Grace Paley and me at Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat.

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Last Saturday was the Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows in Victoria, MN — a wonderful day funded by Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.  The librarians who organized it were hoping to attract a mix of members from their established writing groups and people new to writing. They succeeded. An interesting and engaged group of people paid attention to each other, and to writing, all day.

I carry Minnesota writers with me wherever I go — in my head, quoted in my notebooks, passages copied into my calendar. Minnesota is awash with talented writers. When I teach, I read passages from their books — Alison McGhee, William Kent Krueger, Louise Erdrich, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Sutphen, Patricia Hampl. Because I was talking with other Minnesotans in Minnesota, I relied even more on local writers for this retreat.

But I was pleased that heads nodded at this passage by Grace Paley, who knew a thing or two about good writing. From her essay, “Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken”:

“It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of blood and money in order to be interesting to adults. That is — everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements, people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. — And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of a family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic.”

A good reminder, especially when writing memoir, to LET SOMETHING BE AT STAKE. Because something always is. In any good story, there is always something at stake. Something changes between the beginning and the end of the story. It’s the reason the writer needs to tell the story. It’s what keeps the reader interested. Whatever is at stake is what connects two human beings who might otherwise never encounter each other.

On Saturday, we were talking about memoir, a particularly personal kind of writing. But I maintain that all writing is personal. All good writing either asks a question, or answers a question. As long as we keep that question in mind as we write, we can’t go far wrong.

We ended the day with William Stafford’s poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready,” written just two days before he passed away. I cried when I read it. I always do.

Oh, goody! The Textile Center!

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I’ve been invited to teach a series of writing workshops for artists at the Textile Center in Minneapolis, one of my favorite places on Earth!

Register for one or more. The Textile Center on University Avenue is now served by the Green Line light rail (Prospect Park Station) — think about giving yourself time to explore this wonderful neighborhood of restaurants and shops! I might have to treat myself to an early dinner at Ngon on University at Dale…

Tuesday, October 7 from 6:00 – 8:00 PM       Writing An Artist Statement
Tuesday, October 28 from 6:00 – 8:00 PM     Write to Sell Online
Tuesday, November 4 from 6:00 – 8:00 PM    Writing for Proposals and Grants

 

Safe in the arms of Koko.

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Robin Williams left too soon. When you hang yourself with a belt in your bedroom, there’s not much doubt that you intended to end your life. That is sad beyond words. But words are all I have, so here goes.

Sadder still is the story and photo posted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few weeks ago when Williams visited the Dairy Queen in Lindstrom, Minnesota while he was in treatment at Hazelden. He looks gaunt, even ill, but poses dutifully with a DQ employee, his eyes avoiding the camera. I have some familiarity with this Dairy Queen from the time a few years ago when my former husband spent 28 days at Hazelden. Pete didn’t enter Hazelden willingly, and hoped that the family would keep his secret. It was a disorienting four weeks for our kids and me, but of course, much more so for him, another step in recognizing what the disease had done to him and to our family. He did the work as best he could, and boarded the van a couple of times each week for the DQ outing. You take what breaks you’re offered, I imagine. He wouldn’t have welcomed being recognized by anyone he knew.

And yet Robin Williams put his private self on very public display, surely knowing he’d be recognized. Perhaps he felt he had no choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between curing and healing. There’s no cure for addiction or mental illness. Nor for most cancers, or heart disease, or diabetes, or a host of other medical conditions. No cure for the human condition at all. But we can learn to manage our conditions. We can help each other heal. And we can be — should be — very sad when beloved people leave in spite of that.

My friend Ed Hessler sent me a link yesterday to a piece on Slate.com about Robin Williams’ encounter with Koko, the gorilla who has learned American Sign Language. Ed has taught me a great deal about science, and poetry — about life — in the years I’ve known him. With this link, he reminded me of our deepest connections to every being, every thing, in the “entangled bank” of our world.

“We shared some interspecies laughter,” says Williams in the video. At the end, Williams and Koko embrace, at first tentatively, and then Williams smiles and relaxes into the embrace, eyes closed. Whatever greeted him on the other side of yesterday morning, I hope he was embraced with that joy. And I hope he joyfully returned the embrace.

It’s here! Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat

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Registration is now open for the Saturday, September 13 retreat from 10 AM to 3 PM. Call Tari Clay at Carver County Library at 952-227-7609 for details and directions. We’ll do lots of fast and fun writing exercises, with a couple of breaks for quiet writing time on the grounds of the retreat center.

Sharpen your pencil, pack a lunch and join us!

Other good stuff.

