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Posts Tagged ‘Glen Workshop’

glen east books

These are the books I bought at Glen East. (This pile represents impressive self-restraint on my part. I could have bought dozens more.)

Most of them came from the Eighth Day Books room, a Glen tradition. Warren, the owner, drives a big blue van full of books all the way from Kansas. (The bottom book was a just-for-fun purchase at the Odyssey Bookshop, across the street from Mt. Holyoke College, where we were staying.)

eighth day books glen workshop east

Eighth Day Books at Glen East

More than simply acquiring good words at the Glen, though, I spent the week listening, absorbing, soaking them in. I listened to Kathleen Norris read poetry during our worship services every night, from Philip Levine to Christina Rossetti, from Mark Van Doren to (Kathleen’s late husband) David Dwyer. (So many people asked for the titles and poets that one of the Glen staffers, the inimitable Anna, typed them all up for us at the end of the week.)

I also relished the words of old, beloved hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” I listened to Lauren Winner’s sermon on the Hebrew letter aleph, and to Kathleen’s nightly meditations on words related to gratitude, including “gifts” and “trust” and “hospitality.”

We writers also spent hours poring over each other’s words, in print and in conversation, scribbling notes and ideas on our manuscripts and in notebooks. We analyzed what the characters say in a scene, how the narrator shows us a place or describes her own feelings, what it means to speak about your past self with the wisdom of your present self. We even studied a graphic memoir and discussed the interplay of words and images. And we listened – though sometimes we interrupted one another in our eagerness to affirm or exclaim or tell our own stories. So many hours of words.

I’ve been reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (the top book in the stack up there) since I came home. And while Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes with grace and wit and urgency about many facets of language, what she does on every page is remind me to pay attention. To cherish good words, and sift out the lazy or weak or damaging ones. To sit in silence and allow space for good words to well up, to resonate, to take root and blossom into something rich and wholesome.

I acquired a long list of book suggestions that week (the pile above is only the beginning). But I also gained something deeper, more precious, more elusive, more vital. A reminder to pay attention, to hone the precision of the words I put together, to ask why certain words and phrases and stories move me, to read with a discerning eye instead of skimming mindlessly. A reminder that words are valuable, and that it is our deep and human responsibility to use them well.

Where do you go to find good words?

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When writers and artists come together, there is music. And when the people of God come together, there is music. So at the Glen, as you might expect, we played and we listened and we sang.

mount holyoke college chapel

The chapel at Mt. Holyoke

Jan Krist ably led us in worship during the brief, nightly services, which felt like a semicolon, like a welcome pause after each long, full day of what Lauren Winner admitted, one morning as we wrapped up our workshop, is “hard and holy work.”

Talking and listening and thinking about craft and purpose, and holding each other’s stories, on and off the page, is both difficult and sacred. So I found it fitting that Lauren began each class session with the same words that opened each worship service: “The Lord be with you.” Each time, sitting around a large wooden table with pens in hand or shifting in our chairs in the high-ceilinged music hall, we responded: “And also with you.”

I wasn’t sure what hymns we’d be singing together. This was a wildly diverse, ecumenical group, and I was prepared to hear (and try to sing along with) songs I didn’t know. But on the first night, Jan’s gentle chords led us into a hymn I’ve been singing all my life, one I haven’t heard much in the last few years:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above
Of Jesus and His glory
Of Jesus and His love…

With Kristin singing alto on my left, and Kari and Stephanie on my other side, I closed my eyes and thought back to my dad singing scraps of this song around the house, while he took out the trash or unloaded the dishwasher or puttered around on a lazy Saturday. I thought of singing each verse in the small brown sanctuary of the little Baptist church in Coppell, where I learned the words to so many hymns that still live deep in my bones.

And then I opened my eyes and looked around at the room of novelists and artists and poets and songwriters, memoirists and sculpture artists and people who make all kinds of art, every day. I had barely met most of them, but I knew: this is one thing we’re all trying to do.

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest…

We spent the week telling each other our stories – over breakfast, lunch and dinner in the spacious dorm dining hall, over glasses of wine at the bar across the street, over a wide assortment of beverages in the lounge, until the wee hours, every night. We began to explain who we are, where we come from, what we write or paint or sing about that won’t let us go. But we also spent the week reminding each other of the story we’re all telling, the one we sometimes wrestle with and question and even throw off for a while, but always come back to in the end.

