Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More from VSC: Community and Its Discontents

The community of artists here is an extraordinary group, and being among them has helped me in another crucial way I did not foresee. Looking at myself through their eyes, and sharing this experience with them, I am reminded of something I've believed for years politically, but as a white woman never really experienced, or experience only in limited ways, such as among activists. It's something I've never experienced so fully as a writer: that one's identity, to be healthy and whole, cannot be just an individual thing. We are social animals, we are a communal people, and we understand who we are in the world, to a large extent, by knowing we are not alone, and by constructing our identities in part from those with whom we surround ourselves. Culture and communal experience/identity are not luxuries, but necessities.

I have been blessed with some microcosms of such community in Denver: the women who have befriended me and with whom I've shared stories and craft through my dear friend Karen Sbrockey, and, before them, my classmates at UCD, including Nancy Stohlman; and the first regular workshop group I belonged to, organized by wondrous poet-activist Laura Hershey. Nancy has continued to be a great source of writing community for me, as has wonderful Rikki Ducornet, whose support, friendship and mentorship are a large part of what got me to VSC.

But there are 75 people here, and--in fact--no one who doesn't identify as an artist. We eat every single meal together. We support each other's work. We are each other's social life, to the extent we choose to be. We share houses and studio buildings. Our little bubble is ridiculously self-contained, but sometimes one needs that space, however temporary.

It is not paradise, despite the amazing food, and people can be assholes and jerks here just like anywhere else. Not everyone respects a certain "code of honor among thieves."

And there have been infuriating issues of sexism, racism and agism here, which some of the women have been working to resolve, with seemingly little effect. The sexually predatory behavior of some of the over 50 crowd of men has been focused exclusively on the 30 year-old-and-under crowd of women. A 39 year-old fart like me, with gray hair, a wedding ring, and interest in very little besides my work, doesn't seem to interest them anymore, thank God (finally, something to love about aging!).

The younger women have been really thrown emotionally off-kilter by some of this crap, and continue to be victimized by it. Because I haven't witnessed these events, I hear about them after the fact, mostly from young of women of color, to whom I offer my listening, solidarity, and rage. They're unfortunately satisfied with the former; I keep asking what we should do together with the latter, or what they would like me to do as their ally. Sometimes it seems to help them just to have an older woman validate their experience and reassure them what's happening to them is unacceptable, can and should be fought.

They've confronted some of the people involved, and taken some of the issues to the staff; not everything has been taken to the staff, and there is little they can do if they're not aware this is going on. But the staff should be aware, because I'm sure this is not the first group in which this has happened, and there needs to be a much stronger discussion or training at the beginning of each session, and with each visiting (faculty) artist, regarding what constitutes sexist and sexual, as well as racial, assault since so many people seem so unclear on it.

I am particularly unimpressed with the lack of solidarity from younger men here. Independent of the women of color artists, I hope to have my own conversations with the staff here, and I doubt strongly that I will try to come back here unless things change dramatically. As much as I got out of it, the apparent apathy of the staff in response to these problems is really damning. These are not little problems. This should be a safe space for all people, and young women should not have to deal with sexist and sexual verbal assault, as well as young women of color dealing with racism as well.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Update from VSC

My time here at the Vermont Studio Center is coming to an end on Friday, three days from now. I'm sorry I have really not updated you, but not sorry for the reason: Every moment that I possibly could, I've written, or edited, or re-read work to figure out where to take it, and since you all sent me here to do that, I feel good that that is where my time has gone.

I have gotten a great deal done. I have finished four stories from the short story collection based on my time in Palestine, and have begun five new stories. I'm hoping to have very rough first drafts of three done before I leave. The collection of my work I intend to send all my donors by the end of February will include the completed stories, and as many of the new ones as seem fit for distribution at that point.

I spent a fair bit of time reviewing all of the half-done writing I have been working on for the past ten years. I was shocked to realize just how much there is. One of the pieces I revisited is a novel I began several years ago and then laid aside. I had convinced myself it was one of those first novels which is just grist for the mill, and not sophisticated enough to be worth finishing.

But when I re-read what I have--about one-half of a first draft--I was surprised and happy to realize that I'd put in some real effort developing story and character. I've gotten enough distance from it now, too, to be able to look more critically at the arc of the story, and the characters, where the piece wants to go and should go to speak to its best self.

The question for me always is, is my skill up to the ambition of the piece? I worry about that, but if nothing else, this residency has been very good for teaching me that I can't critique or improve a work I haven't written, and that my fear is no excuse for not doing the writing. I carry such a ridiculous fear about doing things badly that I have kept myself from doing so many things I've wanted to do in my life--or, I've intentionally done them in a half-assed way, setting myself up to fail, because I feared giving something my all and failing anyway.

My time here has not healed me from my fear, but it has reminded me that courage means showing up and doing the work even-though you're scared shitless, which I am. It has helped tremendously being surrounded by a bunch of artists who are just as scared, and many who are not.

