Puma Capricornensis

A discarded excerpt from my Novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars

As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on puma_10the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.

Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.

I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream sounding more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat.  Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle-wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue. Silent, predatory and cautious.

More than a century ago he roamed in our nocturnal woods solitary and reclusive. His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to be a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car. DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.

*

I saw him that night, but I never thought to speak of it. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space as a sponge absorbs a pesky spill.  An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past.  Stalking, ambushing, gorging, advancing.

If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of the Eastern lion, “You know our woods do not go on forever.” You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing hearth gathered inhabitants believing their superiority. They’re whistling past the tombstone of a crumbling civilization sinking on a thinning layer of fossil fuel.

Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

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There is something rotten in Denmark: transforming life, scholarship, and writing toward a more sustainable paradigm —or —you’ve got the craft skills, now what are you going to do with it?

DSC_0032By Karen Walasek
Anyone alive who is paying attention knows that we are on a crash course toward climate destruction and that the burning of fossil fuels is the key culprit. Any writer who is paying attention to the adjunct market post 2008 meltdown has noticed that adjuncts are not paid a living wage. There are a great many articles on the extractive crushing of the creative class, the war on education, non-whites, women and the environment. Our food is literally killing us as the militarized mindset of ever increasing pesticide use (let’s kill off the bad guys with bigger and bigger guns) is touted as the only way it can be done, but says who? Writers, of course. We are the ones making the culture, but do we take our role seriously enough? Have you thought about it? In what ways does your writing support or enable the paradigms of destruction that are racing us closer and closer to the tipping points of planetary collapse?

When I left Goddard with my MFA certificate in hand granting me all the rights and privileges associated with that degree, I had the gnawing sense that there was something rotten in Denmark. No offense to my Goddard colleagues, professors or even Shakespeare, but it bothered me that one could craft a beautifully articulated blueprint for a dying planet that could be considered a literary masterpiece that left its readers filled with remorse and hopelessness. It is as if in our esteemed postmodern world we were all subjects of some grand cultural machine that we inevitably had no control over. The only thing that mattered to this machine was how expertly we crafted our sentences while passively describing the rising waters of Anthropocene’s doom and gloom. Oops, stop! You used a cliché. You don’t want to use a cliché, that’s blasphemy! And yet the paradigms that promote a dying planet are not blasphemous? How did we get here and do we know what we are doing? Pardon me for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions, but something tells me there’s a disconnect in the mind of writers that has a heavy sprinkling of denial, and it’s not that we are creative dreamers and have our heads in the sky. It’s something far deeper and darker than that. Who among the numerous MFA programs out are there are talking about the responsibility of the writer in promoting social change?

What about that doom and gloom, no-way-out scenario? Is there something disingenuous and inherently passive in those action scenarios that promote a survival of the fittest paradigm, only to pull a bad sarcastic cosmic joke in the end with a “Guess what! Nobody is fittest, nor a hero, and we all die; hearty har, har.” And we call that believable, realistic, or noteworthy, while anything that falls outside this paradigm is Pollyanna, Mary Sue; or heavens forbid, idealistic or romantic chick lit!

In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff makes the point that the words and metaphors we choose shape how we think. My first stop post Goddard was a M.Ed. in education at Portland State University where I dabbled in rhetoric, conflict resolution, sustainability and indigenous nation’s studies. It was here that I also came across the work of LeAnn Bell in a Storytelling for Social Change class. Bell used storytelling as a tool for addressing racism. She categorized stories as dominant, concealed, resistance, and emerging (or transformative). Most of the stories in popular Western culture fall into the dominant story category. They tell us that those wolves on Wall Street control the world and that our planet is dying and we are helpless to do anything about it. They are the ones that say money is the only thing anyone cares about and life is nothing more than a complicated a con game. If we want to follow the plot twists, all we have to do is follow the money. The concealed stories, of course, if I dare get political here in my professional essay, the concealed stories include those like the ones that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are telling. The concealed story is the one that David Graeber tells in his book, Debt the First Five Thousand Years, where he reveals how monetary debt and true obligation are NOT the same thing. The resistance stories include those of Black Lives Matter or the ones about that tribe of brave indigenous people in Brazil who are literally fighting for their lives to stop the Bela Monte dam. (http://amazonwatch.org/work/belo-monte-dam

I think as a writer the most important question I can ask myself is “Whose story am I telling?”

