I took a class on the personal essay and memoir at a weeklong writing conference this summer. What attracts me to these conferences is not just the focus on writing, but on the variety of people I meet. Last week’s class included three widows, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a professor of physiology, a Jewish-Buddhist turned Secular Humanist, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, a conflict mediator, a motherless daughter, an adoptee, and a pastor. The essays we wrote reflected the diversity of our life experiences: a heart-wrenching account of aid work in Haiti, a one night stand, a stripper who boarded her horse at the writer’s stable, a journey of self-discovery through the choice of men’s cologne.
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” reminds me of what becomes clear in every writing class I take. Although we are a diverse people, celebrating and singing our unique songs, every atom of mine is yours as well. Or, in other words, we are deeply and intimately connected through our biology as well as some universal truths about the human condition. These universal truths always arise in the writing workshop: our human desire to know and be known, to be accepted, respected, appreciated and loved; every person has a story to tell; everyone knows pain, suffering, grief and loss; everyone has the power to create, but, like a muscle, our creative side needs to be exercised in order to realize its transformative potential.
Whitman’s words also remind me that we don’t just belong to ourselves, even though our individualistic American culture tells us otherwise. Because of our shared biology and the universal truths of our human condition, we belong to each other. Which means we are responsible for each other. Each writing class I have taken has had a very skilled teacher leading it, but everyone in the class bears a responsibility to each other. The doctor’s oath of “do no harm” could be our oath as well, especially while offering critique on personal writing. In class we practiced how to share space and air time with everyone in the room. We practiced attending to each writer and his or her needs. We practiced offering constructive criticism in a way that could be received well and truly heard. We practiced respect. It wasn’t perfect. Some group members were more responsible and sensitive than others. But this is the challenge of every class, every group, every community made up of fallible human beings. The hope for me, though, comes in the desire to gather and in the connections made across difference—connections we had not realized before, but that always exist among a people who belong to each other.
“Poetry comes from conflict,” the poet Dorianne Laux says. “If it’s all nostalgia and wonderful it’s a hallmark card. If it’s a political rant, it’s an essay. Poetry is somewhere in between.”
A United States of America Poem
by Matthew Lippman
The United States is still here.
That’s why you have to go kiss your kids before they head out to the school bus.
That is why you have to go out to the dead tree,
cut it down,
rip up the stump,
plant a new tree,
maybe a Japanese Maple
because the Japanese Maple is red
and America is still here.
It’s in the bedroom, under the bed,
next to the plastic bin with all the summer tee shirts,
the blue one with ponies on it,
the same ponies that run and up down hills in West Virginia and Cold Springs, NY,
the ones you rode as a kid
when the air smelled of sweet lilac and burgundy autumn.
You fell off of one once,
landed on America, and America picked you up
like a grandfather who still had his strength,
put you on his knee,
and rubbed your cheeks to make you feel new again.
It’s still here in the ignition of the car,
you’ve just got to go find the keys and fire her up,
4 cylinders or 6, it does not matter.
It doesn’t matter that the mudslide in Big Sur
which crushed Highway One
crushed Highway One,
you can still get America going again,
drive over the stones and smashed trees to the other side
where the ocean goes on forever,
where America says hello in waves and sea glass
and hints at revolution.
You know that revolution,
the one that means well for the guy at the farm-stand
and the gal in the office with the big windows,
the revolution of a man with no home
and the woman with no food
that still believes in the belly of the day,
that there is a word called yes, which will lead her to a door
and that she can,
with her last ounce of strength,
turn the knob and walk through.
It’s that America that is still here and it lives in your heart.
The one that beats so strong you have to kiss your kids
before they head out for school with the lunchboxes and lunch money
and provided lunch service—the apples, the apple juice,
the turkey sandwiches on wheat bread
with the crust cut off.
It’s an America for today, the most necessary today,
where Georgia and New York, Vermont and California and Idaho and Paris, Texas
have all gotten together like old friends reunited,
sitting at the river on cotton blankets
Not even listening.
Just being united states under one sky.
It’s blue. It’s not red or white.
It’s a blue sky
and it’s here where it has always been.
You have to believe this.
You have to go outside right now and find it.
Just look up.
“I just got back from Walgreens where I bought boxes of band aids, Neosporin, and hydrocortisone cream.”
This was my response to Sister’s Margaret’s inquiry into the summer activities of my children. I try to visit her Benedictine monastery once a month for spiritual direction.
“The kids are doing great,” I said. “But Isaac came home last night all banged up from baseball. He had deep, bloody scratches down both knees and an infected sore on his toe. I was horrified. He hardly noticed.”
Sister Margaret smiled and laughed at this description of my 10-year-old boy.
“It’s so hard to see my baby’s body all beat up like that.” I continued. “But before I put him in bed I made sure he was all clean. I gave him a bath, slathered on the Neosporin and put bandages all down his knees and shins and around his toe.”
“It sounds like lectio.” Sister Margaret remarked, which made me smile. She was right. I “attended” to my son’s wounds just like a person of faith would “attend” to a sacred text through lectio divina—or sacred reading.
“You know,” Sister Margaret continued, “God attends to you in the same way.” Her comment made me pause and contemplate God attending to my wounds, being horrified by my pain and seeking to speed the healing process through attentive love and care.
She shifted in her chair and leaned forward intently. “I want you to go back through your life and remember all the times you were attended to with love and kindness,” she said. “We more often remember when we have been hurt or wounded. But kindness and love abound. Return to those places when you were shown love and kindness and in those places you will return to God.”
As I began to consider when I was attended to in love, I recalled what Sister Margaret said to me when I first sat down in the comfortable armchair across from hers. I had not been able to come see her for a few months because of my busy schedule so I apologized for missing. Her response to my apology was, “That’s okay. You can miss if you have to. Whether you come or not, I’ll pray for you anyway.”
Every once in a while I get sucked into an advertisement for a writing conference…ten days….in a beautiful retreat house…overlooking a lake…in Guatemala…eating organic food…practicing yoga…for $3,000 (housing and travel not included.) Yikes! Price tags like this are good reality checks. Seriously, what does it take to grow in your writing craft? Pen, paper, butt in chair, and some opportunities to get feedback on your work. I also listen to a variety of podcasts (all free!) that keep me inspired and keep me learning. Here are my current favorites:
My new favorite. This well-edited podcast (good editing goes a long way in podcasting!) takes you inside a writing class to hear the students respond to different writing prompts. You can also respond to the prompt and post on their website. This podcast also includes helpful interviews of writers reading their work and explaining the decisions they made as they wrote and edited.
Lee Gutkind, the editor of Creative Nonfiction, is the host. His interview-style feels a bit awkward to me. But I appreciate the information that is shared through this podcast and the people interviewed.
I should listen to this podcast more. There is great content here. And the podcasts are short. I just find myself enjoying the other podcasts in this list more.
I love the concept of this podcast–the way it explores how successful writers grapple with and learn from failure. It is hosted by the Iowa Writers’ House and Draft: the Journal of Process. Also, the soundtrack is hilarious. Give it a listen.
I am a huge fan of Brevity and everything they produce. Allison K. Williams is a great host / interviewer for their podcast. I always get something out of these and eagerly anticipate each new podcast.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be good enough to get accepted to the Tin House writing conference. In the meantime, I will listen to the presentations and lectures that are given at the conference through their podcast. This is an excellent, free resource for continuing education.
Just about every day I walk by McMichael Academic Building on our college’s campus where the art program is housed. Typically, I am running late for a meeting, racing to beat the chimes tolling on the top of Wallace Hall with my nose pressed to my smartphone to make sure I don’t miss a single email or message via Facebook. Like my students, I have gotten very good at race walking while scrolling through my feed. But as I fly past McMike, something in the grass outside that building catches my attention. I remove my nose from my digital device to look and I see what appears to be a large, yellow plaster snake sitting in the grass. It’s not a scary snake. It has a little smile or smirk on its face and a cute little mosaic of pebbles running down its back. But it makes me pause. What is this? Now I’m late for my meeting, but I am curious. What does this mean?
Crazy art appears outside of McMike like this often. Red and blue solo cups emerge from and circle around the windows. Yarn bombs explode and knit the trees in colorful little sweaters. Bike parts are welded together and assembled into a new and curious sculpture. These displays always make me stop and recalibrate my trip across campus. They take me out of my self-absorbed, smartphone existence to reconsider the space I am in. Art does that. It wakes us up to the world and can even change how we move through it.
I don’t want to go through life unawake and unaware. So I befriend artists—poets, creative writers, musicians, visual artists—who have the ability to see and sense and notice the world better than me. Artists help me see the sacred vitality of every thing and every one. Like the poet Mary Oliver, who writes:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
 “Messenger” by Mary Oliver from her book of poems entitled, Thirst.
J.K. Rowling offers this advice to writers: “Read as much as you possibly can. Nothing will help you as much as reading.”
So here are a few books that are on my summer reading list:
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxanne Gay
This book of essays by Roxanne Gay has been popular for a few years now and brought her much deserved respect in the literary world. She has a new memoir out called Hunger: A Memoir of my Body. But I thought I should begin by reading her book of essays.
I heard about Joshua Foer’s work while listening to podcast about public speaking. One of the greatest fears for any public speaker is forgetting your material, or going blank on stage. Foer’s unique method of the “memory palace” is a way to overcome this.
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams
A student with whom I will be working next year wants to lead a study of this foundational book by Delores S. Williams. So she and I agreed to read it together this summer. “Womanist” theology is feminist theology for African American women.
In the comments below, tell me, what are you reading this summer?