So, this novel...I was talking with an artist here who is also a psychic and he said, "Yes, you must finish it." Helpful. It needs a great deal of work, but there's enough of a body there--and a good premise, I think--so once I complete my story collection, that one's next up on the list.

Working on the short stories has been a very intense process. I've gotten thrown a few times by other writers' stuff, manifesting itself at times as a demand that I categorize the work unequivocally ("Is this memoir or fiction? What is it?"). However, I've also gotten tremendous support for ignoring the cartesian impulse and just doing the writing, waiting for it to tell me what it is. Interestingly, these two groups of people have fallen down almost exclusively along gender lines (I'll let you guess which gender espoused which position).

Also, especially the past week or so, I get so deeply into the space I was in while in Palestine that I begin to re-traumatize myself a bit, and it is hard to pull out when, say I have to go work in the cafeteria, or sit down to a meal, or go to a reading. I remember something Gina Huett told me about playwright Eugene O'Neill, how he would go into his study to call up all his old demons and write those amazing plays, but when he came out of his study hours later he would look ten years older. In O'Neill's case, the drink may have had something to do with that (smile). But being here, I've begun to feel a sense of what she means. It's almost like I'm in a trance state, and it's very, very hard to resurface.

The last week especially, I talk to myself--in public--constantly. I'm dialoguing with characters, with ideas, with possibilities and with history. Anywhere else I'd be hauled away by men in white coats, but here no one really thinks twice--if they notice at all. We're all "crazy" here--it's refreshing.

On the positive side, though, I feel for the first time in a long while like I'm involved with Palestine again, like I'm doing what little I feel I can right now, for those I love, and those whom I do not love but also do not wish to kill, as Adrienne Rich might say. Of course I write for me, I write because I'm a writer and because I love to write--because I can't not write. I can't write assuming or even hoping, necessarily, that my stories might make a difference--that can be crippling and also poisonous to the integrity of the work, not to mention lead to painfully self-righteous prose. All I can do is try to bear witness, as authentically as possible, to what I saw and lived, which is what I promised myself I would do when I went to Palestine all those years ago, and work to produce something which hopefully does not offend one's sensibilities with its awfulness.

Saturday, January 20, 2007



words, in this order:
truck full of body parts.
child without a head.
calling myself human, after this.

your survival. why we die,
breath by breath, apart.

what we are doing there. what
we aren’t doing, here. how
we rise each morning, find
our wrists in tact come twilight.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Day One

"It's a cold rain./It's a hard rain./Like the kind you find in songs.
I guess that makes me/the jerk with the heartache/here to sing about how I've been done wrong." --Ani DiFranco, "Done Wrong"

It's Day One at the Vermont Studio Center, the rain (and brief sleet of the early morning) has stopped temporarily. The sky is pregnant with more water, and I am nervous. Open the computer. Yikes--now I actually have to use the damned thing.

So here I finally am, my own studio, still smelling toxically of fresh paint (need to open the window before I pass out), new desk, new lamps, bare and clean bulletin board above my desk on which I'll put a photo of Mark once I buy some push-pins. The river outside my window is running really high. I haven't decided yet whether to move my desk under the window (currently to my right). If I do so, I'll have the sky and trees and houses on the opposite bank of the river for my constant visual companions. But because of the height of the desk, I may lose the river. I'm not sure it's worth that.

Hmm. No success opening the window. Need to ask maintenance for help. I opened my door (it opens to a hallway) instead. Doesn't help much because the whole hallway was also just painted. Good thing United lost the suitcase with all my clothes in it, otherwise I'd probably be wearing my snow boots, which reek of water protectant way worse than the paint. I'd have brain cancer by tomorrow.

I'm not avoiding writing, just warming up. My writing muscles are cold and stiff from disuse.

The community of people here is interesting and impressive. I am trying hard not to be intimidated by them. So far I've met one woman I like a lot--Yoon-Soo, of Massachusetts (originally from Korea). Like me, she's at least in her late 30s if not 40s, and she was here once before as a writer doing prose-poems about her relationship with her mother. When she asked me how I got started writing, I laughed and said, "Well, you could say it's how I survived my mother as well!"

I woke at 6 this morning, immediately turned my alarm off and went back to sleep. Woke an hour later, feeling like I could sleep all day, but wanting to get off to a good start, so I got dressed, went and had breakfast (oatmeal with peanut butter), then packed up all my stuff in my room needed for writing and hiked the very short distance to the studio building. Need to run a request over to maintenance to ask their help opening the window--I'm starting to get rather sick, and no it's not just anxiety about being alone with the page.

I started here at 8:30. I'm now going to run my maintenance request over to the Red Mill Building (our cafeteria, the offices, the lounge, and gallery) and see if maybe United brought my bag. And go get my water bottle.

I'm not avoiding my writing, I just can't breathe.

More later.