Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rising, and Rising Again

As the year ends, I'm pleased to share a new essay that was published recently in the online journal Full Grown People.  This is a fishing story, but it's also a meditation on how we live with the undercurrents of loss.

There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious.  These days are also accidents, and don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, though they must somehow be turned into stories.  Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir.  This was a trip we both needed.  Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year.  Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before.  Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to.  “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said.  She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded.  There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.  Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around 6000 feet elevation.  Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke.  But when the high country burns the smoke stays here the fires are.  Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires.  It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good.  I trolled small streamers, and landed and released five or six fish in a few hours.  They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides.  But after lunch, the fishing slowed.  Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion.  When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often find each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then.  In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the hatch started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface.  I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs.  Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie.  The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish.  Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.  “Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said.  When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies.  They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir.  Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs.  The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more.  These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir.  The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again.  From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.  

 When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout.  For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch.  It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back and forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were.  Cheryl died a few days later.  But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket.  Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

In Such a World, Does Writing Matter?

Published in the Idaho Statesman, December 19, 2001

As I write this, searchers still comb the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York looking for answers.  Questions are much easier to find these days; they came raining down along with fluttering sheets of paper that filled the air as the buildings collapsed.  This is the image that haunts me--the flurry of white paper that was once letters, scribbled notes, application forms, birthday cards, and perhaps a journal page--words sent aloft only to settle anonymously on the debris-covered New York sidewalks below.

In such a world, can writing matter?  When carefully chosen words are taken violently from their owners and sent aimlessly swirling in the wind drafts of collapsing buildings, doesn't it seem that language is suddenly as insignificant as those shredded bits of paper? What can we say to each other that has enough meaning?  What do we say to those who hate inspires such violence?  What words do we choose to capture what we feel?

Yet for most of us, especially now, there is a hunger to speak, to write, to communicate.   It is one way that we long to learn that we are not alone. It is one way we can struggle to understand what seems incomprehensible.  While our words often seem to fail us, we still invest them with hope.

Such things are on my mind as I consider my work as a writing teacher.  For the first time in 20 years, I wasn't standing before a class this September, but in the days that followed September 11th I imagined that I was, looking back at the stunned faces of 25 students who came to hear how to write a good lead, or discuss the use of detail in an essay, or ask questions about sentence fragments.  I imagined that they, too, held the image of impossibly white pages falling, falling against mushrooming clouds of gray dust.  What would I have said to these developing writers?

Perhaps I would have told them that is it the writer's job to make sense of things.  In the face of the incomprehensible, language can seem insubstantial.  But if writers are willing, they can pursue words, chase them like loose pieces of paper blown helter-skelter in the wind.  If writers do this, let language lead in pursuit of meaning, they will find themselves on streets they don't recognize, among strangers and friends, stumbling on things they didn't know they knew.

But this requires faith that words are still worth following, as I have followed them here, trying to discover what it might mean that before the World Trade Center towers collapsed, paper fell like snow.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Emotional Work of Writing

To study creative writing is to study craft.  That's the premise on which virtually every workshop course is built, and it makes sense.  This is an apprenticeship like any other.  And yet the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to believe that it is understanding the emotional work of writing--not the craft--that makes the most difference in a writer's success.

There are many ways to talk about this emotional work, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the tension between two impulses, both of which are essential to writing well:  the impulse to suspend judgment and the impulse to criticize.  Because I teach freshman writing, I encounter lots of students who "hate" writing, students who would avoid it if they could.  These students are often hard on themselves, and from this emerges victim narratives:  stories of writer's block, of missing writing genes, or tales of resistance to school writing.  While these may not be particularly thoughtful perspectives on their own abilities, they certainly are emotional accounts.  I can see it in their faces. There are, of course, many reasons for this lack of faith, including the evidence their own writing provides; it can be pretty rough.  But there is one thing these students share: They only write when forced to.

