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Many bars have competed for our attention this week and certain crowds seemed to gravitate to one more than any other.  Generally you could find faculty, for instance, at Mory's.  And the (mostly, but not exclusively) young, late night crowd at the Anchor.

We generally were at Ordinary.  Tasty cocktails.  Good service.  Dark paneled walls and a collegiate feel.

Last Monday, the final night of session one, the main room ended up completely packed with our people.  Yale Writers' Conference people.

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Last night Tanya, Ploi, and I spent some of our final night there.  We recognized no one else in the packed room.  Being a Saturday night, I'm sure it was filled with locals.  And we don't know very many of the session two people anyway.  We were so tired we only had one drink.

At the table in the center of the room, as we walked in, a young gay couple were sitting.  They had their arms wrapped around each other.  Big, tender, sexy smiles on their faces.  They kissed.

Not a gay bar.  Just ordinary.

Beholding Beauty

I will miss the beauty.

As I ran this morning I noticed all these little details that I've missed every other time I've passed them these two weeks.  And that happens every day.  You see a relief you didn't see before.  Glimpse a hidden garden path.  View a building from a different angle or in different sunlight, with shadows angling across the facade.

Every walk is framed.  Shadow and light dance with the buildings.

All while there is music.  The clanging of iron on iron as the gate opens and closes.  The birds' songs.  The babbling fountains.  The ringing carillon.  Laughter of young people.  Instrudmental and sung music that arises at the most unexpected moments.

Our very place has created space for repose, for restoration, for reflection.

I will miss the beauty.

Session Two: Memoir

There are only about 24 hours remaining in this year's Yale Writers' Workshop, and I'm trying to soak it all in--the architecture, the noises of the campus, the warm sunlight, and the conversations with other writers.

Session two has not included the master classes, craft talks, and publishing panels of session one.  It is devoted solely to workshop.  Most of the time not spent in the class I've been reading and reviewing the work of my classmates.  Also in this session, the workshops are genre specific, and I'm in Robin Hemley's memoir class.

My group is very different from the session one group.  The first group spanned in age from 22-83.  I commented toward the close of that session that the group included four generations of adventurous women who while young set out into exotic parts of the world in a daring and confident way that made for exciting reading and conversation.

In session two I'm among the youngest in the group.  There are only two men, besides the teacher Robin.  Many of the memoirs are about deeply personal traumas--a difficult pregnancy, how to grieve a mother's death, a terrifying fire, the sudden death of a young husband, etc.  One of my classmates said yesterday as we walked away, "That session was almost as much therapeutic support group as writing workshop."

Yet, in the midst of the workshopping of people's writing, Robin has been guiding us and teaching us about memoir.

Robin said that writing each book is like learning to write all over again.  Among the major problems that writers face are: self-doubt, impatience, procrastination, and getting bored by your own work.  It's hard to finish a book if you aren't obsessed.

Real writing comes in the re-writing, so get everything down first.  Remove the scaffolding where you tell yourself what it means--assume that your reader is smarter than you and will figure it out.

He has focused our attention on the prologue of the book.  He suggested writing a prologue before beginning the work, somewhere in the middle, and a new one when finished.  It's a good exercise in helping you to figure out what the book is about, and then what it is really about.  

He's also discussed the self in memoir.  He quoted Anais Nin, "We have a multitude of selves inside ourselves."  When writing a memoir, you are creating a certain version of yourself.  You are speaking with a voice from a specific time in your life, but also with the voice from the time you are writing.  Both should be in the book.  Your multitude of selves all collide in who you are today.  This is a helpful suggestion to combine with ideas from the first workshop where the readers wanted material that I didn't want to include in this particular memoir.

In this regard, he believes that you, as the writer, can comment during the telling of stories because there is something of a time machine quality.  One thing we go to a memoir for is to see a mind at work on the page.  Memoir also helps to bring back a lost world, even if it is about yesterday.

Therefore, he believes that a writer of non-fiction must show and tell and not follow the old adage of "show, don't tell" all the time.

One student wrote a memoir in which she inhabits the mind of other characters in the story, telling it from their perspectives.  Robin said that this works and is okay as memoir, that the genre categories of fiction and non-fiction are mostly marketing categories anyway.  We have to have sympathetic imaginations, including entering into the characters whom we dislike.  Also you have to ask where you are complicit.  You can't be the hero, but must interrogate yourself at all junctures.

You do need the entire life of the major characters.

In a Prologue you should pre-empt the readers question "Why am I reading this?" by telling them what is at stake.

We discussed the ethical issues involved in writing about other people.  Writing about family, he said, is different from writing about other people because you are part of it and its stories, they are yours.  You must write initially without censoring yourself, because you can always take things out later.  Lisa Page gave me the advice that you also must write it all first before talking to people about it; you can always discuss it with them after you write.

