Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Exercising at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference

Everyone laughs at the film clip of Allen Iverson the basketball superstar who was too good for practice.  “Practice?” he famously whined, “Practice?  We talkin’ about practice?”  He could not believe that he, the league leading scorer at the time, was in trouble for skipping practice.  Whereas for most of us there’s a kind of cause and effect relation between practice and the real thing.  If you’re zen enough you know that there isn’t any difference at all between practice and the real thing.

I was explaining the value of exercises to some students at an impromptu class the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer, Alaska.  I was trying to convince them that you are actually freed up by prescription and teacherly coercion.  You don’t “own” the exercises, you’re just following instructions.  You’re sort of liberated by low expectations, you have nothing to lose.  Whereas in our real writing we feel we have everything to lose.  And yet semester after semester I would see students’ best work done in exercises.  Left to one’s own devices to fill up the blank screen (page) with no prompting gives a writer an infinite number of ways to fail.  As a writer you can sit, apparently idle, in front of a blank screen for a long time, but give a student writer an exercise and time limit and sure enough every pen in the class will begin to move.

I no longer get many chances to submit myself to the exercises, the prompts, a teacher demands.  And, I confess, I can be a real do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of guy.  But I did get the chance at the Conference this year under the prompting of two first rate teachers of writing, Debra Gwartney and Elizabeth Dodd, in two separate sessions.

Gwartney, whose memoir about parenting, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir, is about as harrowing as such stories get, was trying to teach us how trauma (the hot) is best rendered coolly.  The great strength of her demonstration was its carefully chosen examples, Harry Crews and Darin Strauss particularly, to illustrate something that is really hard to articulate.
I’m pasting in my exercises here, because for me practice writing is like blogging; it lives in some ethereal limbo between the grocery list and real writing. 
What I wrote in Debra’s session:

Within five minutes of meeting my surgeon for the first time he told me I had a large cancerous tumor on my kidney. He pointed it out on the x-ray with the eraser end of long pencil. And nearly simultaneously he explained that he would simply remove the tumor, and that I would be fine.
            This was surprising news, as I was asymptomatic—without symptoms––but I believed him: that I would be fine.
            I was 51 years old and just a few weeks earlier I had made a long difficult ascent of a lesser known peak in the Teton Range.  At the time I would have denied this, but I know now it was my unstated assumption that I was invincible.
            The moment this illusion began to crack was when I told the news of my impending surgery to my mother over the telephone. My manner was casual, and matter-of-fact, but she burst into tears and put the phone down.  After a long pause my father picked up the phone and I realized that my manner with my mother had been all wrong, insensitive.  I realized that age 51 was a late moment in life to understand that I was not 17.

Elizabeth Dodd (she’s the author most recently of In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Inanimate World) was trying to talk about showing and telling in a fresh way and she too used terrific examples: Dinah Lenney, Atul Gawande, Lia Pupura.  I think every example the two of them provided made me want to read the whole piece they were excerpted from.  That’s a gift, too. 

I already have my misgivings about showing and telling, although like most of my colleagues I too dispense such advice (that showing is better) to students as if it had been received in a divine revelation etched on stone tablets.  (My take, in short: there’s nothing at all wrong with telling and anyway, showing is only telling that is successful at pretending to show; in other words, it’s all telling.  The end.)
Here’s what I wrote in Elizabeth’s session, in which a chore was supposed to show an underlying darkness:

The numbers on the fertilizer bag describe the nitrogen levels, you think, but all you care about is the weedkiller.  The lawn is infested with dandelions.  What’s wrong with that? you secretly wonder.
You fertilize the lawn with a hand-cranked spreader.  You hold the spreader open with your left hand, which begins to strain and cramp before the fertilizer is all dispersed.  To make the fertilizer actually spread you spin the cranking apparatus with your right hand, similar to a fishing reel but more precisely like the winding of toy jack-in-the-box.
The fertilizer covers your feet and you wonder how much of it you have inhaled.  You wonder if your sons will really keep the dog out of the yard, as they have promised.  And then you think of the three incidences of cancer that you have now survived.  And how not once did the surgeons speculate as to their causes.

Observe that I can’t resist “telling” at the end.  Thus, I get an F.  But you can’t fail practice (actually, you can).

What was odd to me, when I stepped back from them, is that in both cases I wrote about cancer, which I have vowed to myself that I would not address in my real writing.  Despite this it has slipped onto my blogposts a couple times.   And that seems right: the blog is a kind of practice.  And the exercises did what they are supposed to do: drew, as if from the unconscious, something I was not aware of having been there.
So thanks to Debra and Elizabeth, and also to the maestro Carol Swartz who puts together a great conference year after year.

So far this post has been too unified, not enough of my trademark randomness, so I’ll add:
•  On the drive back to Anchorage as I was crossing the Kenai River in Soldotna I heard Tim Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  The river of course brought to mind Buckley’s disappearance in the Mississippi and how, somehow, for me, that fact makes his version of the song the most soulful.  Though, even Brandi Carlisle couldn’t ruin that song; so far as I know there’s not a bad cover of it, a mark of its greatness.
•  Then I filled a liter growler at the St Elias Brewing Company with Big Timber Double IPA.  This, you have to take my word, is sublime brew.
•  It rained the rest of the drive north and further up the Sterling Highway traffic was held up by troopers who were cleaning up an accident scene, where today I learned a man had died when someone swerved a rented car over the yellow line.  If I hadn’t stopped at the brewery . . .
Here’s to us all keeping on the right side of the yellow line.  And you: you’re never too old for some practice.


  1. David, you're awesome. Keep on the right side of the yellow line. You are too valuable to slip up on that - plus, we would miss you so at the KBWC (what I call it when I'm still too tired to type) and everywhere else.

  2. Oh David, I wish you would assign the core faculty some idle time to stare at our screens (lined paper, in my case) and practice, practice, practice for more of the real thing. . .

    Thanks, David.