On the Food-gasm, or, Why We Feel So Passionately about “Regional” Dishes

December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments

Mad Feast mech.inddA guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:

After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled.  People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region.  I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank

Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people.  These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world.  That’s why home is where the heart is.  That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood.  If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us.  What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many.  As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts.  And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein.  Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality.  Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.

On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.”  Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state.  The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we.  No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.

Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms).  Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability.  There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door.  It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim.  To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix.  Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over.  The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other.  A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth.  It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair.  We kiss with the same mouths we eat with.  We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.  The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.

Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism).  These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors.  This is our private territory.  Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts.  In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others.  Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential.  It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself.  In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
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Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books.  In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.

Movement and the Essay: Josey Foo

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Josey Foo

Josey Foo

Josey Foo discusses how she came to write her exquisitely minute essay “So Little” in the new issue of Brevity:

I suppose this piece sprang from questions of who I am. I certainly can’t grasp the who of me, I seem to lie and cheat in the moment before moving, then try to move in a forthright way, and the movement can seem like a runaway train even over the single step. The decision to move changes my life, then the movement changes it again. A kaleidoscope of changes happens to me as I proceed and I’m evolving as a person. The movement is the poem, the humanity that goes into moving is the significant story, then the movement again is the climax or ending. I am a bundle of contradictions in a single move.

Use of the third person was necessary because this piece happened to be too close. Use of the third person is for comfort. The person (me) feels like an intruder in the space between the chair and the window. Her motivations are all suspicious. She feels she has grown into something that must stay still and is distorted otherwise. At the same time she’s just trying out her body, hanging her body this way and that to feel strengths and weaknesses and wondering whether any of it is real.

I wrote a book a few years ago with the dancer/choreographer Leah Stein that were poems and notes on dance, and performed with her and her dancers in Philadelphia in 2012. I had to go up on stage and walk about, reading poems from memory as the dancers simply moved. They didn’t second guess their movements. They approached their bodies and movement with joy while I was filled with panic and just wanted to stop and think the whole thing through for one moment and then do it again for the next.

 

How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP

February 25, 2014 § 7 Comments

Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts

Guest Blogger Suzanne Roberts offers some excellent and amusing advice on how to behave at the VIP parties:

You may think it’s as easy as drinking too much gin and falling off a barstool at the lobby bar. But it isn’t. That’s standard fare at the annual AWP conference. No, to make a fool of yourself at the AWP takes some planning, some research. And a way to sneak into the VIP party.

Here’s what you do. Wait until the last night, when you are so exhausted you can barely remember your own name. Then find someone who has an actual invitation to the VIP Party. Did you know that such a party exists? Of course you don’t! You weren’t invited. And as it turns out, that’s for a good reason. But lucky for you, your friend was. But the guards—yes they have actual guards at this event and they are not poets, so you can’t offer them a cigarette and sneak by them—they take their job of protecting the famous writers from the likes of you very seriously, and your friend has more than one plus-one. In fact, he has five. Though your friend is good looking, is it possible that he has that many dates? Because the five-to-one-fantasy appeals to poets and non-poets alike, you and your plus-five package get into the party, and the guards start to wonder if they themselves should start writing verse.

First things first: sashay over to the buffet and free bar and gorge yourself on shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon, carrot sticks and chardonnay. You will have been too busy grazing to notice, but your friends have left the party.  But by all means, don’t leave the party yet! Stay until long after the Pulitzer-winners and Poet Laureates are long gone. Stay until the guards indicate that it is time for you to stop with the shrimp and go get your coat. But first stuff your purse with bread sticks, carrots, and celery. You are your mother’s daughter after all, and in her words, they are just going to throw it away.

In the dim light (note the dim light) of the coat check area, you will spot a man who looks vaguely familiar. You try to place him and then decide, Why, that’s Nick Flynn! You have never actually met Nick Flynn, but you saw him give a reading at a literary magazine party in a dark bar the night before (note both words: dark and bar). Turn to Nick Flynn and tell him, “I just loved your reading last night.”

