>Learning to See (and write) Sunsets


Published author Scott Morris says we write to reclaim a part of our life—a fitting tribute—that it’s a strong human desire to make your mark. Quoting G. K. Chesterton, who was writing about prehistoric cave drawings, Scott said, “They took the time to paint.”

He said this just as I was beginning to add the watercolor

to the pen and ink sketch I was doing while Scott gave his craft talk Friday night at the 2008 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi.

Scott lifted us up from “the crush of gravitas” into the “vibrancy of the world that Dante creates”—midway through his life!—dropping gems on our heads like, “Certain things matter, even if they appear to have no apparent usefulness to our lives.”

Earlier in the day, Scott had addressed each of the workshop participants with personal responses to our introductions. He wanted to know more about us, as people, before he led the critique sessions. My workshop submission is a chapter of my memoir-in-progress, and his advice as I move forward with the work was priceless:

“A memoir must be artful, and not just real. Even if you’ve lived it, you must get up above it and distance yourself and spin a good yarn.”

He said that Walker Percy (one of his favorites) did this through relationships and faith. I think those will be crucial to my efforts to “get up above it” as I continue work on my memoir.

Scott has two published novels, The Total View of Taftly, and Waiting for April. I brought both of them home with me from Square Books and can’t wait to read them! There’s a good review of “April” here. His third novel is still looking for a home. He also has a really good article in Esquire.

Later, Jere Hoar, speaking on “The Heart and Soul of a Story,” would add to Scott’s advice about memoir (and all) writing:

“We all want to reach back and reach forward and connect with our people. This is why we write…. Tell your story for your descendents and for yourself.”

But then he introduced us to the watcher in the shadows:

“If you decide to publish, the watcher in the shadows will say, ‘I can’t write this—what would so-and-so say?’ The watcher kills your ideas. He says, ‘make that softer,’ and ‘round that a little.’

(Jung and Freud picked up the concept of the watcher from the poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller , when they spoke of the ego, who judges everything.)

“In the case of the creative mind, the intellect has withdrawn for a while. The watcher is not at the gate…. The watcher rejects too soon and discriminates too thoroughly.”

Jere went on to tell about the writer, Gail Godwin, who actually wrote a letter to her watcher. You can read her story about it here.

It’s not that we should reject the critical functions that are necessary for the work of revision and marketing and all that comes later, after the creative work is done. Jere said that critical and creative functions are separate functions, and we must learn to keep them that way.

Jere, with two published books, The Hit and Body Parts and a number of short stories also published, encouraged us to “try to hit the ball over the fence—you won’t, very often—but you might, sometimes.” And his last piece of advice: “Accept the help of your subconscious.”

The hits just kept on coming all weekend, with the poet and Ole Miss writing instructor, Beth Ann Fennelly giving a reading Friday afternoon and a craft talk on Sunday morning. It was my third time (and place) to hear Beth Ann read from her new chap book, Unmentionables, and it’s always a treat. But her talk on Sunday morning was like a semester writing class in one hour. Her topic was: “Remembering, Desiring, Fearing: The Writer’s Sources.”

Simply put, there are three basic human things, or wells, from which our writing springs—memory, desire and fear. After having us participate in reading (aloud) several short examples of poetry and prose that focus on these sources, we were given short, hands-on writing assignments in response to them. Our “take home” following the class are three pieces that could be the genesis of essays, or could infuse our works in progress.

This was one of many “aha” moments for me during the weekend. What I wrote, in the eight-minute limit we were allowed, which had to begin with the words, “I remember,” will definitely become part of my memoir—a part I had not consciously remembered until yesterday morning during the workshop.

Neal (M.O.) Walsh, who was our critique leader at the 2007 workshop, was overall coordinator for this year’s workshop, keeping us on task and lending his wit and wisdom to every aspect of the weekend. Neal was one of Scott’s MFA students at Ole Miss, and now teaches in the MFA program at LSU. Whether he was reading us one of his published short stories, introducing speakers, coordinating transportation to our catfish dinner at Taylor Grocery, or hosting open mic sessions, he was always available, and always encouraging.

At the end of the weekend, he gave us back our writing samples with his own personal critiques, although this wasn’t required of him this year. Unselfish and generous, that’s Neal. We had to cajole him into reading one of his stories, “The Guy Who Thought He Knew Me,” during open mic on Saturday night, as he didn’t want the spotlight to be on himself.

