As I return from my third MFA residency, I find a deeper connection still with not only my work, but with the work of others, and I am opening up to a whole new world of discovery. Sure, I tasted the fruit in college when i poured over Wordsworth and Keats, but I never dreamed that I would be able to recreate those feelings, vast and unexplored, in my own themes and live up to the accolades of these forefathers (and foremothers, thank you virginia wolf).
So let me begin with, I’m not there yet.
But I think I am starting to see glimpses. I am tuning in to the rhythm of my own creative process. I am learning character from Hemingway and style from Didion, delving into wildness with cheryl strayed and sitting peacefully on the fences of British churchyards with Bill Bryson. I am asking myself the traveller’s questions of Pico Iyer and am suddenly indebted to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty for their courage and bravery to get up every morning and write.
And I love it.
This residency was dominated by three themes for me, and i would like to bow to each of them for a moment.
This residency in workshop I was lucky enough to have LeAnne Howe for a leader. LeAnne swears by the storyboard and her stories come alive in pictures. She challenged us to think cinematically, including shots both close up (the ring on my finger), medium (the city where I live) and my favourite — what LeAnne call epic (where I looks up to the stars or the mountains or the sky and wonder, “who was i meant to be?”)
When we were workshopping my piece (a chapter from the travel memoir that I’m writing), LeAnne stopped and said, “The writer is looking away from the heat, here.” Uh oh. Bad writer.
That wasn’t the first time LeAnne had mentioned the heat. She mentioned it several more times when things were “heating up”, “cooling down”, and got a charge when the narrator themselves seemed to be overcome with something. I take “the heat” to mean: pain, vulnerability, honesty, desperation. Grief, desire, you name it. We all have our own heat.
I love the association with words to colours, a scale of passion in some greater scheme of a story. The other thing LeAnne talked about all the time was movement. “The heat propels the story forward”, she would say. Of course it would.
VCFA’s young (and not so young) writers this semester had the pleasure of welcoming Julia Alvarez as a visiting writer, Dominican storyteller, memoirist and essayist. She arrived with her fingernails painted and a untidy bun pulled to the back of her head with loose grey curls. I met her in the cafe right before her lecture, and even that encounter was riveting. Even Julia’s eyes tell a story. Her enthusiasm was contagious, her voice boisterous, and most of all, she has a spirit that fills the room around her. Do you know someone like that?
Alvarez talked about the importance of storytelling.
She asked, “can the imagination save us?”
Our lives, our stories, our perspectives. She paid close attention to the stories that we tell that take on lives of their own, growing and changing with each expansion, each generation. Characters are alive, our ghosts become real presences, and the grey area between fiction and nonfiction becomes slightly blurred at the edges. This is the gift of the storyteller.
I mulled over this during glasses of wine with many other students, writers from coast to coast. So many times as writers we doubt the impacts that our stories will have. Fiction writers doubt their credibility, nonfiction writers doubt their honesty, and poetry writers doubt their covert relationships and the secrets on the page left by the poet for only the reader to find. Will they get it?
Are my stories important? Hhmmm.
The last running theme of the residency for me was sparked by a lecture that my friend Jason Howard delivered. He talked about the power of the muse. Now, when most of us think our a muse, we think lineally about someone on paper, dressed in a goddess outfit, long flowing robes, etc. Jason thinks of long dead Anne Boelyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was beheaded and to this day haunts the castle. She also haunts Jason Howard’s apartment in Kentucky. And not only that, she’s given him countless essay ideas as they have communed together.
It wasn’t just Jason that talked about his muse. My second workshop leader Brett Lott carried around a battered old copy of John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist (with a forward from his hero, Ray Carver) and could quote from the thing like it was his bible. A student asked Brett about writer’s block, a common problem. He said, “When I think i can’t go on, I always ask myself. What would Ray do?” He smiles when he answers,
“Sit in that chair and write.”
My own office muses are becoming louder and louder, waking me from dreams or arriving at odd times, rousing me unconsciously to a pen or a keyboard nearby.
And the one thing they keep telling me is, “You can do this.”