Opportunities for Writers

Are you an emerging or mid-level writer who is "working to advance creativity, foster generosity, and serve community"?  Do you want to hang out in San Antonio with a bunch of other like-minded writers and get great feedback on your work in progress, as well as see a slew of readings by your peers?  The Macondo Foundation is accepting applications now for its July 2011 workshop.  Check it out.

The 2010 Bedell NonfictioNow Conference is coming up posthaste in Iowa.  Especially for graduate students in the Midwest, this is one national conference that's affordable.  This year, I'm excited about getting to see keynote speakers Alison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman, along with a host of other major folks in CNF, like Mike Steinberg, Dinty Moore, Sue Silverman, Rigoberto Gonz├ílez, Paul Lisicky, etc., etc., etc.  Two of our excellent UNL graduate students, Karen Babine and Adrian Koesters, will be presenting, so you know I'll be in the audience cheering for those, and I'm hoping to meet, finally, Marcia Aldrich, the editor at Fourth Genre who was kind enough to give me great feedback on and accept the essay "Grip," which some of you heard at Pine Manor.  (I'm dragging the Handsome Husband along, too, which makes things more fun.  He behaved himself so well at AWP. . . .)

And I always looove hanging out at Prairie Lights Books.  I'm hoping they have a copy of the hot-off-the-press, freshly reviewed craft book The Made-Up Self:  Impersonation in the Personal Essay.  For those of us who appreciated Vivian Gornick's take, in The Situation and The Story, on the necessity of selecting a persona to serve the material, this new book by Carl Klaus promises a thorough exploration of that topic.

Of late, I'm working hard in my new position as associate director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies here at the University of Nebraska and also as the teacher in my graduate workshop, which is what I was thinking about yesterday as I was washing the dishes and considering what to blog about next.  We've gotten some really terrific student manuscripts lately, really rich and powerful and searching.  Sometimes there's this thing submerged under the surface of the text, this deep structure crying out to be heard.  Sometimes the author's aware of it; sometimes, not so much, and that's what workshop's for.  I think of Appalachian activist feminist theologian Nelle Morton's "hearing to speech" idea:  that we listen, that we listen in a deep, attentive, patient, nonjudgmental way, and that this very hearing allows the writer to speak from the body, from experience, more and more clearly, to articulate that thing that has never been said, or never been said in that way before.  We notice, we reflect back, we ask questions.  Finally, we identify what seems to us to not be working and offer suggestions, strategies.  But first, we listen.  First, we are simply there, curious and caring.  We hear it into speech.

I think sometimes about writing nonfiction as a kind of ethical or spiritual discipline.  The true thing, told plainly, is not always the thing that makes the liveliest story.  In real life, the bon mot wasn't always uttered, the climax didn't happen in a setting with an objective correlative handy, and the good guy didn't always triumph.  Life resists plot--at least on the surface.  To entertain--or to "teach and delight," in the classical formulation--it's sometimes simpler to turn to another genre.  But if we decide to pursue creative nonfiction, then the truth (our own remembered, subjective truth) functions as do the rhyme and meter requirements of a sonnet.  It offers us boundaries, discipline.  We are faithful to it.  It pressures us into discovering the material's own form, into making a new thing that is compelling.

Oh, I'm not according CNF any particularly special stature as a genre.  People do comparable things in drama, fiction, and poetry.  I'm just wondering about it.

And teaching as an ethical or spiritual practice--people have written about that, and I'd like to join that conversation one day.  It's something that's on my mind a lot.   Hearing into speech.  As literature and writing teachers, we're doing that all the time.  We assign writers that, as a class, we then all hear into speech, by reading and discussing them, and then we as teachers facilitate our students' (sometimes groping and inchoate, sometimes dazzlingly realized and clear) verbalized insights.  We balance:  when do we step forward and offer our own trained perspectives, and when do we step back and listen?  Educare:  to draw forth.  In the classroom, sometimes it all happens so rapidly that you're not even conscious of it.  Like a dance.  You're in the moment, now leading, now responding.  Watching all those faces, noticing when someone wants to speak but won't raise a hand, repeating back a confusing statement until the student sees how to clarify her intention, dropping in bits of information you hope will help, at just the point of need.  It's such absorbing work.  For one hour or three hours, however long the class is, the ego simply disappears.   And what does that mean?  What is happening when that happens? 

If the feeling of total absorption or flow is a signal that one has found one's calling, then I'm lucky enough to have two:  teaching, as well as writing. 

Oh, three, really, now that I think about it.  When Grey was young, mothering was the same way.  That requirement of total attention, total attunement, total compassion, total focus.  I remember at a social gathering once, when he was only about two, he had toddled off into another room, and then I heard his little sound of concern and went right in. 

"Here it is," I said, speaking of myself. 

That kind of emptiness.  That kind of bliss.

It's a good life.  Happy Wednesday.

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