This is my 'feeling photograph' - my greedy to hold on to all the details that I felt most through a wonderful experience shared by lovely people. And so it's self-indulgently long. A legend has been included for bullseyeing to spare busy readers from the whole thing.
Description of people are in italics
Lessons learned are in italic bold
Regular paragraphs provide context of events, place or process
- Workshop exercises are bulletted
(note to those who read my accidentally briefly published unfinished post: you were not dreaming. I deleted it the second I realized my mistake and a second before I realized some comments had been made. My apologies for deleting comments - they are precious to me! And my apologies for posting when I shouldn't have.)
Being local does not exempt me from getting lost, something I accomplish effortlessly. I know I've missed a turn because the assent up the mountain has become a descent and this mistake is eating up all the margin I built into my travel time. As I wind my way down I'm on the lookout for an allowance in the road in which to turn around. It presents itself complete with a parked car and its driver standing by, someone to ask directions of. He is an elderly man in a superman T-shirt. Living up to his advertising, he guides me over the unavoidable steep bump I must negotiate to turn around, his reassuring smiles and firm voice allaying my wincing fear of being tilted over. He gives me directions and, best of all, tells me how he has come to be in Superman gear. A gift from his grand children, he wears it today to commemorate the mountain climb he is about to do in celebration of his age. I don't ask him what that is. 70 I guess. But with defined leg muscles, taut arms, and a solid frame that suggests this mountain climb is not going to present too much of a challenge. Another example of the unfirm connection between aging and decrepitude. Another example for me that whenever I choose to start, as long as I keep at it, my body, spirit, mind will shape itself into the necessary support.
Rescued by Superman I am able to push through the double swing wooden and glass doors of Mohonk Mountain House not too far behind my ETA. I race along the plush deco carpeting of the long corridor that ends with suite 61 of Mohonk Mountain House and arrive breathless and excited at the Writers Retreat group.
Old friend Greg greets me with a big, chuckling, bear hug that I happily lose myself in. Then, moving along a circle of chairs I get to meet the group leader Kate Hymes, OSers Nikki Stern, Gail Walter, Jeremiah Horrigan, Jonathan Wolfman, and Kate's regulars Cxxxxxx and Steve. Lea Lane and Cxxx arrived after me. A cough prevented Cranky Cuss from joining us till the readings at 8pm.
This is a special crowd of people that know how to meet straight in the eye and are comfortable with the quiet, seeking feeling that is carried in this moment, palms facing in warm embrace.
Partly because this is my feeling photograph of a happy experience that I selfishly want to be hold on to, partly because I love sharing what makes me happy, I want to greedily capture the details that I felt most and hope I will be forgiven for speaking so personally. My wish is that these captures will reflect to its owners the joy I received from each.
And Here's What I Learned:
The OSers and writers from Kate's group I met are incredibly lovely.
Almost everybody wants to be liked, and it's a real pleasure when that is made easy.
Greg is too woven into my life for objective observation. But I can say he is a moutain. Needless to say, a ferociously intelligent and compelling one, with dramatic struggles of internal forces of nature that I have rarely seen outward evidence of but which pours forth in the molten liquid of his writing.
Kate Hymes, our group leader, greets me with a smile that is bright, a shine that commands the space between us clean. Immediately she conveys casually firm, authoritative nurturing. Because she has strength AND she is willing to see me, but she does not come into my space. She feels so comfortable within herself that I relax into myself.
Jonathan feels like he lives close to his stream of being, his face a barometer of rapidly changing weather conditions, revealing the compelling vulnerability of his aliveness. His voice strong and steady revealing the power that affords the presence to that aliveness.
I love Gail's voice; the volume and texture, the cadence and lilt of her South African British accent. I think it represents her gentle, bubbly, careful, loveliness well. Carries well the music of her ready and light laugh, and the feather of her bright movements and conversation that welcomes, eases and soothes.
Cxxx feels measured and elegantly contained. Like the hypnotic rythm of her poetic prose. Succint.
Cxxxxxx is woman magic mystery. Eyes to float in. Voice nasaly, lazily, thoughtfully drawled, pausing to find the perfect metaphor gift of the moment, and leading me wherever it wants me to go. Mona lisa in beach slippers and long skirted florals over gentle curves. And a poetic voice so unself-consciously powerful it whips me into an aliveness that pulses with her rythm.
