An Angle on Reading

August 9, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Marian Rogers

I can still feel the catch in my throat when I saw my name on the reading schedule that week at the workshop. I had just gotten all my things into the dorm room and was sitting on the bed going through the informational folder. It was my first writing workshop, and I didn’t know what to expect. The absolute last thing I expected was that I would have to do a reading before the assembled mass of writers of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The sample I submitted when I applied was the first writing I had done in decades. The workshop was generative, so new writing would emerge, but from where exactly and how, I had no idea. As I looked again at the reading schedule, I took heart that my name was on the list for the final evening.

I learned more that night at the welcome gathering in the hall where the readings would take place. Fellows and instructors would read the first two nights. Evenings for the rest of the week would be devoted to readings by workshop participants. Studying the room’s logistics, I was relieved to spot what looked like a miniature microphone suspended in front of the podium. I’m soft-spoken, and in normal conversation people will ask me, sometimes even command me, to speak up. Just as I was settling into the comfort of what I thought I saw, we were told there was no microphone. If we projected our voices, the room itself, with its tiers of seats, wraparound paneling, low windows at the back, would provide the necessary acoustics. A grand piano stood to the side of the stage in silent agreement. This room is perfect, it seemed to say, even for a concert of words.

A few days later it was my turn to read in our nonfiction group. The assignment: 600 words including a list. The list—a select catalogue of items my parents had to leave behind when we moved them to the retirement community—was not the hard part. It was the story of the family gathering before that, the four of us children traveling in from out of state overnight and in the early morning to help Dad convince Mom, who was slipping down the slope of dementia, that it was the right decision to go. As I read, my voice quavered, then stopped, and I went over the falls and began to cry. I felt the woman next to me place her hand on mine. I heard the instructor ask if I would like her to finish reading for me. As I composed myself, she said she was surprised it had taken that long for someone in the group to cry. That kind truth helped me finish in my own voice.

Over the next days, I gathered tips for my reading the final night:

  • Pare your piece down to fit the time limit: in this case, 3 minutes, so 400 words maximum.
  • Step away from the podium to the edge of the stage, to connect and be heard.
  • Anchor your pages with a folder underneath so that if your hands shake, your pages won’t.
  • Remember the audience is friendly. Look for your instructor and workshop members around the room, your fellow in the back row giving you a thumbs-up.
  • If the going gets tough, find a right angle somewhere in the room and fasten yourself to it.

The last is a tip my brother gave me once. He said fixing on a right angle when speaking can steady you and help you ride out fear or sadness. Those five tips helped me through my first reading, and others after.

More recently, of course, readings have not been in person. Yet that hasn’t made reading any less daunting and or any of us less vulnerable to emotion. If anything, over the past long year of isolation, loss, and grief, the grip of emotion seemed tighter, harder to loose, as many things that once steadied us vanished from the horizon. In early spring in a Zoom meeting of a writers group, I read a piece about my father, who died in 2019. As I read I could only see the page before me on the computer, not my audience, the faces that had become so familiar, supportive, reassuring. As I reached the final sentence, I felt a clutch in my throat, I stammered and stumbled as tears began to gather at the corners of my eyes. The right angles of the screen, of the page, of the paragraph, on their own, without the faces in my audience were not enough to steady me. When I finished, I looked out the window beyond my laptop. I saw hills and valleys, rises and dips, the lake not far in the distance topping out almost to overflow with winter thaw and first rain—mirroring everything I felt as I read. And then there they were again, my audience of writer friends, aligned so squarely on the screen, each framed by right angles, smiling, nodding, clapping, bringing me back.
___

Marian Rogers is an alumna of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Rebirth Your Writing retreat. She owes an immense debt of gratitude to Cedar Ridge Writers. Marian holds a PhD in classics from Brown University and is a longtime editor of scholarly nonfiction. Find her on Twitter @Rogers_Marian and on Instagram @marathena75.

How I Got to the Writers Workshop the Week My Father Died

November 25, 2019 § 7 Comments

MRogersPhotoBy Marian Rogers

Everything packed, I cut the last peonies in bloom that my father had planted in the garden years ago after our wedding, and put them in a Mason jar to take with me, knowing that in a week they too would be gone.

On the eight-hour drive west to Ohio, I began to write the first workshop assignment in my head, reading my mind aloud alone in the car, replacing words in midsentence, midvoice, midair, tossing it all out, starting again, and over again.

I stressed about who in the coming week I should tell about my father’s death, if anyone, and why, then whether that was or should be the most important thing or anything I had to say about myself.