And those are my notes from the first three sessions together.  We have one more tomorrow that will also include the workshop on my piece.  This afternoon I have my one-on-one meeting with Robin.

It Hurt a Little

Last night I posted what I read for my student reading in session two.  One reason I read something different from what I read in session one is that I wanted a chance to follow up on some feedback and revise this particular section.  

One part that changed was the First Kiss story at the end.  Here is how it appeared in the draft I submitted last week:

My “First Kiss,” according to the story I told whenever telling that story came up in conversation, was in Kindergarten when Kristie Holstein kissed me when our teacher Mrs. Hampton was away from the room.  The kiss completely surprised and shocked me.  Kristie and I did end up being “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” off-and-on through third grade. 

Except that that oft-told, sweet, and innocent story from my past isn't really the truth.  My first kiss was in Florence Rousseau’s preschool Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church when I kissed a boy, and I got in trouble.  Some Sunday school teacher whose name I don’t remember despite the lasting influence she had on my development said, “Bad men do that, don’t ever do it again.” 

It was a long, long time before I did. 

And that's the story of my “First Kiss” that I should have been telling all those years.

As you can see, the changes developed the scenes rather than simply me telling about these moments.

And making these revisions held some surprises for me.  For one thing, it hurt a little.  It is pretty simple to say "when I kissed a boy, and I got in trouble."  But opening up to my memory and recalling from 36 or so years ago what he looked like and how I felt and what prompted me to kiss him--all of that hit a nerve.  The memory, in full, came rushing back.  And as I began to cry, I said aloud, "Oh fuck."

So, I learned something about how powerful and painful that moment reamins, and not as an abstraction.  Never before had I spoke or written the details, "He had sandy blonde hair and a pale complexion and for some reason in that moment, when we were playing with blocks, I felt overcome with love and affection for him."  

And, yet, there is some small sense of liberation that I already feel in having written this story and re-encountered these emotions.  Maybe it is peeling away the layers of shame and repression.

Which leads to the further realization that finishing this memoir and doing with it what I've learned this week, will lead to many more moments like this.  I know that partly because of how painful it was to write some of the scenes that I wrote years ago.  I think I thought all the really tough scenes were behind me.  They aren't.

Not Much to Report

Not much to report from today, the first full day of Session Two.  This morning they gave opening remarks, which I skipped as they were basically identical to what we had heard our first day.  Instead I did my laundry and worked on the three pieces that were being workshopped today.

During lunch I sat with Lisa Page and discussed the ethics of writing about family and friends, an issue which is very important to completing my memoir.

The afternoon was spent in workshop.  Robin assigned an excercise plus the response letters for each paper we did.  Plus, we need to work on the pieces for tomorrow's 9 a.m. workshop.  

And we learned at lunch that we'd be reading tonight instead of having hours to work on all of that.  So, about 1,000 words assigned for tomorrow, and no time to get it completed if you intended to eat dinner or sleep during the night.

I did post the reading I gave here.

Now to work, and an early morning tomorrow!

My Session Two Reading

Tonight my class did our readings.  I decided to read a different selection than what I read last week, but first I revised it based upon feedback I received in last week's workshop. 

In first grade Mrs. Henderson gave us an assignment to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I have no artistic ability, so the picture I drew is a sketch, mere stick figures, with no aesthetic merit.  In it I am standing at a pulpit, preaching.  There is a row of pews.  And on that first pew I drew my mother, sitting and listening with a smile on her face.  

I gave Mom that picture, and she still cherishes it.  

The picture has taken on the role of myth for Mom and me.  By that I mean a story which helps to structure and understand my life and my world.  It’s the sort of thing that can be called as evidence to remind me, “This is what you’ve always known you were going to do, who you are supposed to be.” 

Growing up I had many great experiences in church.  The fun of summer camp on Grand Lake.  The Sunday School teachers who loved me and taught me the skills they thought necessary for the good life.  The moments during worship when I felt part of something large with meaning.  But I now look back at those years with much regret. 

I was endeavoring so hard to be the good kid, to be the person who my church and the adults around me wanted me to be that in the process I didn't fully live. 

Many people in that world are paranoid, afraid of those who are different.  They are afraid of sex and body issues.  They are so afraid of what their kids are going to do that the messages you hear as an adolescent are constantly negative—“Don’t  listen to this music,” “Don’t think those thoughts,” “Avoid people who do these things.” 

There were lessons in which we were taught the evils of rock music, how the Beatles were trying to lead children into disobedience and rebellion.  Of course, we didn’t listen to the Beatles; it was the 1980’s.  But no one angered these sensibilities more than Madonna and her intentional mocking of religious imagery. 

