You feel squirmy, you look over your shoulder, you pluck at the fabric. You long to get home and change, to get out of the public eye.
Let me tell you, it’s not just clothes. Pay attention. Professions, towns, relationships can all be wrong. They can be gorgeous, well-built, classy, expensive. They might be mainstream and popular, in great demand. Profitable, convenient. But they could be just as wrong for you as the lovely outfit your grandmother owned that shows no wear and will last forever and it’s a good color for you and why don’t you take it? They could be as wrong as the get-up your artsy, emo friend with the heavy eyeliner stops traffic in.
And here’s the thing. If you spend too long in the wrong fit, it does things to you. It gets into your bloodstream. Slows the passage of your blood, or thins it. Chafes your skin or makes it clammy. You start facing the world as demanded by the outfit. Maybe you hang your head a little, or slump your shoulders, or start shuffling. You’re dressed like a preppy and you start thinking the country club sounds like a thing. You’re dressed like a punk and you start wanting to smash things. These insidious changes can be very hard to reverse!
So be very wary. Each time you enter into something, pay scrupulous attention to how it feels there. Who else is there and do you like them? Do you feel like yourself? If yes, go for it. If in doubt, hold off. Don’t ever, ever, ever let yourself fossilize where you don’t belong.
“Horsemanship and life, it’s all the same to me” ~ Buck Brannaman
The novice horseman and the novice writer will
- learn skills, learn approaches, learn theory, and then forget about them and just do it
- watch and emulate the best and then be shut in a room to develop her own way
- bang her head on walls and then discover they are mirrors
- look at the mountain, look at the teaspoon in her hand, and then begin
- run as fast as she can and wind up back at the damn mirror
- find it inside or not find it at all
- wish the whole freaking thing would leave her alone
- understand that this is now her life, other plans be damned
- wonder why it took so long to get started
Seven days in a wood-panelled room with 9 other writers. After saturating our minds with the possibilities, Rebecca McClanahan leaves us with the following, aiming us toward our own further development:
- What (or who, where when) keeps rising up from what you have written?
- What do you not yet understand about your subject? List these questions. What remains to be written or researched? List missing links
- List all the possible forms, shapes, structures the material could take and find the one
- Who else has done a similar project/text? How might yours be similar or different?
- What is the biggest obstacle you face 1) with the project, 2) with your writing in general, 2) with your writing life?
- What can you do, starting today, to overcome – or use – that obstacle?
- If the writing god told you that you could write only 10 more pages before you die, what would you write?
- What are you waiting for?
Dinner with superlative teacher Rebecca McClanahan (front left), our wonderful fellow Ron Stodghill (opposite end of the table) and fellow participants, hosted by editor of the Kenyon Review, David Lynne.
We seem to feel the same — ready to get back to our homes and our lives but regretting the end of an amazing week. In addition to BBQ, everyone is stuffed full of inspiration, new perspectives, fertile writing tools and a bunch of new friends.
Kenyon is a gorgeous campus, green and, this week, blessed with near-perfect weather.
Salient features of the workshop:
- Writing: every day, most of the day
- Reading or hearing others’ writing: a good chunk of the day
- Talking about writing: the rest of the day
- Regression: spartan dorm rooms without even a poster or two; standing in line with trays in the cafeteria, hoping the athletes leave you something
- Impostor syndrome: rampant, especially if you take the time to read your fellow students’ bios
- Luxury: allowing the outside world to recede
- Inspiration: it floods the place, oozing out of the teachers’ presentations, the fellow students’ passion, the requirement to write thousands of words
- Growing anxiety: the assigned slot to read fresh work to the entire group of students and teachers approaches
It’s day two of the 2016 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, a seven-day intensive workshop taught by a collection of remarkably accomplished instructors. I had to apply for admission and was selected; I’ve heard we are the top 30% of applicants. I almost fainted when I read my fellow students’ bios: many have MFAs and teach writing at the college and graduate levels, many have been published over and over. And then there’s me, who just decided to get sorta kinda serious about writing last year. Beating back the insecurity, I am soaking it all in, very proud and honored to be here studying Literary Nonfiction with Rebecca McClanahan and a talented group of writers!