I cried for miles, across three states, on the interstate that circles the Cleveland suburbs where I grew into a teen, and south through Medina where my father’s parents once lived on the public square, and as a boy my father had his first job, sweeping floors and stocking shelves in his grandfather’s small grocery.

Once off the highway I gave myself over to the embrace of farm homesteads, sweet pasture and corn standing sentinel, the hamlet with silent bandstand, the insect rub and zither of the early summer night, finally slipping into town at dusk, moon ascendant, sun now nowhere on the horizon.

I wondered at my foresight in arranging months before to arrive a day early and stay overnight in town to get my bearings after what was always a long drive, not knowing then what kind of lost I would be.

Weary but wanting some sort of company, I took the innkeeper’s suggestion to hurry to the village restaurant for a hot meal before it closed for the night, in the half light of the back dining room settling into the servers’ conversation as they filled ketchup bottles for the next day.

I drafted the first piece for workshop later, on the edge of the bed, laptop on knees, can of hard cider on the floor, homemade cookie from the house kitchen on the pillow.

At the coffee shop the next morning, in a chair by a window, I read and revised, watching as the buzz picked up and other writers began to materialize, friends and some familiar faces, and others I must know from somewhere, in that gathering feeling myself returning, becoming visible—remembering after all why I had come.

That afternoon in the dorm that would be my home for the week I found my key opened a room meant for two, with two beds, two dressers, and two desks, one at a window that looked across to a vacant house by a dark wood, where I would see myself reflected every night until I pulled the shade, the other a place for the peonies until their petals finally fell.

In the closet I hung the dress I had worn two months earlier to take my father out to lunch for what I did not know was the last time—the black summer dress garlanded with flowers that I would smooth absently, then press to myself as I stood three nights later, stepped toward the audience for my reading, and began, In memory of my mother and father . . .
___

Marian Rogers lives in Ithaca, NY, and writes about place, the natural world, travel, myth, family, and identity. She has been a participant in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Literary Nonfiction. She is a freelance editor of scholarly nonfiction and holds a PhD in classics from Brown University. Find her at www.bibliogenesis.com and on Twitter @Rogers_Marian.

Speech to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop Upon the Occasion of the Midweek Writing Doldrums

July 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

zz EuniceBy Eunice Tiptree

With workshops all morning, afternoon talks, and readings every evening, the eighty writers attending the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio, had little time for the terror of the blank page, no time to wallow in self-doubt. The Kenyon summer classes are “generative,” meaning that participants are asked to sprout new work each day over seven days, from prompts designed to jar you out of your comfort zone, producing “seedlings” that grow into full works over the months that follow.

But it was mid-week, and my group, the eleven tired souls gathered around the workshop table in Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction section, were starting to flag. As someone who has attended the Kenyon Workshop since 2004, I well knew the signs. Our group needed a boost.

As it turns out, Rebecca’s assignment provided the vehicle. Her instructions were to “Choose a non-literary text, pattern, or template from commerce, art, music, contemporary culture . . . Then, either employ that pattern as a shaping device, or incorporate the pattern into your piece in some way.”

Taking a walk in the afternoon on the bike path by the small Kokosing River winding below campus, my mind sifting and rejecting ideas, I felt trapped in my own doldrums. Then as if a gift from a cloud-free afternoon and the swirling water of the river, the perfect template appeared to inspire my fellow writers. We needed to hear a speech, and not just any speech, a speech in the style of Winston Churchill:

Speech to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop Upon the Occasion of the Midweek Writing Doldrums

Winston_Churchill_during_the_General_Election_Campaign_in_1945_HU55965I say to those who joined this workshop, we have before us an opponent of the most testing kind, our fatigue and self-doubts.  We have before us many, many long hours before this workshop ends.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can say it:  It is to write, by day and night, with all our might with all the strength that God can give us; to write against the monstrous effects of fatigue and burn-out never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human frailty.  I can say to this workshop, to all those who have joined us in this struggle, “We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their best, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defeat the storm of incoherent and shapeless language, and to outlive the menace of the blank page, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.  That is the resolve of this workshop.  That is the will of the Kenyon Review family.  We participants and instructors, linked together in our cause and in our need, will defend to the death the cause of writing, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of our strength.

Even though large tracts of our minds and many old and famous tropes have fallen or may fall, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go to the end; we shall write in the halls and cottages.

We shall write with growing confidence and growing strength; we shall defend our craft whatever the cost may be.

We shall write on Middle Path.

We shall write in the fields and in the streets

We shall write in the hills.

