I just finished reading Dog Yearsby Mark Doty. I think he's an amazing writer--both as a poet and a memoirist. This book is about dogs. Love. Loss. Mortality. It touched me deeply. Loss, and how and why we go on, has been a central feature lately in my life and writing.
Here are two of my favorite passages from Doty's book:
"It's only human to mourn and to reach toward forwardness at once."
"Despair, then, isn't a place we leave--some kind of psychic location we pull into, look around, then pull out of again, relieved to not have to live there. It's more like a dimension of the self, which once opened, is part of us forever, a pole within, a spot of darkness, deeply magnetic. ... Without it, might we just float away, unable to feel the darkness and suffering of the world? The adult self requires balance; if we don't internalize some of the terrible gravity around us, then we might as well not have been here at all."
That last Doty quote reminds me of these lines from Rilke's Duino Elegies (which I'm using as an epigraph to the book I'm working on now):
We wasters of sorrows! How we stare away into sad endurance beyond them trying to force their end! Whereas they are nothing else than our winter foliage, our sombre evergreen, one of the seams of our interior year—not only season—they’re also place, settlement camp, soil, dwelling.
I love teaching creative writing. I don't care how shitty I feel (this has been a particularly rough year in my personal life), once I walk into the classroom, I get a shot of energy. It's a blast to turn people on to writing, creativity, stories and poems.
I have noticed in the past few years, though, that some students (usually a handful in a class) don't understand (or ignore) the nature of the classroom community. They either don't care, or don't realize, that being late, or walking out in the middle of class, or perpetually turning in late work is distracting--not just to me, but to the entire group. (Or maybe a handful of my students have always been this way, but now that I'm "middle aged" I bemoan it more.)
I wanted to find a way to deal with this next semester in a serious way, laced with humor. Calm assertive, as the Dog Whisperer says. So I've been working on the following to include in my syllabus. It will be interesting to see how my students respond. (Maybe some are reading this right now and are dropping the class as we speak.)
SANITY 101 for the Creative Writing Class Please initial each item and sign at the end of this page.
_____ 1. I will not turn in late work, nor will I attempt to turn in late work for credit.
_____ 2. I will not be absent from class and then email Kate with the question, “What did I miss?” I will take responsibility for any unfortunate absence and contact several classmates to find out a) what happened in class and b) what’s due next time. Bottom line: I will not make my absences extra work for Kate.
_____ 3. If I have any confusion about something and need extra help for any reason, I will contact Kate—but not by email at 5:58 p.m. on the day a 6 p.m. class meets. If I want to talk 1:1 with her, I realize she has office hours and is available by appointment.
_____ 4. I will not email assignments to Kate.
_____ 5. I will not get up in the middle of a lecture and walk out of the classroom.
_____ 6. I will not regularly cruise into class late.
_____ 7. I will not regularly cruise out of class early.
_____ 8. I will not bring into class foods that reek of garlic.
_____ 9. I will not bring a full meal into class. If I must eat, I will discretely eat a snack that is not contained in loud packaging.
_____ 10. I will make the day before things are due “printing day” so as to avoid the disaster of broken printers, not enough ink, etc. etc. (Or, if I do have technological problems when I waited until the last minute, I will say, “Ah, well, too bad for me.”) This will be much less stressful, and I will thank Kate for adding an extra five years to my life.
_____ 11. I will forgo my addiction to/love for electronics during class. I will not text-message my lover, cruise the Internet for porn, update my blog, check on my stocks, etc. during class. I will honor that this is a no-tech class.
_____ 12. I will not manufacture a dying or dead grandmother, dog, boyfriend, sister-in-law, former best friend’s cousin’s pet iguana or other death or serious injury in order to try to appeal to Kate’s niceness for exceptions to any of the above.
_____ 13. I will not manufacture a psychological disorder or physical ailment in order to appeal to Kate’s niceness for exceptions to any of the above.
_____ 14. I will not beg.
_____ 15. I will do my best to come to class prepared—and prepared to have fun.
Big skies have always hung around in bursts of peril and merriment. Such lush urgency.
Warm fast beside me on the floor, unemerged, you press your body-you into my body-me: a mass of space and particles, a cloud of chords and song still unarranged, massive; a crowd of two so undemonstrative we don’t get attacked by cops with real or rubber bullets, with M-16’s or mace – not yet. Your fingers laced in mine design the interlocking force that glues galaxies.
Big skies above our rooftop spread and clear the way for ecstasy, a thunderhead to break our sense of wonder away from one another, to turn back into lake and sea the stream your body-you, my body-me must have always been. Of all the civilians voluptuously curled up on this rug so randomly -- why us?
How can anyone, you ask, how can anyone kill in such surroundings of desert, mountain, jungle, savannah, plains, delta, beach, shore, star and all the light that scraps us into birth? I listen.
To cello, drums and soulful shouts we brush against the grain. You gun your thrusts and time yourself to me. I give up every time.
Big skies will always hang around in bursts of peril and merriment. Such hushed urgency.
This has been a whirlwind of a last few months, ever since I was offered the position as co-director of the Center for Literary Arts at the end of August, a mere two days before the semester began.