Read More at: The Writer in the World

The Writers Road Trip

The Writers Road Trip.

This is a reprint of an article we wrote for The Writer in the World.

Descended at least culturally if not genetically from the ranks of our most exulted literary road warriors – writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey – my wife Karen Walasek and I have exercised and exorcised our wanderlust cyclically throughout our forty year marriage. There have been many, many journeys punctuated by periods of growing and transplanting roots. In the first twenty years of our marriage we lived in sixty different homes. We moved so often that family and friends were annoyed at having to repeatedly revise their address books. Banana boxes housed our possessions during those tempestuous early years.

We drove east, north, south and west, crossing the continental United States at least fourteen times. Most of these journeys were made by car, though a few began with planes or trains, and there was one drive-away rental car that we wrecked in Zanesville, Ohio during a snowstorm. We hitched home from Tucson to New Jersey for Christmas one year and got stuck on a milk run Greyhound from Pecos, Texas which became the scenic backdrop for my novel, Jam. Talk about long, strange trips.

As a novelist, songwriter and artist, I think of traveling as the little known tenth muse. I call her Varvara, or Βαρβαρα if you are Greek. Varvara delights in our discovery of ourselves through the strangeness of others. She coaxes and teases, leading by a trail of the tiniest breadcrumbs, whispering in her raspy alto. Her song is like the tug of the stars on my heart.

Most writers have used prompts. I assign timed ones to my students as a way to bypass the censor and get down to the deep stuff. A month long road trip is a bit like immersing your whole body in a writing prompt. Motion occupies the conscious mind and lets your creative self – wander – absorbing the peoplescape. All you have to do is copy down your impressions.

We began referring to these trips as vision quests after our “vacation” to New Mexico in the early 1990s took a surreal detour from the normal planned family excursion. Karen was about to attend her first Goddard undergraduate residency as we set off from our home in eastern Pennsylvania during the hottest part of summer toward the Southwest, bisecting Tennessee on Interstate 40. Our favorite movie at that time wasThe Milagro Bean Field War, Robert Redford’s 1988 film version of John Nichol’s novel. The movie became a template for our trip as we wandered around New Mexico in search of Joe’s bean field. It was a sweaty trial, six of us pressed into an overheating Volvo wagon. We didn’t know that the town they used in the film was chosen more for aesthetics than fact (the novel was a fictionalization of a real water rights war) or that plastic bean plants were driven into the dry soil for the filming.  Ruby Archuleta’s goad to Charley Bloom, the reluctant editor of Milagro’s alternative paper La Voz, surfaced as commentary on the deficiencies of our preparation: the air conditioning “wasn’t up to it.” The voice of our muse, Varvara, narrated the inner landscape as the sun purified us.

We didn’t plan it, but a member of Karen’s Goddard cohort lived at the mouth of the road to our primitive campsite. She prepared Anasazi beans, brown rice and corn bread, a gift that connected our modern family to the indigenous cliff dwellers of an ancient land. Looking outside her kitchen window at the neighboring straw bale adobe buildings across the fields, she explained that Joe’s actual bean field had grown right there, next to the Pilar Yacht Club, a whitewater rafting outfit.  Back then we were surprised, called it serendipity (which is another favorite movie.) These days we know it was part of Varvara’s plan.

Road trips have always punctuated the geographically stable stretches of our marriage. It’s a cycle independent of season.  We grind through our daily lives, making small headway in our various endeavors when the tumblers unexpectedly align, opening our sights to new possibilities. Once again, that lock has fallen open.