Of all the OSers I meet today, Jeremiah looks least like the suggestion his photo creates. He is taller,
lankier (Jeremiah has none of ungraceful or raw boned traits this incorrectly used word suggests and so I replace it with...) trimmer, smilier, younger looking then I expected. But he feels like his writing; almost as if he knows how to get out of the way of the art of life the way he does with his writing. A comfortable, smooth, humorous, intelligent and extremely personable conduit to getting along better, with everything and everyone.
Steve; sensitivity strengthened by precision. Precision softened by sensitivity. Feeling and thought in fine balance. Exploring with the hands of thoughtful reflection and intelligent sensibility.
Lea is softly, steadily, invitingly lovely. Girlishly pretty, womanly poised, evenly settled. Every aspect about her is like this to me. I want to be enfolded in the reassurance of her. A world of dreams rooted in reality laced with romance. She makes me feel everything is O.K. Without saying a word or doing a thing.
Molly is stunningly beautiful and casually comfortable. At the same time. Maybe its the freckles, or the perfection of imperfections I cannot immediately identify. But she's beautiful and totally likeable in the girl-next-door kinda way. And she's extremely efficient and capable and professional, and again in a way that is totally comfortable to be next to. Molly took fantastic care of us.
Nikki feels feminine gentle and masculine precise at the same time. Athletic pretty. Bright intelligence lucidly expressed. Really nice person, alert to everything, everyone. Living on the edge with animated, articulate response.
In casual conversation Nikki shared an anecdote that brought home the very good point that all we do or present or are in a moment does not necessarily exist outside that moment. It does not necessarily mean anything else by imagined implication or trajected logic. So I descibe these wonderful people with the escape clause of Nikki's wisdom built in to protect them all from my views. And I really hope no one minds me sharing this because I love sharing what makes me happy, and because I want you to know that you are part of that happiness.
- The first writing exercise was to help us shift gear into writing, The only rule was to finish up when the 5 minutes were up. We did not share the results. It made me realize that shifting gear into writing can be eased along by giving myself some directionless scribbling time.
- In the second exercise we were instructed to create a literary sketch of ourselves, our lives, while inserting one untrue detail into the piece. This served to introduce something of each of us to the rest of the group, as we took turns reading our piece, after which the rest of the group was charged with guessing which of the details presented was NOT true. Well, a part from all the wrong guesses being a good source of laughter, this effectively demonstrated the difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction. And brought home the point that even when reading autobiographical pieces, do not assume all is true. I also realized how hard fiction is.
- The third exercise was writing to a visual prompt. â€¨I found myself standing in front of a generous beach towel covered with torn out pages of black and white prints. Pictures of daily life, snapshots of special moments, places, body parts... One had to be chosen as the inspiration of a story. Which one? Which one?
Finally, being the only one left standing, I settled. On a picture of a man proudly presenting, with outstretched arms, his christening gowned, smile happy infant. With 20 minutes to make meaningful ink lines that would somehow connect what was on my paper to what was on this picture, I got busy - staring. It did not help. I had to stop staring. Start relaxing. Start writing... whatever.
That 'whatever' allowed me to free dive into my past, to arrive at memories that conected to the picture. I joined the dots. Can't say much about the line that made the connection. But my pen finally had reason to move, showing me that I can only write from my own experience. Fiction or not.
- Then we each read our results, first drafts all, and receive and give comments in turn. There are rules for commenting, and I'm sure us OSers broke a few. I know I did, consistently. It seems the objective of the rules is to keep us trained on analysis; if we liked it, then why? To keep us from getting personal. To answer the question "what about the piece stayed with me?". This may be obvious to anyone who's studied literature, but it was a happy surprise for me to discover how much I could learn about writing from the guided thinking required of me to contribute a comment, and from listening to the comments of others made in the same vein.
OS's Jonathan Wolfman published the result of his, a poem he called MONKEY BAR. I'm too shy to post the result of my exercise here, and I won't even say why lest it be misconstrued as an invitation for encouragement. But I will tell you this, I was blown away by the quality of the first drafts that were read yesterday. I would have been jealous if I hadn't been so buzzed on the euphoria of listening to such good writing.