But I liked Madonna.  We had been warned about how dangerous her song “Like a Prayer” was, filled with sexual imagery and burning crosses.  But I really liked that song; knew all the words.  When it played on the radio, I was tempted to sing along out loud, but I didn’t.  I was too afraid to be a sinner.  Yet internally I’d be: 

When you call my name it's like a little prayer
I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there 

The whole time wondering if maybe I was courting damnation. 

I try to give a charitable read to ministers and teachers I had.  They were well-intentioned, kind-hearted people who probably knew that most kids would only listen to them a little, but then go ahead and do whatever they were going to do anyway.  

What they didn’t realize, I don’t think, is that for a kid trying as hard as he could to live up to everyone’s expectations, who really took this religion stuff seriously, those messages were suffocating.  I took them to heart and constantly felt that I wasn’t good enough.  That there was something wrong with me. 

Whenever asked to tell the story of my “First Kiss,” I would tell about that time in Kindergarten when Mrs. Hampton left the room momentarily and without warning, Kristie Holstein jumped up from her desk and rushed across the room, grabbed me, and planted a sloppy kiss on my lips.  

Kristie and I did end up being “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” off-and-on through third grade. 

Except that that oft-told, sweet, and innocent story isn't the truth.  My first kiss was in Florence Rousseau’s preschool Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church when I kissed a boy.  

He had sandy blonde hair and a pale complexion and for some reason in that moment, when we were playing with blocks, I felt overcome with love and affection for him and just like we did in our family, I demonstrated that feeling by playfully kissing him, and then, some Sunday school teacher whose name I don’t remember despite the lasting influence she had on my development said, “Bad men do that, don’t ever do it again.” 

It was a long, long time before I did. 

And I don’t remember ever seeing that boy again.


Session One and Session Two

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Monday night there was a final reception for the participants in Session One.  Then huge groups were out drinking late into the night.

Tuesday morning after breakfast folk were heading out, many to the train station.  Chris was very helpful in taking Christie, Melissa, and me to the station.  Finally got to say goodbye to Raqi who was there as well.  Said goodbye to Christie.  Melissa and I were on the same train.  She departed at Harlem station.  In Grand Central I ran into Rob, who was also on the same train, though we didn't know it.  That was the last of the session one goodbyes.  I made good friends in those ten days and am glad that Facebook will facilitate us keeping in touch.


I arrive in New York about 12:30 and walked from Grand Central to Central Park where I had my required hotdog.  I visited Bethesda Fountain, that sacred spot so important in my story because of its role in Angels in America.  Found a nice rock to sit on in some shade and rest for a while.  Eventually made my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for my first ever visit.  What a mess that place is.  Finally worn out by it, I headed back to the Park and eventually took a nap on a lawn.  It was a blazing hot day in New York.  I only seem to be there when it is blazing hot or bitter cold.

Mekado met up with me around 6:45 at Columbus Circle.  We dropped stuff off at his place in Hell's Kitchen and then went for dinner in the West Village and Big Gay Ice Cream after.  I collapsed and slept till almost nine a.m.


Wednesday morning we walked the High Line, visited Chelsea Market, and looked over the Hudson River.  Then lunch at Burger Joint, which is tucked into a hotel.  Followed that with a couple of hours browsing MOMA where a special exhibit was showing Jasper Johns' work of 2012-2013 and the painting Regrets/Jasper Johns was marvelous.

Then back to Grand Central and the train back to New Haven.  Arrived just in time to change for dinner, which I had had time to shower first.  Had dinner with my new workshop group for session two.  Our teacher is Robin Hemley.  Then drinks with Tanya and Ploi.  Tried Skyping with Michael last night, but was having computer issues.  This morning I'm tired and have a headache and it's raining cats and dogs again.

Mortality is a Great Deadline

Then after dinner on Sunday night, Melissa and I had decided to meet up for drinks, and it looked like Rudy's was the option that was open.  Heading there I grabbed two snickerdoodle at Insomnia Cookies.  We ended up with quite a gang there.  Christie told about going on a date with Robin Williams when she was younger.  And Stephanie shared about her uncle and his efforts to unite the Orthodox churches in America.  Here's his book.  There were lots of questions about denominations, and we had a spirited debate about how boring Johnny Depp's acting choices have been over the last decade.

One thing that was fun walking along the streets of New Haven last night was that pretty much every restaurant or bar I passed, there were Writers' Conference folk inside, and we waved at one another.  Plus, I kept running into others on the street.

After a couple of beers (I owe Tanya one later in the week), I came on home before getting too exhausted so that I could watch the season final of Game of Thrones!!!!  With that fresh in my thoughts, I somehow slept.