A fourth color on the palette of our weekend was another storytelling performance by Rebecca Jernigan. She brought along a friend, Wendy Garrison, who accompanied one of her stories (about delta blues man, Robert Johnson) with slide guitar, and another with sign language. I couldn’t resist capturing them for my watercolor journal…

Wendy taught the group to sign, “A story, a story! Let it come! Let it go!” Here’s Daphne, signing “Let it go!”

(Wendy will be an instructor at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic July 4 weekend.) . I bought her brand new CD, which was just recorded at the Lip Studio in Oxford this spring. When I was in Hawaii a few years ago, I fell in love with the sounds of “slack guitar,” and Wendy’s “slide” technique reminds me of those soulful sounds from a completely different culture.

My fellow participants at the writing workshop are another color on the palette that made the weekend such a beautiful creation. Folks like David from upstate New York, and Mike, who moved to Oxford from California a year ago, brought an “outsider view” into the group of otherwise native Southerners. There were two of us who submitted a chapter of our books in progress; four who submitted short stories, one shared an essay, and another, a trilogy of lyric prose-poems.

We learned so much, not only from the faculty, but from each other… About this craft we are all in love with… About genres other than the one we have chosen…. About each person’s little piece of the divine (Hermann Broch, “The Drop and the Dream,”):

It’s a weak little flame, it’s all we got to our name, so why be ashamed to let it burn?

As Scott reminded us during our final critique session on Sunday morning:

An artist can capture a moment—like a sunset—with the intense fascination of a child. A writer can sometimes be jaded—we develop shorthand for our experiences that can kill the freshness. We must break down the experiential shorthand we’ve developed, go back to those moments and choose words—not clichés—that are true.

We helped each other begin to break it down during these three intense (and hot!) days in Oxford, Mississippi. Whether we were at work, red pens in hand, on our fellow writers’ pieces.

Doing our “homework” on the balcony at Square Books.

Or kicking back with drinks at City Grocery, sharing stories and backgrounds.

Or reading our work at open mic at Boure’s late into the night.

Enjoying catfish and music at Taylor Grocery and taking in the local scenery—the art galleries and Big Truck Theater, an old tin shack and equally historic hydrangea bushes.

Remembering what Scott said, that our senses are so heightened when we fall in love, that we can actually see a sunset, I think about being in love with writing, like Elizabeth Berg said. Scott said that lovers are selfish and often act like children. He restored the child-like-ness that our spirits need, in order to take all this wisdom and inspiration back to our homes with us… to help us break the code.

I’m like a kid in a candy store now, back home with palette so full from the weekend. Full of my notes from all the craft talks. And with my teachers’ and fellow writers’ notes, lovingly written on my manuscript. And with the colorful images and sounds that slipped under my skin as I walked down the streets of Oxford and Taylor, in and out of art galleries and clothing stores, or sat near the musician’s corner at Taylor Grocery listening to the unknown singer, trying to really hear the music over the loud voices of people eating catfish and sharing their own stories.

I’ll close with a sincere, albeit inadequate, salute to everyone who was part of the feast that the 2008 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop was. I wish you were all here in Memphis with me, so I could hug you all and raise my glass of champagne to each of you and say:

Thanks for reminding me why I love sunsets, Scott.
Thanks for giving me the courage to write the truth, Neal and Scott.
Thanks for the brand new tools for my toolbox, Jere and Beth Ann.
Thanks for putting me in touch with important memories, Beth Ann.
Thanks for infusing my writing with the words and music of soulful people, Rebecca and Wendy.

Thanks for your courage and willingness to change your life, Mike.
Thanks for your honesty and for sharing your story, Sharon.
Thanks for your tenderness, and for your colorful, well-crafted story, David.
Thanks for your joyful spirit, your humor, and your skillful images, Michelle.
Thanks for your beautifully woven stories, and your continuing friendship, Doug.
Thanks for your candor and brilliance, and your love, Katherine.
Thanks for pulling me out of the darkness and making me believe in myself, Daphne. And for Showing Up with your Beautiful Song—even when you don’t yet know whether you want to sing it, write it, paint it, or teach it.

Oh, and for Michelle, think of me when you wear the hat… I’ve worn it in Chicago, Oxford, Jackson (Mississippi,) Seagrove Beach, Florida, New Orleans, and of course, Memphis. And watch for its appearance as the latest addition to my
“hat gallery” on the left side of my blog. You wear it well!

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