- The final exercise was writing to the prompt of a poem so incredibly powerful it overwhelmed me with awe. The instruction following this jaw dropping poem was something to the effect of "Now tell me something that I cannot forget." O.K. No problem.
No problem. Staring at blank paper again. I have many stories, some unforgettable. But I could not find even two good words to stitch together into a sentence. So I stared some more. And crossed out feeble attempts that did not match up to any of the lessons I had just discovered about writing. With the voices of all these marvelous writers ringing in my head, my own sounded terribly inadequate to me and I did not know how to fix it. Write a line, attempt to rescue it, sentence it to death with the axe of scratched lines. And again, and again. Panic rising but this time I couldn't see any literary line to grab on to for bearings or for hauling me out of the abyss of this... blank page.
And I thought "fuck, what am I doing here. I'm not ready for this. If I slinked out of the room, quietly, would anyone notice?" The little meditation I do just so happened to kick in its training, just as I was seriously considering discreet exit plans, and saving me from throwing away this fantastic opportunity, not to mention the money my generous husband paid. In the little pause it afforded me I got to reevaluate the situation and recognize the immense value inherent right here and now: I got to concede, submit, to fuck-up-failure. In broad daylight. With people I think highly of. With no where to hide. I got to USE failure to free me, at least a little, from its tyranny. This is small stuff but fairly sized psychological failure; perfect training ground.
I closed my notebook, put away my pen, surrendered into this experience. Enjoyed the sound of busy pens and tapping keypads, the afternoon's summer sunshine coming through the windows lining the opposite wall and fuzzing grey all objects that fell before its brightness. The feeling of total, rapt, focus of deep engagement in the room. A furrowing brow, shoulders curving forward in protection of something, chin tilted up in defiance of something. Interesting how concentration wears different expressions, influenced by shades of questioning or determined focus or the resting on a point of balance, or anxiety. The fuck-up failure me losing myself to the glory of it all.
- The final round of readings (ahhh, just heaven in the beautifully raw and moving and eloquently, poetically expressed revelations - I would love to read the stories of OSers I heard).
- The final round of enlightening, informative comments.
Comments that inspire a greed to usurp all that wins favor into my own writng. And suddenly I recognize the block that damned my writing in the last session: that although my own permission to fail loosens me from the bindings of its tyranny, and opens me to breathing possibility, I can only inhale if I abandon the usurping of anything not mine. Self-conscious criticism and expectation kills the spontaneity that allows the flow of writing.
The feeling of the unique beauty of each of the voices has filled me up, and awaits the final catalyst that will transform this vibrating pleasure into a gift of understanding for me.
Kate Hymes. Greg Correll. Cxxx. The gathering ball of this experience still rolling on momentum, each of these friends holds out a gentle note of advice, influencing the roll. Then the ball slows and finally rests in this understanding:
While I admire other voices, am inspired by them, it is through my own voice that I can express that inspiration. That all things that worked so beautifully in a piece did so because of the context of that piece. It's beauty was contingent on belonging. While I can use the lessons learned in appreciating others writing to fix my own, at this early stage of my own writing I should create from my own unself-conscious voice only.
And so this workshop has saved me from making many wrong turns.
Thank you so much, Greg, for organizing this.
Thank you Kate for being both authoritative and kind and creating a safe place for risk taking.
Thank you Molly for a day that unfolded flawlessly.
PS: Cranky Cuss, It was a delight to finally get to meet you, and I apologize I am out of time for writing today. And am so glad you did not delete the wonderful thoughts you have!
(Adding this post publishing and as a note that relates to greg's comment:
I had wanted to end the story with Jonathan, Tamar and I, in our respective cars, getting lost on our return to New Paltz. I'd been following Jonathan so closely I'd forgotten to pay attention to where I was going (but it doesn't take much to confuse me) and Jonathan is not local. So we both end up in Rosendale, I think. This is where we stop and try and figure out what to do. At 10:40 pm we are unlikely to meet anyone and I can't even get directions from Mark because I can give him no bearings. But Jonathan and I know that we can at least head back to where we came from. And with my car in the lead now I do actually see someone, get directions, and Jonathan says "I'll follow you." I inform him he'll be the first one to ever do so. But guess what, we all end up exactly where we're supposed to be. Now doesn't that close the circle completely?)
copyright 2010 Maria Heng