Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Report from Kachemak Bay Writers Conference 1

First: hats off to Carol Swartz and all, particularly the splendid Michael Cunningham, who set the tone, for three great days. I put the number one after my title to blackmail myself to write up more on the conference later. Meanwhile:

Why I Am Who I Am* (and also ***)

An exercise** prompted by Dinty W. Moore

My grandmother’s hands were strong; she needed them to be so to wrangle 50 pound sacks of flour in her bakery. When I think of the phrase “work your fingers to the bone,” I think of her hands.

And, then, of course, as I grew and she began to shrink, so did her hands. Her knuckles swelled and her veins rose to the surface. Liver spots.

She ended her days bedridden in a nursing home. There, my aunt painted her fingernails almost daily, a luxury she had not known in her working life.

By the time I was born, the Rouge had been polluted by a hundred years of sewage and industrial waste. Some days its odor rose up out of the woods like an invisible fog, a distinct odor, but of what? Sulphur, rotten gas, vague chemicals, dead fish, the bodies of carp rotting in evaporating pools where earlier in the spring the river had spilled over its banks. None of this quite captures the river’s peculiar foulness, which to us was natural: it was just the Rouge.

Rouge River
Asian Carp
Approaching thunderstorms
Felician nuns
Pagan babies
Red peril
Bomb shelters
Homemade popsicles
Tornado warnings
Fire drills.

The modesty of my childhood might be measured by the relative tameness of the phrases we were forbidden by our parents to speak.

Considering them now, I see that they are really both saying the same thing:

“So what?”
“I don’t care.”

Ironically, “I don’t care” often meant something like “yes, but you decide,” or “yes, but I don’t wish to appear greedy.”

“So what?” was pure insolence, and was understood as if intended to make my father’s head explode.

In our house, where there wasn’t much of anything, everything mattered.


* The four prompts for this exercise were given to us by Dinty, then we shuffled them into a random order, and only then were we told the title to the piece we had just composed.

** This was a great exercise, from a pedagogical point-of-view. I’d put it into my can‘t-miss-magic-hat-of-exercises, for sure. That is, students write very well for twenty minutes. Meaning: students were happy with what they wrote. Meaning: what the students wrote was pretty damned good . . . for an exercise. Mine was about average and wouldn’t have distinguished itself from the students who read theirs aloud. An odd thing I noticed was that all the people who read who were about my age (most of them!) read an exercise that had a lot of common elements, as if we shared some national collective childhood. So, we were tapped into something. But, what I couldn’t help noticing was that exercises (in general, even at their best) have a glass-ceiling: the writing has a long way to go to rise out of the stature of exercise to the status of something aspiring to the condition of literature. Many of us can do a nice push-up, but that ain’t playing the game.

*** A note on the title: jeez, I think my childhood was a lot happier than what follows the title! But of course (great deconstructive move, Dinty) the title follows the text, in its composition, at least. And yet, as Borges has noted: great writing (not mine) is often about darker subjects: happiness is its own reward! Look: I've used exclamation points: I am becoming retarded.


  1. You're exhausted, is what you are. That conference is a butt-kicker. Sorry to miss a chance to hear Cunningham. So answer my question, am I supposed to be teaching 2 classes at the res or not? Must shift into maniac mode if the answer is yes.

  2. You mean you're not in maniac mode already?

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  4. Weren't ALL our childhoods (those of us of a "certain" age) much happier than they seem when we write about them? Mine gets happier and happier with each successive year. Maybe I've finally outgrown my childhood angst, at the ripe age of. . .well, you get my drift. And how very happy those years are seeming now, through the darkening lens of what has gone missing! (Oh, looky there: I've used an exclamation point too.)

    So what, as writers, shall we piss and moan abd raise a fuss about now?

  5. Oh, crap, David. I edited (removed) the previous comment because I'd made a typo and now I see I've made another. I'm letting it stand anyway this time.