Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Northwest Inland Writing Project Summer Writing Retreat: Interlude

I have done a little bit of reading about what I can do to encourage readers to come to my blog.

Surely one of the cardinal rules is to post once a day so that a reader doesn't have to go beyond the post at the top of the blog to read my most recent pieces.

To hell with that. If you are reading this Interlude, and if you are wondering what I've been up to, just go here to read about what I presented at Day 1 of the writing retreat and go here for Day 2.

Okay. Now. I have a few things I'd like to write and reflect upon regarding my role and preparation as the Inland Northwest Writing Project's Summer Writing Retreat's Visiting Writer.

First of all, in the field of writing, I'm not a big shot. I haven't published a book; I have published a couple of essays and a few poems. I told at least one person at the retreat that when I got hired to lead workshops, the Inland Northwest Writing Project hired a little shot.

I'm definitely a little shot.

I don't think I bring anything special to my role as Visiting Writer because I'm a little shot. I'm happy, however, that the Inland Northwest Writing Project was willing to take a chance on hiring a little shot.

As a community college instructor, I work with little shots. While some of us have presented at national conferences and a few have been published by national publications and one will be publishing an enormously compelling memoir, overall we spend the majority of our time focused on teaching, not building a scholarly resume.

Over the years, I have developed an unusual way of developing pedagogy.

I don't read and haven't (much) read books about teaching writing. I don't read books about teaching strategies. I don't assign my students books explaining how to write. Many excellent poets and fiction writers and memoir writers have written what I hear are wonderful books on writing in these genres. I just haven't read them. Or even looked at them.

When I came to work as a Visiting Writer, a small, but strong voice inside me says I'm a fraud because I haven't read Writing Down the Bones or any of Anne Lamont's books or Julia Cameron's and I've never taken a creative writing course and my reputation as a writer is pretty much limited to those, whom I deeply appreciate, who read my blog.

Oh! And those who have heard me preach. I think some of my best writing happened in the handful of sermons I've given at St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

What I'm getting at here is that much of what I've learned about writing came from sources that weren't dealing with writing at all.

For example, a book that has shaped much of my thinking about writing and has helped me understand my mindset as a writer is Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace. His insight into connectedness, non-duality,being awake, and consciousness shapes how I teach writing and how I've tried to discipline my mind as an observer and agent in my life and has greatly expanded my imagination.

Likewise, Robert Grudin's book On Dialogue is not a writing handbook. Grudin's book explores the power of dialogic thought and the copious ways the mind can work in its pursuit of truth. His book encourages us to give our minds over to expansion, to seeing things as many ways as possible, to give ourselves over to the copious ways the mind works and to delight in the fertility of ideas, not to narrow them or reduce them.

As I write, I try to give myself over to the delights of copia. In my writing instruction, I encourage my students toward the freedoms implicit in thinking dialogically, of writing copiously.

Furthermore, when I read poems or stories or memoirs or philosophy or religion or the Bible or any other piece of writing, I always ask this question: what is this piece of writing telling or showing me about the act of writing itself?

For example, when Jesus instructs his disciples to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves, that's a solid bit of writing instruction, especially when I listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that in these words Jesus was instructing his followers to be tough-minded and tender-hearted.

Again, solid writing instruction.

In the poem, "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender", found here, the speaker of the poem describes Judy Rock's way of being with the gulls:

Knowing her as I do

I know she chose one of them and pursued him

relentlessly—her eye is part of her mind –

and though there would be patter she never would lose him

until he was gone.

Here's what writing demands of us: to zero in, pursue, to do it relentlessly, to unite the eye (and the senses) with the mind, and to commit oneself not to lose the subject of the mind's and sense's focus until it is "gone".

A good lot is going on in Stern's poem. A good lot is going on in the ruminations of Robert Grudin. A good lot is going on in the writings of Thicht Nhat Hanh and the teachings of Buddha. A good lot is going on in the teachings of Jesus and the preaching of Martin Luther King. A good lot is going on in the poetry, stories, memoirs, histories, and other genres of writing in the world.

In one way or another, these writings and teachings, at some level, are instructing us in the ways of writing, or at the very least, giving us models for writing.

So far, it's been reading and thinking this way over the years that has informed my ideas about and practice of writing.

As the Inland Northwest Writing Project Summer Writing Retreat's Visiting Writer, I tried to invigorate those who came to the retreat with the inspiration and knowledge I've drawn from such sources.

It's a Buddhist thing: I've learned the most about writing from sources that weren't about writing at all -- at first glance.

No comments: