Fifty Views of the Pacific Northwest, Tin House Workshops, Family, Gardens, Walks, and Critters
I've been keeping a daily journal for a year, using a method I learned in Lynda Barry's Writing the Unthinkable class: every morning, I list ten images from the day before. The theory is that writing about my state of mind is unnecessary--the images will evoke the state of mind. So instead of giving you photographic images of my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I'm gonna do an experiment and share the way I really remember stuff. (And I promise my Sasquatch pics in a later post.)
So here are some highlights from July 4-15, not necessarily verbatim from the journal...I'll omit some names for privacy's sake.
1. Cul de sac with Mount Si looming in the background. Neighbors set off fireworks. Many of them wear matching red white and blue tie dies. Loud rocket shoots up, then bursts into falling parachutes. Kids scramble below to catch the parachutes. Most land on the roof of the family who is out of town. Toddlers cover their ears.
2. Dad shares some of the jokes he uses to warm up the singalong before the Sunday church service. "Why didn't Noah go fishing from the ark? He only had two worms." Bible Study, Dad calls it.
3. My stepmom's gorgeous raspberries. I help her pick them, trying for the higher branches. She makes a salad with raspberries, mango, homegrown spinach, and chicken, arranged in a thoughtful composition on the plate.
4. Walk with Dad to a sphagnum bog. I hear a birdsong I remember from childhood. (Wood Thrush, I later learn. Listen!) A picture is posted to teach visitors about mummies in bogs. Dad talks about sitting in cafes, researching and writing a sermon. I think we are alike in this habit, needing the pen, and books, and solitude.
5. Chipping away at Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. I find it hard to change gears and go from one example to the next. Her insights are worth the effort. Makes me want to reread Carver, and find the essays of Woolf.
6. A morning hill walk. Two young does watch me from a nearby berm. I get close enough to see how skinny and hungry they are. Worms venture across the sidewalk under my feet; some don't make it, dehydrate under the July sun.
7. Over dinner, my stepmom tells me about relatives who did subsistence farming during the depression. A kitchen garden, and enough livestock to keep them in eggs and milk. The next day, I watch her water her healthy garden. Weeding is not a big chore for her. She does it automatically, as she passes by, almost a way of greeting her vegetables and flowers. They seem to love her back.
8. Road trip from Snoqualmie to Oregon, just me and Dad. We stop in a country cafe in Centralia for lunch. So many obese people around us, I'm a little afraid to eat the food. I buy a rubber chicken to bring home to the dog.
9. Visit to my mother's sister. She tells us that for good luck, on the first of the month, her first words on waking are "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit," before she gets out of bed over the footboard. I resolve to do this from now on.
10. My aunt takes us to walk a labyrinth of a friend of hers. It's a Chartres design, paved in rough stones, and she and I walk it barefoot. The surprise of turns, it always surprises me, the trip to the center and back is not what it looks like. Soft, Corsican mint in the center, a pillow under our feet. We talk about my mom, how she would have loved this.
11. A Welsh Corgi plays the piano for cookies.
12. I attend my first Unitarian Universalist service. After the sermon, there is a period for commentary and/or rebuttal from the room. One man quotes a philosopher: "I have not told the truth until I have contradicted myself."
13. Dad drops me off at Reed College for the Tin House conference. We bring my bags up to my dorm room, and laugh about how it's like dropping me off for college. We never did this then, so it's a 20-years-delayed experience. My room is a third floor garret with three beds to choose from. He prepares his opera scores to study on his drive home. I wave as he drives away, I feel a pang of goodbye.
14. First class session with Steve Almond. He tries to guess who wrote which story. He nails the first four or so, freaking us out a little.
15. Reading by TC Boyle, with the on-campus lake as a backdrop. Several people have dogs in the amphitheater. One, a Willie lookalike, rests his chin on the seat in front of him to listen. Another, a border collie, barks during the applause. Boyle dons a beret and reads a story about a Beats groupie.
16. Breakfast discussion of the stone critters on top of our dorm. Are they owls? Beavers? That night, a mammal glide-swims in the lake behind Karen Shepard as she reads from her new novel. Afterward, I ask the sound guys if it's a beaver. No, they say, it's a nutria. It must be a nutria on top of the dorm! I can't wait to tell hubby. Nutria! I manage to catch a live one up close, he's swimming in the twilight.
17. People are blushing, disagreeing in workshop. Emotions are high but it feels productive. Almond pushes to the emotional core of the story. People seem to be trying to help without babying the writer. "It's so vivid!" Almond says, but asserts that vivid is not enough. He wants the characters to enter an emotional danger zone. My ears are wide open.