I love to tell the story
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

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After my rich, nourishing, thoroughly enjoyable week at Glen East, it’s been a difficult re-entry. Boston feels grey and gritty and overstimulating after the lush green cocoon of South Hadley. After a week of leisurely meals, late-night talks, blossoming friendships and so many good words, it feels a little cruel to be thrust back into commuting and email and the thrumming bass note of traffic downtown. (Though I am grateful to see my husband and catch up with friends.)

mount holyoke college gazebo

Gazebo by the lake at Mt. Holyoke

Re-entry after a powerful experience has always been a struggle for me. This was the missing piece at every church camp I attended as a teenager. After a week of fast-paced fun and emotionally charged spiritual highs, what next? Our youth ministers meant well, but I always felt poorly equipped to make the experience (or what I’d learned from it) last.

As I boarded the bus to leave Oxford in 2004 and then in 2008, the same questions pounded in my head: What now? How do I re-enter my regular life without feeling jarred, and how do I take what I’ve learned and transmute it into that life, so the changes I’ve experienced here don’t fade away?

“How will you go back and live differently?” my friend Janine asked me in 2004, as we walked in University Parks Oxford (and as I wept at the thought of leaving). I didn’t have an answer, but that is still my question after every life-changing experience, whether joyous or tragic.

This time, the question (or its permutations) has to do with both my writing and my life. How will I look at the world differently, based on what I’ve learned and thought and felt and seen? How will I keep asking thoughtful questions about my writing, particularly in the absence (or shifting) of the Glen community? What do I need to jettison or limit in my daily life, to make space and set aside energy to do the work I love? How do I let the good words of the Glen permeate my daily life, make it fuller and deeper and richer and more true?

be here now smith college

Wise advice at Smith College last week

I’m feeling the need for a few practices (writing and non-writing) to ground me, to “grid my growth,” as Julia Cameron says, and to spur me to keep a gentle discipline rather than falling back into writer’s block and laziness. Some of these non-writing practices (cooking dinner, washing dishes) can’t take shape until we return from yet more travel. But some – writing every day, underlining beautiful sentences in new books, paying attention – can start now. In the middle (this is key) of the questions and tiredness and frustration.

How do you re-enter after a life-changing experience? What practices do you use to nudge you a wee bit closer to the ideal life, to the big questions, in the everyday?

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I spent last week on a green quiet campus in western Massachusetts. I spent hours curled up on a narrow bed in a monastic, light-filled dorm room with a window onto a lake, writing and reading and relishing the quiet. And I spent many more hours sitting around tables with fellow writers and artists, talking, writing, wrestling with big questions, laughing, singing, even crying a little.

mt holyoke college lake glen east

I left with a dozen or more new ideas for the book I’ve been trying to write for four years, a mile-long list of poets and novelists and other writers to look up and try, a new band to listen to and love. I left with a series of heartfelt bear hugs and a collection of email addresses and Twitter handles and phone numbers. I left with the unmistakable feeling of having been among my people.

glen east workshop 2012 worship

Listening on the last night

This is a rare tribe: a group of Christians with diverse denominational roots, many with painful stories of having been hurt by the church. Some of them have left church and come back. All of us have wrestled, continued to wrestle, with the God who grappled with Jacob, and with the way His story gets played out in the world by groups of fearful, imperfect people.

They are also – let it be said – a heck of a lot of fun. From the opening wine-and-cheese reception (at which I had a glass of wine with Kathleen Norris, one of my heroes) to the closing dance party, from late nights in the lounge telling stories to a fun free day exploring nearby towns, we had a ball. I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks.

glen east dance party chalkboard

The inimitable Lauren Winner taught our memoir workshop class, by which I mean she led discussion of the manuscripts we had all submitted beforehand, and asked so many good questions that my brain is still spinning. She is wry, quirky, thoughtful and brilliant, and our group of memoirists shares those traits. They are kind, generous, respectful and intelligent, and the level of discourse – about writing and life – was consistently high.

Kristin (my roommate/workshop-mate) and me

I’ve dreamed about going to the Glen Workshop for years, since I discovered Image and its excellent Good Letters blog as a college student, thanks to a creative writing professor who pointed me to both (and to the MFA in Creative Writing that shares a birthplace and a lot of the same excellent people with the Glen). All the pieces – time, cost, location, faculty, emotional impetus – never fell into place until this year. But when they did, they fell into place perfectly.

I’ll be sharing more specifics in the days to come. But for now I want to say: what a nourishing community. And I am so grateful to be part of it.

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