We shall never surrender our talents, until, in God’s good time, our growing capabilities stride forth to produce polished and complete drafts.

__

Eunice Tiptree transitioned from fiction to literary nonfiction at about the same time she began transitioning from male to female in 2010. Her essays have appeared in BrevityCrack the Spine, Weave, and elsewhere.  She has also published poetry in Straylight, Rock and Sling, and Inscape Magazine.  Before transitioning, she was a journalist specializing on the space program.  She currently is putting the finishing touches on a memoir of her transition, three years in the making.

Seven Deadly Sins: A Writers Workshop Reverie

June 30, 2014 § 17 Comments

under the cat

post-workshop cat therapy

Just in time for the summer workshop season, a guest post from Irene Hoge Smith:

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  As you know, it has been about a hot minute since my last confession.  More of the same, I’m sorry to say.

GREED

I pretty much cleaned out the book store and didn’t bother putting it on my credit card.  There’s no security system and those sweet little cashiers don’t have a clue.  I just browsed around with my Kenyon Review bag and snagged the new McClintock memoir and the beef stew guy’s Panic/Desire thing, and four or five poetry collections (they’re all really thin) and I think three different writing guides.  I just put the nice purple sweatshirt on over my tank top and gave the kid a big smile on the way out.  He never noticed.

LUST

Well, there’s that hot guy in the other workshop, really young but clearly looking for a mother-figure.  By Wednesday I had him writing my essays for me, which meant I had the afternoons off to shop (see GREED, also GLUTTONY).

GLUTTONY

Maybe that third order of tater tots at the Village Inn counts?  All the swag from the little boutique, maybe even the lodging upgrade to North Campus apartments?    I don’t know if that was worth it, though, since I actually had to make the bed myself and nobody comes in to hang up the towels (see SLOTH) and the AC doesn’t  make it up to the third floor (see WRATH).

SLOTH

I know I should read that Lopate book, the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-essays-way-better-than-you-will-ever-write doorstop of a paperback?  It’s supposed to be some kind of (excuse the expression, Father) Bible for essay writers, but it’s sooooo long!  I was going to do poetry this year because poems are, like, short, and it sounded like a gut.  But they’re all going on about assonance and consonance and anapest and dactyls and enjambment and boy, I really can’t be bothered.  So I’m doing creative nonfiction. Easy, right?  You can just be, you know, creative!  And since it’s nonfiction you don’t even have to make stuff up.

WRATH

Do I have “inordinate uncontrolled anger?” Well, sometimes, like at assholes who won’t publish my work, who wouldn’t?  And, yes,  I know it’s supposed to be a sin to hold on to anger at someone who is dead, but don’t bother giving me a penance for that one, Father, because it’s basically my whole book project.  I’m not giving that one up.

ENVY

I’m not going to another one of my friend Kaylie’s readings.  Two books in a year?  She should let somebody else have a chance for a change.  I could have done that book if I’d tried.  And the other one, too.  (see PRIDE).

PRIDE

I want to be the best and most-admired writer here, but also I want everyone else to love me so much they don’t mind that I’m so fabulous.  And I want to have all that adoration without having to go to the trouble of really reading other people’s stuff (see SLOTH) and telling them how good it is and, you know, sharing the limelight (see ENVY).  And I’m really not bragging, Father, but my essay is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and I’m pissed as hell at that Eggars guy for stealing my title (see WRATH).

Well, that’s about it, Father.   Do I have to stick around?  Can we skip the penance part?  (see SLOTH)

__

Irene Hoge Smith lives near Washington, DC.  She is a psychotherapist, writer, and writing workshop recidivist.  She participates in an alumni writing group with the New Directions writing program at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis and a memoir workshop with the author Sara Mansfield Taber.  She has attended workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writers Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop).  She is working on a memoir (about her mother FrancEyE, who lived and had a child with the poet Charles Bukowski in the early 1960’s) and nonfiction essays.

 

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Upcoming

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Applications are now available for The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, a week-long series of writing workshops held June 19-26, 2010 on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop focuses on the generation and revision of new work. Instructors employ challenging exercises and lead the groups in close readings and discussions of participants’ work. In addition, the instructors schedule personal meetings to discuss workshop assignments and other projects. This year’s session includes workshops in fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction. Workshop leaders include David Baker (poetry), Linda Gregerson (poetry), Rebecca McClanahan (literary nonfiction) [Brevity editor] Dinty W. Moore (literary nonfiction), Ron Carlson (fiction), Tara Ison (fiction) and Nancy Zafris (fiction).

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