Today, Monday, is the last full day of session one.  Many people are departing today and tomorrow and others will be arriving on Wednesday for session two.  Those of us who are staying are starting to gravitate toward one another.  At breakfast this morning I met Jack, an Afghan vet who is working on a play.  I'd seen him around all week, but we hadn't yet chatted.  He'll be here for session two, and I look forward to more conversations.

Folks are starting to become Facebook friends as well.

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In the morning was another Master Class, but with mine past and no papers to workshop for tomorrow (though I am behind in reading for session 2!), I decided to enjoy this pleasant, sunny day by walking around parts of town I hadn't yet visited.  This included the inside of Beinecke Library to see how the sunlight filters through the translucent marble walls (later we learned that tonight's closing reception will be there).  And the university's war memorial and University Commons, which someone at lunch described as "Better than Hogwarts."  

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Clarissa joined me for those ventures, but wasn't up for the Grove Street Cemetery, where I enjoyed the trees and flowers and roamed about, encountering the graves of Lyman Beecher, Eli Whitney, Noah Webster, Roger Sherman, and more.  At Roger Sherman's grave, I stood reflecting upon those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, and I was moved with gratitude and awe.  My own emotion surprised me.

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Then I strolled up the street nearby lined with spreading trees, beautiful houses, grand halls, and towering church steeples, before another pass around the city Green.  It is so strange walking out of the university bubble and into the workaday world and the dramatic signs of poverty with all the benches occupied by persons apparently without homes or occupation.  

Rob from Sydney and I had our final lunch together.  He heads to Austin, Texas next.  On this trip he has already been to Turkey, Slovenia, Spain, Portugal, and some other places.  After Texas he goes to Honduras.  Yesterday, Addie set out on her cross-country road trip, something she has been longing to do from childhood.  She and her boyfriend are headed from her family's home in Richmond, Virginia to their ranch in the Sierra Nevadas.  They'll be traveling through Nashville, seeing the Gateway Arch, exploring the Badlands and Black Hills, visiting the great National Parks in Utah and Arizona, and arriving at last in the mountains that she loves and that beckon to her spirit.

This afternoon Nicholson Baker gave the craft talk.  Rob, who was in his master class, had warned me.  And the warning was accurate.  No prepared lesson or talk, nothing that would assist us with our writing.  Ostensibly the presentation was on "What helped me to learn writing," but it was a series of personal stories and reflections, some amusing or interesting, but I was bored and find myself dozing, ready to flee the lecture hall when the session was over.  Apparently not everyone felt the same way.

But I did take away the one line "Mortality is a great deadline."

So, in order to not waste anymore moments in life, I laid out in the hammock in the courtyard for more than hour reading and napping and soaking up the sun.


Final Days of Session One

Session One concludes this evening, so the last couple of days we've been saying goodbye to those who are leaving.

Saturday night there were more faculty readings from Marc Fitten, Colleen Kinder, and Xu Xi. Christe, Tanya, Rob, and I then took in some great falafel at Mamoun's.  Afterward we hung out a Mory's with a big gang of conference folk. 

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Sunday morning was our final workshop.  Toward the close I told the group that one thing I had enjoyed about them was that we had four generations of adventurous women--Nancy who is 83 and is writing about living in Saudia Arabia in her twenties; Christie who is writing about hitchhiking from Cape Town to Cairo in 1971 when she was in her early twenties; Colleen who shared a story of visiting a Cairo market in a burka; and then a number of twenty-something women, including Lynnsay who wrote about living in Tangiers and going running on the streets.

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Sunday afternoon I visited the Yale University Art Gallery before taking a nice nap.  Then there were student readings in the evening.  After the readings, which ran late, I went out with three folk I hadn't hung out with before--Marylou from Tampa, Eng from Australia, and Margaret from San Francisco who already has three novels published.  Here is her website.

Eng is of Chinese ancestry, was born in Malaysia, now lives in Australia, and travels the world, including nine countries last year, among them Iran and Mongolia.  Oh, and Antarctica, which isn't a country, of course.  She is a microcosm of the great global citizenship represented at this conference.  Take my friend Clarissa who was born in Chicago, grew up in Germany, and was educated in New Zealand.  Remember when in it was sufficient to have been to Europe a couple of times to be considered a traveled person?  Compared to most of the folk here, I'm a homebody.  

Discussing this with someone this week, I forget who, they said, "Americans don't know what's coming."  Meaning that Americans as a whole have become so provincial while the rest of the world's educated are going global with their experiences, their educations, their languages, their residencies, etc.

On a more practical note, I'm behind on reading the papers for session two!