We bought a new/old SUV and a DSLR camera. We will journey across the north to Vermont through Canada, diagonally dissect the southeast to visit our farm in Tennessee and then power on to Prescott, Arizona via Interstate 40, retracing our earlier journey through Taos. We plan to return home to Oregon along the coast of sun parched California.

In this post Clinton/Bush/Obama culture, this road trip promises to braid new stories with the journeys and vision quests of the past four decades. Varvara is whispering themes of resistance, indigenous identity, and the impulse to decolonize as we head out to embrace the country’s changing narratives, both dominant and otherwise.  It is going to be a trip. We even bought a mini refrigerator and a blender for the car with plans to make yogurt and sprouts on the road. Maybe kombucha, too! You can come along.

Most importantly, we are journeying with our senses and writing muscles tuned. As the fabric of the land and American psyche impresses itself upon us, we are hopeful she will feed us with wonder and possibilities for a more resilient future. This summer, Karen is beginning her fourth degree, a low residence PhD program in Sustainability Education at Prescott College. And I am embarking on my third, also in sustainability, at Goddard’s Vermont campus. Both happen in August. Updates can be found here. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect. Who knows what plans Varvara has for all of us?

This is not the first road trip and it will not be the last.

Additionally, we are running a crowd funding campaign Wishlist on GoFundMe. Most of these items are going to become necessary before we are done (some, like flushing the fluids in the car are necessary now) and there are a few luxuries on there – check them out. We would love it if you just want to donate the item if you have it or can provide it. Contact us via social media or email.

I will update this post when the campaigns go live.

 

Updates for our preparations (we are leaving August 1) can be found here in successive posts as they develop – so please follow our blog as well. As said, after we depart, we expect to publish updates, which will include articles by Karen and Ron, photos and videos (if we get a Go Pro, we will publish Finn Cam – the record of Finn’s adventures from a dog’s eye view) every couple of days. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect.

Harry’s Thanksgiving: An Ovation of Love

In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.

He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.

Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.

During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”

Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.

To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.

It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.

“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”

He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.

This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.

This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.

“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.

Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.

After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”

The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”

She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.

“Amen,” he grumbled.

“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.

Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.

Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.

Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.

Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.

legs under tableHarry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.

He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.

He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.

The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.

It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”

Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.

Signed Copies Available

HeacockCover.inddMy short story collection from Libros Igni is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

You can also get (while my supply lasts) a signed copy.

Click on the cover image above for the direct buy page which includes all three options.

 

The Shape of the Thing

Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.

One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.

When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:

  • Identify the shape of a craft-based habit in a published work.
  • Reduce it to a general rule.
  • Apply liberally.

Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.

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 Come hear me talk  at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!

NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.

I’m Doing a workshop at Seattle PubCamp! called The Shape of the Thing

Not only is my collection of short stories coming out on the 15th of November but you can come hear me and Karen talk about Structural Mapping Techniques at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! bpt.me/852767

Here’s the short write up of my workshop:

WRITING CRAFT WORKSHOP:
The Shape of the Thing
Ron Heacock & Karen Walasek

Writers are told not to edit until they complete the first draft, because it is impossible to know the shape of your work (whether a novel, short story, memoir, etc). But when we are in the fit of the creative chaos, writers need some sort of guidance. In this workshop we will discuss and practice using structural mapping techniques that help keep the story moving through to the completion of your draft and even to the completion of your manuscript.

What Good is this MFA?

fakeGODDARDCOLLEGEDEGREE

  1. It was a great way to spend $8000 a semester of student loan money (and if I can’t get a job I will not be able to pay it back, so I am not obsessing about it, yet).
  2. I will have a terminal degree (which I thought was going to allow me to teach at college level – but I seem to be competing with every out-of-work teacher in the entire world).
  3. It will be packaged in a nice blue padded folder. (That’s nice, isn’t it?)
  4. Even though I never cared for titles, I will be able to put those three letters after my name…
  5. It taught me to be a better writer, to know a lot about literature and to conduct heady diatribes about Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector and Raymond Carver.
  6. I am more broke and displaced than I was when I started but at least I am out of the South.
  7. I met some of the most talented and original writers in the world and I will forever be part of their cohort.