I remember, many years ago, the first student I had in a creative nonfiction class who was far more talented than his teacher.  This is not false humility.  It's happened a lot since then.  I remember saying to Dan at the end of that semester how much I admired his talent, and I encouraged him to submit his work.  "Some of this is publishable," I said.  As far as I know, he never did, nor did very many of those supremely talented writers I've encountered in my classes over the years.  Clearly, knowledge of craft--and these students had it -simply didn't make much difference in the end.

Here's the one thing I do  know about getting better:  You have to write a lot.  This is as true for an MFA student as it is for a first-year writer in a composition course.  Writing a lot is the thing I've struggled with over the years, and some of this is easily explained by the many competing demands on my time.  I am more teacher than writer, and always have been, something I've only recently admitted to myself.  But this is a weak excuse for not writing because there is always time to write, at least a little. The problem with not writing enough isn't really about lack of time or some deficiencies in understanding of craft. The problem is an emotional one: the fear of failure.I don't think I've ever met an aspiring writer who doesn't wrestle with this.

In a psychological sense, I think of writing as a difficult marriage between two selves, each inclined to antagonize the other. There is a playful, wondering, curious self who relishes crashing through the underbrush in the wild pursuit of meanings.  The other self--the one who is inclined to judge--is thoroughly impatient with this recklessness. He finds it naive and inefficient.  His favorite two words are "so what?"--a question that can seem indifferent, or even contemptuous.  And yet, depending on the day, I trust him.  Sometimes I find myself in awe of what he can do with a knife, shaping and shaving sentences, paragraphs, whole essays. That self is the one who makes me feel like a good writer, which is one of the best feelings I know.  Just as often, however, he makes me want to quit. Managing these two selves is the emotional work of writing.  .They must cooperate somehow, and part of this is knowing when to put one--or the other--in charge of the work  But deeper still--and this is the hardest emotional struggle of all--is knowing that for many of us the critical self is the most dangerous because it ferociously protects the memory of failure. In some ways, this has little to do with writing.  To be overly self-critical is a psychological problem that many of us share. But it can be fatal to writers when it short-circuits the doing of the writing because this eventually undoes the desire to do it at all.  

Over the years, I saw that a partial resolution to this was finding faith in the usefulness of my"bad" writing--the stuff that won't see the light of day anywhere but in a journal, on a manual typewriter, or in the scribbles on the blank side of a recycled page. This is a solo performance in an empty auditorium--no need to show how smart I am and no reason to be anything but honest.   I needed a reason to write that had nothing to do with anybody else, This, above all else, is what has made the difference for me over the years,

Monday, August 18, 2014

Return to the Typewriter
My return to the typewriter began suddenly, with a feverish compulsion to acquire not just one but a handful, beginning with the machines I used in college—a Hermes 3000 and a Royal desktop.  But I didn’t stop there.  I developed a pornographic interest in early typewriters with glass keys, and purchased a  1940’s era Smith Corona Sterling portable and a Royal Arrow.  The touch of a fingertip on that Sterling’s black keys gave me a sensual thrill.  A few weeks later, a West German Olympia SM3 portable arrived from an eBay seller, and I left it on my desk—to write on, I thought—but I spent much more time simply staring at it, running my hand over its graceful metal curves, tracing the chrome trim with my finger, and remembering when, a very long time ago, a car could give me the same kind of thrill.   My wife, observing all of this, suggested I mention this typewriter business to my therapist.  She wasn’t joking.
A few weeks later I did. 
“This is probably silly, but Karen said I should mention that I recently developed this sort of typewriter obsession,” I told the therapist.  “I’ve bought a bunch of them over the past few months, and she thinks it’s a weird kind of nostalgic thing.”
 In my case, nostalgia is an affliction, a warning sign that I’m looking backwards for something that I can find right that is right in front me and I just refuse to see it.  But I didn’t think the typewriter obsession was this kind of pathological nostalgia, and I told the therapist that, and he smiled and nodded in agreement.
“How many typewriters do you have at the moment?” he said.
“I think I have seven,” I said.  “Or maybe eight.”
“Don’t you think that’s enough?” he said. 
“Oh yes,” I said.  “I don’t  think I’ll be buying any more.”
But a few weeks later I did.  I spent way too much money on a replacement for the first Hermes 3000—another Hermes but  in “mint” condition (and it was)—a move that seemed necessary because I had attempted to “fix” the carriage return on the first one and disassembled a part I could never put back together again.  It was a situation that reminded me of the time I tried to adjust the valves on my 1970 Fiat—the last of the machines in my life I felt I could actually fix—and had to call a tow truck to have the car taken to the repair shop.  In 2014, there is no one to call in Boise to fix a broken typewriter.
But one day I did fix the Olympia, a success story that later prompted me to tackle the Hermes, and it was a heady experience that made my love the typewriter all the more.  The Olympia SM3, a portable built in the 1950s, exudes German engineering.  If you turn it over and look at the gleaming guts of the machine you see an orderly regiment of springs commanding a row of shiny type bars, all rigidly waiting for orders from the typist.  There are stainless steel screws everywhere.  Looking at the inside of the Olympia, I simultaneously felt intimidated and that anything was possible. 