“Thank you,” he will say, pulling on his coat.

Because you don’t want to leave this exchange so quickly, and you are full of shrimp cocktail courage, you say, “My husband loved your book,” which is not just flattery, it’s actually true. Your husband read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in one night.

“I’m so glad,” he says, looking at you from the threshold of the door.

“Oh yes,” you continue, stuffing your arms into your own coat. “He wouldn’t come to bed. He loved your book so much. He couldn’t put it down. He sat on the couch reading it all night.”

At this point a woman at the coat check says, “Hot damn. Poetry over pussy.”

You correct her, “No, Suck City,” meaning, of course, the memoir. This is an honest mistake. Nick Flynn writes poetry, too, though you can’t imagine your husband staying up all night reading poetry. You are pretty sure he hasn’t even read your last poetry book.

“Yeah, I guess it might have been suck city, if he hadn’t chose poetry over pussy,” she says.

“No, not the poetry” you will say, still trying to clarify, “Another Bullshit Night.”  The woman laughs, but you swear you see her mouth the word “Turrets” to Nick Flynn.

This little repartee is not enough! You must follow Nick Flynn and dominate his attention for the entire walk through the indoor mall and back to the hotel lobby. And when the small talk about the party begins, make sure to tell him how you snuck in to the VIP party. He will look at you with a strange look, but not nearly as strange a look as when you say, “I just loved Suck City. I mean I love the poetry, too. But Suck City was so great. I’m looking forward to Suck City on the big screen.”

When he speeds up, desperate to catch up to his friends, make sure to match his pace step for step because you aren’t done.

Then tell him, out of breath because of your swift clip, “We…have…a mutual friend.”

“Who’s that?” He will look doubtful. Maybe not so much that you have a mutual friend but that you have any friends at all.

You tell him the name of your mutual friend. She is your colleague, and you know her to be one of Nick Flynn’s very best friends.

“I don’t think I know her.”

At this point you will hit—maybe punch is the better term—Nick Flynn’s arm and say, “Of course you do!”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You blurbed her book!” Make sure a carrot or breadstick falls from your purse when you say this.

“No, I didn’t.”

You will be adamant because you are sure that Nick Flynn blurbed her book. You have seen it right there on the back cover. How could he forget? “You did so,” you will say, “plus, I’ve seen you two together on facebook.”

You are met with a puzzled look.

But don’t give in. Rather than to take in the facts before you, be sure to stick to the facts in your head. Refuse all the signs. So Nick Flynn will have no other choice but to assent. “Maybe I do know her,” he will finally say. “Maybe I met her at the Atlantic Center of the Arts?”

“You see!” You are triumphant. Later you will tell your colleague about this little exchange, and she will say “Please tell me you didn’t say my name.”

You will have to admit that you did.

Nick Flynn shakes his head and says “Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”

You have read Nick Flynn’s books, and you know he is a recovering addict, so you think, What? Nick Flynn has been drinking? O-no! But you say, “Me too” to cover your bases. Something in you knows that even if it isn’t true, you should say you have had too much to drink. Way too much to drink.

You continue to walk together, and every so often, you ask questions that Nick Flynn seems unable to answer, or you exclaim “Suck City” in reference to his memoir, and each time he looks at you like you are deranged, like you are a woman capable of sadistic ritual, bizarre and vicious crimes. Like he wants to escape but doesn’t want you to know he’s fleeing, just in case you will follow him. Which you are already doing.

And then Nick Flynn tells you he has to find his husband.

“Husband?”

“Yes.”

“You’re married to a man?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

The last you heard, Nick Flynn had married the actress Lili Taylor. But rather than question this, just think: Well things sometimes change.

When you finally arrive back to the hotel lobby, your friend Rodney will see you talking to Nick Flynn, and he will come up, introduce himself, and ask him, “How did Obama ask you about the inauguration? Did he call you or what?”