Kelly, my co-director, and I put on a number of events (Sam Hamill, Dorothy Allison, Salman Rushdie, C. Dale Young) in addition to teaching two classes each. We've also prepared for the spring events (five events, including ZZ Packer and Ishmael Reed), written grants and reports, done a ton of PR, created a new website, paid bills, cleaned up piles of messes ... the details go on and on.
Finally, yesterday we actually got to sit down and talk about which writers we might want to bring for the 2008-09 season. What a joy to be able to build from scratch. I'm in the process of contacting writers and agents now.
Once we have our schedule confirmed, I'll let you know who's coming. If you're not in San Jose, you'll wish you were.
I just noticed that several people have left comments about my memoir piece, The Color of Change, here.
The first year I don't get a flu shot in a long time and what happens? I get the flu. It's been a forceful one--four days of a sore throat, more than a week now of weakness and headache, and a relentless wet cough in my aching chest. I've used the flu as an opportunity to read some of the books on my bedstand that I've been wanting to read for a while.
I obviously don't need uplifiting reading when I'm sick if I'm willing to pick up a post-apocalytpic novel. I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road in a day and a half, my skin crawling the entire time. I was let down by the ending (ending a novel is so tricky) but overall, I was electrically unsettled and wholly transported.
Since my mother's struggle with dementia, I've been wanting to read some memoirs about how people live through these experiences. Death in Slow Motion by Eleanor Cooney is--with its apt but oddly treacly title--fantastic. If you like a good memoir, this book is worth reading even if Alzheimer's isn't touching your life. Cooney's mother was an amazing woman whose life story would have been worth telling even without the epically tragic end. Her mother was a unique thinker, a spirit, a fascinating person, and a terrific writer--and Eleanor inherited the writing gene. The book is in no way maudlin. It's honest, clear-eyed, witty, loving, irascible and intelligent. (And this book has a great ending, one I'll never forget.)
Thomas DeBaggio'sLosing My Mind is written by a man with Alzheimer's. It's a fascinating, devastating book. I listened online to a few of his NPR interviews as well. He wants to take the taboo out of the disease. He wants people with the disease to state out loud that they have it and to tell people what it's like. He thinks this will help propel a cure. Amazingly enough, he wrote a second book after this one, which I have on order. I learned that now, however, he no longer reads or writes. He is able to speak a little, and he lives with his wife. Every day she takes him to the family-run nursery where he sees his son and the plants he grew for many years.
Alice Sebold in Conversation with Kate Evans: Creative Minds by Suzy Paluzzi On October 25, Alice Sebold, author of Lucky and TheLovely Bones, read from her new novel The Almost Moon at the San Jose Museum of Art. Afterward, she spoke in front of the audience with Kate Evans, local author and co-director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University.
This was Alice Sebold’s first appearance in San Jose and she immediately set a very casual tone to the evening. A striking woman, Sebold is known for writing about dark subjects. Lucky, a memoir about her rape, began as a way to find her main character’s voice for the novel TheLovely Bones, which she was writing at the time but had put aside.
Alice Sebold said she “explores lifetime backgrounds as part of her process, and writes a lot that never gets published.” After she wrote Lucky, she rewrote The Lovely Bones. It took her two years to find the voice for the character Helen in her new book The Almost Moon.
When asked about the difference between writing a memoir and writing fiction, the author said, “I had already done my personal work. Memoirs should serve the people reading them, not the author writing. Writing fiction is more free and thus inherently more challenging.”
Sebold shared that she “always wanted to write fiction” and she “wrote poetry as a child” and “writes it as a discipline” now.
The suburbs is the setting for Alice Sebold’s books. “Suburbia is ‘compost’—where it all is, where all is seething,” she believes. “When I was growing up, I used to wonder what was going on in the house across the street.” And in the “suburbs, there is an obsession about perfection—not only in the physical, like lawns—but people. People hide,” the author stated.
When Kate Evans inquired why all three of her books involve violent acts, Sebold responded, “I want to write books that psychologically move in a compelling way. A violent act only opens the doorway into psychological investigation.”
As a child, the author had undiagnosed dyslexia. “ I was raised in a house of readers, and I didn’t read …. Desperation creates a sense of drive.” She started reading, and “poetry was my way in, in high school,” she said. She still writes it now.
She read fiction “obsessively,” when she was in her mid-twenties and the old masters when she was in her early thirties.
The Lovely Bones is currently being filmed [by Peter Jackson]. When asked by a member of the audience how involved she is in the film, Ms. Sebold said, “I don’t have a lot of fear and reservations. I am a ‘process freak,’ not a ‘control freak,’ so I am excited to see what they do.”
Regarding her writing “process,” Sebold offered that she is up every day at 4 a.m. because “if you start in the dark, the judges are all asleep.”
She is “obsessed with reading” and “especially keeps poetry books near her, to “feed her” while she is working.
One of Sebold’s tips is, “It is hugely important to have writing mentors, especially to teach you how to navigate the life you are going to lead. You need to have examples of how to survive those mean years when there is little money.”
So I said something to the Nightline guy about waterboarding, and if the Bush administration didn't think it was torture, they ought to do some personal investigation. Someone in the Bush family should actually be waterboarded so they could report on it to George. . . . I suggested Jenna be waterboarded and then she could talk about whether or not she thought it was torture.