The carriage was jamming on the typewriter case, and after a half hour of following the logic of connected rollers, springs, and screws, I found the screw that would slightly elevate the carriage and it has worked well ever since.  Fixing the Olympia gave me a giddy feeling, and it wasn’t just a sense of accomplishment but the feeling that in some small I had recovered something I had lost:  a machine that I could actually understand.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My introduction to this year's Writer's in the Attic anthology of stories by Idaho writers.  Will be released by The Cabin on December 5.

Necessary Detours
Lately, I’ve been getting into arguments with my GPS, who insists, among other things, that it is necessary to drive through, rather than around, Sacramento when we return to Boise from the coast.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure I detect a little irritation in her voice as she says “recalculating” whenever I ignore her directions.  Overall, though, I’m grateful for her help with navigation.  I am not good at this, often taking a left turn when I should take a right, driving eastbound when it should be west, often following the longer distance between where I am and where I’m going.  Writing, of course, is something else entirely.  To navigate the world with words is to recalculate all the time.  

One of the commonest conversations I have with writing students begins something like this:  “I had this idea in my head of wanted I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and I simply couldn’t get it down right.”  This is the main reason writers abandon drafts.  They imagine that writing should be a straight shot from where they are to where they’re going, avoiding the inefficiency of detours, much less accidents.  But I’m always hoping for accidents.  Why else do the hard work of writing if not for the chance that you’ll find out what you didn’t know you knew?  If there was a literary GPS, it would lead us right off the cliff every time.

I don’t know it for sure, but I suspect that most of the wonderful stories in this collection began as cars that their authors drove off the road but refused to abandon. Writing often demands this kind of stubborn faith in necessary detours, but so does reading; we learn to expect the unexpected.  TheCabin invites you slide into the passenger seat and trust your drivers, some of southern Idaho’s finest writers, as they navigate this year’s theme: Detours.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Teaching a Starling to Talk

While the passenger pigeon was well on the way to extinction, the starling, a British native, was introduced into New York’s Central Park by the American Acclimatization Society, a group that hoped to introduce into the U.S. every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Eugene Schiefflen, a founding member of the Society, released 100 birds in the park in 1890 and 1891. By 1950, there were fifty million of the birds in the U.S., greatly annoying people from coast to coast who resented the starlings’ appetites (they like fruit), their tendency to collide with airplanes, and potential to carry disease that infect livestock.

Starlings are great mimics, a not always charming habit that inspired one BD Collier to post instructions online on how to teach a starling to say “Shiefflen.” Since the birds frequently mimic each other, the thinking was it would take just a few trained birds that, once released, might telegraph it to the many untutored starlings. “By following any or all of the strategies outlined on this website,” wrote Collier, “you can help change the starling from an unwanted invader to a productive environmental teaching tool.” Passenger pigeons were not mimics. They simply cooed, a call that is comforting when we hear it from a single bird but would become a thunderous sound in a flock of 5 million. If we could have taught Martha, the last passenger pigeon, to talk perhaps we would have trained her to say “Forever.”