And you will turn to look at Nick Flynn and his face will suddenly rearrange itself. Not familiar because he was in the dim bar reading about his father the night before, but familiar for another reason—this was this face that filled the TV screen on inauguration day. And all of a sudden, you will be at a loss for words. But then you say this, which makes things worse, not better: “I didn’t know. I mean, I’d forgotten. I mean that you were the inaugural poet. But your poem, it was just great.” Your friend Rodney will look at your with a wrinkled forehead, his mouth opened into little frowning O, and you will smile and say, “Super great,” the word great trailing off, swallowed by the din of the lobby.

At that, Nick Flynn—now Richard Blanco—will make his escape. He will say, “I need to find my husband outside.”

You will think, Ah yes, husband. Of course he has a husband, as your brain reshuffles itself.

You will then try to explain what just happened to Rodney—an abbreviated version—and you will say, “Oh my God. I have to go outside and find him, to explain what happened.” You make for the lobby’s revolving door, but Rodney pulls you back, saying, “Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve said enough already,” to which you can hardly disagree.

flynn and blanco

Flynn and Blanco

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

Food Bloggers: Call for Nominations

November 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

Attn: Food Bloggers: upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for interesting, true stories that focus on food, including restaurant reviews; tales of meals gone awry; secrets, tips and kitchen short cuts; confessions from cooks, chefs and/or servers; an examination of the kitchen life; and so on.  To be used in the upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

To nominate, you’ll need to know the title or specific URL of the post. Nominate your own work, or that of someone else. Nominate as many posts as you like, though the good folks at CNF mag ask that you not nominate the same post multiple times.

The deadline for nomination is 11:59 PM EST, Monday, November 29, 2010.

Nominate at: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination.html.

Contests, Glamour, Food, Immortality

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Glamour’s Seventh Essay Writing Contest

If you have an inspiring story about a life changing event, an obstacle overcome, a relationship or passion that’s defined you—then we want to read it!  You could win $5000 and a meeting with a top literary agent.See complete rules for details

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18th Annual SiWC Writing Contest

Non-fiction: maximum length 1,500 words.

Prizes: 1st: $1000 and anthology (per category). Honorable Mention(s) $150 each.

Deadline: September 10, 2010

Fees: $15 per submission

http://www.siwc.ca/contest/2010

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Memoir (and) Competition

Prose limit: 10,000 words maximum. Graphic memoir limit: Must fit on no more than twenty 7” x 10” pages. Narrative photography limit: Up to 5 images.

Deadline: August 16, 2010

http://memoirjournal.squarespace.com/contest-details/

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Creative Nonfiction Immortality Competition

Essays must be unpublished, 5,000 words or less and written on the subject of Immortality.

Deadline: August 6, 2010

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

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Creative Nonfiction Food Competition

Essays must be unpublished and consist of 5,000 words or less. Submissions must be true stories that incorporate or involve food.

Prizes: 1st: $1000, 2nd: $500

Deadline: September 3, 2010

Fees: $20

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

In Praise of the Light-Footed Indie Publisher

April 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Jay Nicorvo, in a recent Guernica essay, offers a convincing examination of what is wrong (and right) in publishing these days, and begs to differ with Ted Genoways’ recent essay on “The Death of Fiction.”  Nicorvo’s argument, in brief, is that the big NYC houses have lost their connection to readers, while limber, light-on-their-feet” indie publishers see nothing but opportunity in the new media new market.  He makes good sense, and give us hope.

Read on:

These days, editors at commercial publishing houses … no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information … And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well — blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.

It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines, university and independent presses, who still … (choose) those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers—those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue—the indie publishers mission-driven to publish literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree, may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent publishing.

… The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.

Electric Lit Seeks Flash

April 19, 2018 § 1 Comment

From Electric Lit:

Experimenting with form, fiction, and storytelling in general is one of our favorite ways to keep literature interesting. From Recommended Reading’s 300th issue composed of 300-word love stories, to a series of 280-character short stories in honor of the new tweet length, to Okey-Panky’s two years of publishing ribald literary oddities, illustrations, and poems, we think our experiments — which is also to say, your work — have delivered thrilling results.