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I recently changed my email signature from “Writing, Editing, Research” to “Writing and other good stuff.” I still pay the bills with Writing, Editing and Research, but I’m having a blast with Other Good Stuff now, too.

Behind me here at Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis are pages of handmade paper dipped in indigo dye. Mary Hark does wonderful things with indigo and paper. She taught a really fun and not-as-messy-as-you’d-expect weeklong workshop in which we made many, many sheets of linen/abaca/hemp paper and then dipped most of it in indigo. I’m more familiar with indigo and textiles, like the beautiful Shibori techniques, from which tie-dyed T-shirts came. (Remember RIT dye?) It’s still around.

The strength and suppleness of the paper was a delight to behold. It was a leap of faith to dunk those gorgeous sheets into a stinky vat of dark, oily, bubbly sludge. But the results are incredibly beautiful — darkest navy to be sure, but overlaid with hues of green, pink, purple, sometimes even iridescent. Most of the papers I dipped are heavy enough to be book or journal covers, and I’m looking forward to binding them with small signatures of white and ivory, maybe pale green and lavender. After I gelatin-size them and hang them to dry again, lest that lovely blue rub off on the hands, clothing, etc. of gentle readers.

And here’s what happened when I wrapped and twisted an old linen dresser scarf from my great-grandmother, and dipped it in indigo. Other good stuff, indeed!

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Local workshops coming up!

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I love traveling to teach, but I’m thrilled to offer these workshops and retreats closer to home in the Twin Cities:

Monday, July 21 from 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm at Deephaven Education Center. Register at Minnetonka Community Education. If it’s a beautiful evening, I promise we’ll go outside!

Saturday, September 13 from 8:30 am to about 3:00 pm — Carver County Libraries Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows Retreat Center on the border of Excelsior/Chanhassen and Victoria, just off Hwy 7. This is going to be so cool – details soon!

Book Art — several people have asked me about teaching an altered journals or book making class. I’m still playing around with all of this, but will post photos and info soon. If you’re really eager, sign up for a class at Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

 

Fun with books.

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I took a class this spring with Sheila Asato, who does lots of interesting things with dreams and art and books. This altered book is in honor of my great-great aunt Lora (Eleanor) who raised my grandfather after his mother died. My two-year-old granddaughter Ellie (Eleanor Therese) is named for her.

A hundred years ago, Aunt Eleanor was a milliner in Chicago — you can see here my collage of a woman whose head is a hat stand. She’s wearing a photo of a quilt, her hands are knitting (purling?) and she has mismatched, but fashionable, shoes. I’m having fun altering other pages of this book with materials from the Textile Center Garage Sale — and I even have a few odds and ends of Aunt Lora’s millinery work that will make their way in.

So… if you’re counting, this book spans six generations. Someday, I’ll give the book to Ellie. I hope she’ll find it inspiring. And even more, I hope she’ll know it’s okay to write and draw in books to make stories of her own!

The Time in Between

Another effective writing exercise is to consider two photographs taken at different times (decades apart, or a few minutes) or your own mental images of yourself or another. Or photos or mental images of places.

Write a few words to orient yourself with each image – who, when, where. Add a word or two about the feeling or emotion most prominent when you think of each image.

Now spend a few minutes writing about the time between the images. What changed for the person in the image?

Go deeper: Return to the images a few more times over several days or weeks. Guaranteed, you’ll come up with more to say, questions you’d like to ask (or wish you could ask). Write about that.

How To Be

Writing a mini-instruction manual (really, just a paragraph) about How To Be a particular person is a quick way to remind yourself of all sorts of stories you can tell. For each line of your “recipe” to be this person, you’re drawing on your experience and memory. Those are the stories.

For instance, I could tell you that my mom is from Indiana, she’s 5’3”, she likes to read, she’s kind, she eats healthy food, she loves me. And maybe, if one of those things resonated with you, you might want to meet her.

Or I could think a bit more about each of those points, and give you a recipe that shows how my mom is unique. Bingo. Instantly, she’s a more interesting person. Fiction writers use this exercise all the time to see what their imaginations “know” about a character and to help predict how that character might act. I think it’s just as much fun to do with real people.

How To Be Sandy – Be born in a small town in Indiana and be both glad that your childhood was spent there, and glad that you left as a young adult. Be small, about 5’3” and neat and modest. Smile often, except when you are reading; when reading have a relaxed yet intent expression. Be kind. Be critical of ideas, but not of people. Rarely eat fast food, but once or twice each year or so, really, really enjoy a Big Mac. Interrupt frequently, and fail to notice that this annoys people. Love your family unconditionally.