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#7 is the main benefit of any graduate program and mine is no different. One through six are just a rant. Though I do love writing and found all of my reading time (and all of my creative writing time) very fulfilling – I even learned how to hammer out critical work, though I dislike it. I went to a self proclaimed progressive college called Goddard. Some interesting people have come out of Goddard: Mathew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Phish, David Mamet, William H. Macy, Piers Anthony…It is a pretty open program where you get to create your own courses. Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way easier than a traditional MFA – it isn’t. At the same time, they did not do much for my ability to teach. And my self esteem suffered while I tried to figure out if I was shit or not – but I figure every program does that to you.

While I was in my Undergrad I got to work with some pretty amazing people, Walter Butts (who’s iconic voice I can hear whenever I read his notes to me),  Ryan Boudinot and Bob Braille among them. I am officially still a student in the MFA program, so in keeping with the adage that one not shit where they eat, I will withhold all comments about the graduate program until I have that diploma in my hot little hands.

The main reason I wanted the MFA was so I could teach college. Sigh.

So looking over the precipice of my impending commencement, I have been occupied with the big beginning and ending question: What the fuck am I gonna do now?

I have been sending stories out and I got some published. I have been trying to meet some writers in my area and get out to read more. I am editing on a couple of journals – this is highly recommended.  But none of these activities are paying me anything and I don’t expect much to change even if I were to get an agent or a publisher. ANd I have been working with both, but it is a long long road.

I just don’t have enough information to predict.

Before I went back to school in 2009 we ran HillHouse Writer’s Retreat for about 8 years. Here is a link for a video we did as part of our failed KickStarter grant attempt back in December of 2012. It shows Karen’s enthusiasm and love for our farm. It also gives you a little visual information to put with HillHouse Writer’s.

But if there is one thing that living on the planet Portland for the past 2 years has taught me, it is that Tennessee is much more alien and twice as hard to make a living in – and we have been nearly homeless here.

No, if we are going to run retreats, we are not going to be able to use our house. We are not going back. But, what if we ran one week retreats in other more exotic locations around the world?

And with a nod to Goddard, the college that both Karen and I got all of our degrees from (up till the end of this year when Karen will get her Master’s in Education from PSU), we have been talking about running a 15 week packet and follow up. I guess that I should explain that a little better for those of you who have never attended Goddard.

The idea is that you figure out what you want to learn and what you are going to do to learn it. Then you create a contract with yourself and the school called a study plan. Then you spend a week talking to your assigned advisor and the other people in your advising group, attending workshops and eating meals (HillHouse had the meals thing down) and listening to other visiting writers and industry folks. Then, every 3 weeks (for 5 sessions or 15 weeks) you send a packet of your creative work to your advisor and the advisor marks your writing up and sends it back.

At the college, you do this for a few years and you get a degree (along with #1 above).

We are trying to keep it affordable, maybe around $2,000.

We are just in the planning stages, but the first retreat might be as soon as November.

I want to open the advisor positions up to others from my cohort who have their MFAs – We would all be in charge of marketing (which is a much needed writer’s survival skill that no one seems to remember to teach) so we will all get plenty of experience trying to figure out what works.

It seems a little weird to me to be arriving where I left six years ago. Of course I am more qualified now, more knowledgeable and a lot more experienced, but really. I had to do all of this work to find out that I was pretty close to the right spot when I started. Even so, it has a certain ironic logic to it.

I am looking forward to feedback about this. I invite all of my friends to chime in with positive ideas (even if they are warnings). Use the comments section on the blog so we can interact with the widest audience.

I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. It doesn’t take much time for me working for someone else’s bright idea to realize that I have bright ideas too, and that I will be paying myself more than a poverty wage on contingency. Please join me for our latest adventure.

NOTE: I added sex to the tags for this post. I was not being disingenuous. Really getting down to the guts of writing is more like sex that you might want to admit. And sex is at the root of everything, without it, there wouldn’t be any writers or readers.