To expand our testing field, we launched the Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes literature portioned for consumption during an otherwise insulting Monday morning commute. Featuring poetry, flash, graphic, and experimental narratives, the Commuter publishes every other week, and has already showcased the likes of Noy Holland, Lulu Miller, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Shelly Oria and Nelly Reifler, and more.

On Monday, April 23, we’ll open submissions for one week through our Submittable page, closing on April 30th at 11:59PM. Below are the categories in which we’re looking for work, and submission guidelines. Please note that, while the Commuter publishes poetry and graphic narrative, this submission period is for prose only. Submission periods for other forms will open in May and June.

  • Flash fiction up to 1,500 words. Writers can submit up to 3 pieces that can be a series or standalone works, but the total word count of the submission should not exceed 1,500 words.
  • We will consider fiction as well as experimental narratives that are difficult to classify and take on unusual forms or formats.
  • Please submit text in .doc, .docx, or .odt.
  • If your work is selected, we can offer a payment of $100.

For a sense of the kind of work we publish, check out recent issues of the Commuter, our 280-character contest winners, and Recommended Reading’s 300th issue.

The submission window’s short and coming up fast, so get your piece prepped and ready to go!

Writing Toward Wholeness: Journaling, Imagery, and Meditation

April 6, 2018 § 7 Comments

zz ww40_Author and workshop leader Susan Tiberghien offers writing exercises from her new book, Writing Toward Wholeness, Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung, which uses excerpts from Jung’s writings, and writers such as Etty Hillesum, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Thich Nhat Hahn, to bring together psychology, spirituality and the arts:  

The first lesson in Writing Toward Wholeness ─ “Keeping Your Own Red Books” ─ suggests journaling as a way toward uncovering our soul, toward uncovering our connectedness, our oneness. Journaling is a practice, like meditation, leading us to deeper writing, to deeper living. When we journal, when we write about what we see, feel, touch, we discover its meaning, linking together the visible and the invisible worlds.

If I journal about a walk on the beach and picking up a small white shell, the white shell is no longer one amidst hundreds in the sand, but it is unique, its jagged edges cupped in my hand. It has suffered, from being tossed about by waves, currents, and eddies. But here it is in my hand, opening the door in my imagination to my own jagged edges.

To illustrate this, here is a writing suggestion from the second lesson in my book, “Pursuing Images.” Open your journal, close your eyes, what experience comes to you, what image comes to you? Something you did, something you saw. Hold on to the image, look at it, and describe it. Take a moment and write a few lines to give it life.

I give the following example from my own journal: “A tree with fall foliage appeared, like the one outside my kitchen window last fall. Its rust-colored leaves were falling sporadically to the ground.”  To learn from the image, from my tree, I spoke to it, asked it why it came to me. I wrote down my question and the tree’s response in the form of a dialogue. Jung calls this active imagination.

I asked if I too must let go of my leaves, If I must “stop checking if all is well, stop worrying about family, friends, about my work.” Yes, replied the tree, “Let things be.” I was told to trust the process. “The leaves return to their roots to rise anew.” Nothing is lost. Life is a continuum.

A continuum. A whole. Each of us writes towards this wholeness.  As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in her “Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times:” ─ “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
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Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, holds a BA in Literature and Philosophy and did graduate work at Grenoble University in France and the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, Switzerland. She has published four memoirs Looking for Gold, A Year in Jungian Analysis; Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer; Side by Side: Writing Your Love Story; and Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman, and the writing handbook, One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, along with numerous essays in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Tiberghien has been teaching Jungian inspired writing workshops for over twenty years at C.G. Jung Societies, at the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in the States and in Europe. She directs the Geneva Writers’ Group, an association of over 240 English-language writers, which she founded in 1993. Mother of six children and sixteen grandchildren, she lives with her husband in Geneva, Switzerland.

 

Retreat! Retreat! (Part Two: The Experts)

March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments

Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.

What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?

Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.

Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.

Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.

What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?

Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.

Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.

Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.

Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.

I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.

Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.

Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.

Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.

Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.

What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?

Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.

Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.

Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.

What are you planning next?

Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.

Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.

Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.

Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.

And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.

Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!

____________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

A Review of Scott Freeman’s Saving Tarboo Creek

March 16, 2018 § 1 Comment

tarboo downloadBy Tucker Coombe

When Scott and Susan Freeman purchased an eighteen-acre parcel of land in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2004, they could see that decades of logging and unsuccessful farming had taken their toll. The landscape was riddled with noxious, invasive plants––thorny stands of Himalayan and Eurasian blackberry, mats of reed canary grass, and tall swaths of horsetail and thistle. Tarboo Creek, the once-robust salmon stream that flowed through the property, “looked like an open wound.”

In Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land (Timber Press), Freeman describes how he and his family, as part of an intensive, community-wide effort, restore the waterway and surrounding lands. A local excavator sculpts a shallow, meandering stream, then drops old trees in strategic locations to create pools for the fish. Several inches of gravel are sprinkled onto the bottom of the stream bed. Banks are seeded and covered in hay. Finally, water is diverted to its new home. Over the next decade, more than 10,000 native shrubs and trees are planted in the surrounding floodplain and abandoned pasture.

Freeman teaches biology at the University of Washington. His wife, Susan, provides the book’s delightful, pen-and-ink illustrations and is the granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most important conservation thinkers and author of A Sand County Almanac (1949), the groundbreaking book that advocated for moral responsibility toward the land. The Freemans are, in short, part of a multi-generational family steeped in ecological awareness and land-restoration expertise.

Freeman is a close observer of the natural world, and his descriptions are lyrical and compelling. When salmon return to Tarboo Creek for spawning, they “arrive a fire-engine red and bristling with vigor but are dead in less than two weeks. The females beat the skin and muscle right off of their tails as they dig a nest for their eggs.”

And who knew about nurse logs—fallen tree trunks whose rich, rotting structure serves as an ideal growing site for a new generation of trees? “Once an old tree has been down for a decade or two,” he writes, “it’s common to see a row of four-foot-tall hemlock or cedar saplings lined up along its back, like schoolchildren waiting for the bell.” Freeman also depicts a family that’s deeply connected to the rhythms of the land. On spring nights, Scott and Susan can gauge the warmth of their pond simply by listening to the tree frogs. And it’s not unusual, on an autumn afternoon, for several children to sit shoulder-to-shoulder along the stream bank, watching a female salmon dig her nest and naming the males that hover nearby.

But Saving Tarboo Creek is not simply a happy tale of ecological restoration. Freeman’s superb chapter on salmon includes a grim history of the animal’s near-extirpation. A lovely description of tree-planting morphs into a stark chronicling of global deforestation––followed by sober discussions of climate change, human overpopulation, and an impending mass extinction. “Biological and cultural evolution has now put human beings in a position of immense power relative to other species, and we can be destroyers or stewards,” he writes.

Freeman dedicates this book to the young men and women––his father-in-law, Carl Leopold, among them––who saved the world from tyranny during World War II, and also to the high school and college students of today: it’s your turn, he says, to step up and save the world.

But just how does he propose doing this? Rather than providing thoughtful, practical suggestions, Freeman preaches against what he sees as a “poverty of values” in our society––a focus on consumerism that leaves us unhappy, unhealthy, and out of touch with the natural world. And in trying to illustrate just how out of whack we’ve become––fretting about how many Americans take medication for depression, or alter their appearance through plastic surgery––he goes too far. Freeman risks not only sounding sanctimonious, but alienating those whom he will need to enlist if he hopes to turn the tide on environmental issues. (The fight to save the world needs everyone––even those who’ve had a little nip and tuck.)

I finished this book wanting more information. What does Freeman recommend to readers who are anxious to join the battle, but have no idea where to start? And for those living in high-rise apartment buildings––more likely to line a windowsill with potted ferns than purchase a piece of land––what useful steps does he suggest?

Saving Tarboo Creek shows us a remarkable slice of the natural world. I only wish it offered more advice on saving it.

___
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Hairpin, and can be found at tuckercoombe.com.

 

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