There are just over 900 native bird species in North America. They are the wild vertebrate we are most likely to see in nearly every region of the U.S. , and if we do notice a bird it’s probably a starling or English sparrow, both immigrants, or perhaps a pigeon (not a passenger), all species reviled by bird lovers. Birders are list makers. They measure their passion for birds like an accountant would: how many have I seen, when, what birds do I hope to see before I die? Bird lovers carry hope with them along with their binoculars. It is a particularly fierce kind of hope. Thirty years after the last passenger pigeon died, some citizens still insisted that the great flocks survived somewhere down in Mexico. There were also lingering reports of a few wild pigeons here and there in the Midwest by people who were “well acquainted with the difference between a mourning dove and a passenger pigeon.” This is the same hope that inspired reports a few years ago of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings in a remote Arkansas swamp, a bird that was declared extinct in the 1940s.

 Most of the rest of us, the non-birders, are at least vaguely aware of birds. If nothing else, we envy flight, especially when we’re stuck in highway gridlock or hiking up a long trail that pivots back and forth up a mountainside. If only we could fly to the top. If only we could drift home aloft from there, “as the crow flies.” Even at the edge of awareness, birds still fly across our field of vision: A magpie’s explosion of wings when our car comes impossibly close to the bird on a highway, feeding on a dead cat; the muttering of geese in geometric agreement against a gray November sky; gulls circling greedily at the town dump. Birds come and go, flying in and out of our vision, in and out of our minds, defying the very thing that makes our bodies bend and ache in old age—gravity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fearless Teaching

 To a large extent, we teach the way we've been taught, or at least the ways that took hold and made us want to learn.  I was lucky as a graduate student: I had a handful of  wonderful instructors who weren't afraid to make their classes a genuine marketplace of ideas, people like Donald Murray, Tom Newkirk, Melody Graulich and many others.  I later learned that this approach was grounded in constructivist theory, especially the idea that knowledge is a social phenomenon--we make meaning together.  At the heart of this an open inquiry into what we think about what is known.   From class to class, we may not know where this will take us.  But the payoff--discovery--is well worth the risks.  This is something I recognize not just as a teacher but as a writer.

In practical terms, this means that in most of my classes I listen more than some of your other instructors.  I take notes on things that students say that I think are particularly insightful or provocative; in a sense, I'm a student, too.  I will guide discussion, certainly, and when appropriate share knowledge that might fill in our understandings of what scholars have said.  But I'm not inclined to lecture.  To students who prefer professors who profess, my teaching style might seem strangely passive, or perhaps even manipulative:  "Why doesn't he just tell us what he thinks or what he knows!"  The simple answer is that I'm convinced that you will learn less if I do.

Some years ago, the literary scholar Jane Tompkins published "Pedagogy of the Distressed," an article on teaching that strongly influenced my thinking. (I've attached it in case you want to take a look).  For many years, Tompkins taught in the conventional way--lecturing, leading, professing, establishing her authority, (which, by the way, is considerable).  At some point she realized that her motives for teaching that way weren't as pure as she thought.  Tompkins wrote that she suddenly understood that "most of the time" she was concerned about  "three things: a) to show the students how smart I was, b) to show them how knowledgeable I was, and c)to show them how well-prepared I was for class. I had been putting on a performance whose true goal was not to help the students learn but to perform before them in such a way that they would have a good opinion of me."  Tompkins called this the "performance model" of teaching, and concluded that what was behind it was fear.  She decided to stop being afraid.

This spoke to me, because like Tompkins, I've always felt a bit like an impostor in front of a college classroom.  On bad days, I feel like the dumbest guy in the room. But I was lucky.  I had the good fortune to have teachers who didn't respond to fear by continually demonstrating how smart they were, and so I could see another way to teach, one that isn't really about me at all.