This past week, my winter session Creative Nonfiction workshops came to a close in Davis and Sacramento. I find myself holding some especially huge feelings about the two groups I’ve been working with these last four months, primarily for three reasons.
First of all, this period has seen an enormous influx of new people into the mix in these two workshops. A full third of my writers this winter had never been in one of my private workshops before, and almost two-thirds have been writing with me for under a year. I find it a special privilege to welcome new people to the table, to get to know their values as creative thinkers and writers, and to sustain meaningful community for what we all do. Something essential happens when an established community welcomes new voices and new perspectives, and when someone new to a group asks a question that everyone else has asked at one point: the view extends. Time echoes. We begin to recognize one another. I am reminded so often that the big questions are not to be answered, but returned to, and rephrased or redirected, and it is generally my new writers who facilitate this – whether their questions are about the nature of truth, what it means to tell a story, or what the limits (or powers) of statement, suggestion, meditation, investigation or conjecture might be. What I learn, over and over, is that to explore is to carry questions with you, and also to know those questions as carriers.
Second, this spring marks the seventh birthday of my CNF workshop. The original debuted at the Davis Art Center in spring 2004 to an eager batch of eight folks dying to explore the “personal essay,” and I can scarcely believe the life that the workshop has taken on over the years as it’s gone private and been reworked to meet year-round. If it’s true that every seven years every cell of our being turns over at least once, that means that at this point there is not one cell of my being that didn’t exist when I first began laying the foundation of my life as an instructor of community workshops. Maybe that is an arrival. It feels like one.
Finally, this winter marks the first time in my life when I’ve been 100% focused professionally on teaching full-length, intensive writing workshops in my community. I revel in the complexity of a teaching life that focuses on meeting people where they are, and connecting them to one another, whether they’ve never written an essay or whether they’re 600 pages into their third memoir.
This winter, we read far and wide: Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, Liza Dalby’s East Wind Melts the Ice. We asked what the purpose is of making something that is strange, what we mean when we say something is lyric, what it means to take up one’s “real work,” what transparency of heart we want from our essayists, where story and essay connect or extend past one another, what the “poet’s mind” has to do with the connection of seemingly disparate subjects (and what transitions have to do with cultivating readership), how to rethink chronology, how we can approach stories whose outcomes are already cultural knowledge, and what alternatives might exist to resolution and “finishedness.” We listened to Susan Cooper’s talk on Cambridge Forum, talked about literary activism in the wake of the news from Japan, remembered summer reading programs at public libraries, imagined new ways to approach editing. Some of us weathered particularly hard strings of personal losses and were thrown further from our daily pages than we wanted to be. We showed up and workshopped 108 new drafts, chapters, or fragments containing thousands of sentences and tens of thousands of words.
To Raychel, Vickie, Julia, Linda, Carole, Anne, Denise, Kathy, Melanie, Andrea, Sara, Rick, Allison, Adam, Joanne, Karen, Shelley, Gretel, Elizabeth, Tom, Ralph, Cara, Margie, John, Stevie, Jonathan, & Ann – please feel free to leave comments here about things you find yourselves thinking about at this point or in weeks to come, as you continue unpacking it all. I’m going to miss many of you while you’re away over the summer! Thank you so much for taking your writing lives seriously, and for making coming together a priority. I believe in this work now more than ever.