18. Several other conferences are concurrent at Reed. I eat lunch with a skinny young man from another group who has loaded his tray with sandwich, salad, soup, dessert. He gets ranch dressing all over his mouth. I'm fascinated with how he eats, can't concentrate on the homework I am trying to read.
19. I take early morning walks to a cafe in Woodstock, where they have easy chairs. I drink my latte and write in my journal. Nearby, two hipsters collaborate on a crossword. "What kind of cheese is in lasagna?" "Woody or Arlo?" I resist the urge to call out suggestions.
20. I sit in lecture next to a very talented 21-year old. She is holding her own, with people twice her age. We talk about how she researched the setting for her story. I am amazed she did it through books and movies. "I'm so shy," she worries, but I'm not worried for her. "I think we all are," I say, feeling the need for Paxil myself. A room full of writers? It will take a few days to get comfortable.
21. I flirt with some sassy crows on my morning walk. Toss them pieces of apricot. They yell at me as they fly out of my way.
22. Salad bar is exactly the same every day. Carrot and celery sticks, iceberg and spinach, cauliflower, cuke, cherry tomato, cottage cheese, hard boiled egg. Sticking to the diet, but it's monotonous.
23. Steve Almond gives us chocolate in morning workshop. I partake. I have to. He's an expert.
24. I sit in the balcony of the air-conditioned lecture hall for Aimee Bender's talk on show and tell. She leads off with a Lynda Barry cartoon. I feel high, up here, like one of my new crow friends.
25. A classmate is lost in thought at breakfast, spoon resting on her mouth, the morning before she is "up" in workshop. Later, before class, I take a walk with her around the lake and we talk about how she turned her own experiences into her short story.
26. Random guy from another class joins our lunch group and tells us about his sex life. I learn the definition of the Pittsburgh Platter. I feel a little sorry for Pittsburgh.
27. More hard boiled eggs. I'm living on them, now, dipped in Dijon mustard.
28. Lecture. Jim Shepard picks through Raymond Carver's short, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," line by line, looking for subtext. It's a precise, planned vivisection. He paces at the front of the hall, doesn't need the mic at all. He wears a blue bowling shirt. I annotate madly.
29. Steve Almond's tee shirt collection impresses us. "Chocolate Boy." "Fictional Character." A picture of the pope smoking pot. He reads, in the amphitheater, a collection of responses to right-wing hate mail. He's at home on the mic. "Condoleeka!"
30. At the participant readings, classmate shares a piece about a gay man having sex with a woman as an experiment, and the surprise of the woman's fragility, the "vestibules" of her body. I can't stop quoting it.
31. I dream a woman is pulling off the roof of our house, without our permission. We are roofless. We put up a blue tarp, like folks in New Orleans, hope it will be sufficient.
32. In the lecture hall, the border collie falls asleep on my feet. She's a service dog, and she enjoys some popularity at the conference. When she "applauds" with us, I realize she has been jolted awake by the clapping, is barking in confusion.
33. Stephen Elliott lectures on using your life as subject matter. He points out that once Jonathan Lethem allowed himself to "cheat" by using concrete memories from his own life, he was able to produce what many view as his masterpiece. Giving oneself permission is the hardest part. Elliott recommends if you write about people in your life, you should make them beautiful. Then you can say anything about them and they will not object.
34. I go into a clog store on Milwaukee and try on $135 mary janes. I love them but not $135 worth. The salesgirl has a shaved head and snake earrings. "You have beautiful stuff," I say as I leave. Then I realize she must have thought I was flirting.
35. Antique store. Bought old Childcraft encylopedias, a blast from my past, for research. Worried about the book-heavy suitcase. Bought some stranger-family photos too. One pic, a rough bunch on a camping trip, dated 1916, with axes, rifles, huckleberry buckets, and a dog. They could be my ancestors. (I will scan and post. This one's a keeper.)
36. Annie Proulx reads a story about the Devil. Later, the sky turns red, and there is lightning. I find shelter with three women and we watch the storm, talk about our writing practice and how we find feedback, systems for making writing groups work, book clubs for writers. I don't crave Paxil any more.
37. Take Friday lunch off campus, at an organic place up the hill. They have dinosaurs on the tables. A baby with a fauxhawk. Then I poke around an Episcopal Thrift Store, my touchstone. Retired ladies, tea sets, tee shirts.
38. I keep walking by an apparent anarchist house in Portland. Dandelions and spent fireworks in the front yard. Tall frankensteined bikes in the back. Very Burning Mannish.
39. Push tables together to eat dinner with my online friends from the Zoe community. We give gifts to one of us who has just gotten married. We pass around coveted advance copies of Charles Baxter's new essay book, The Art of Subtext.
40. Colson Whitehead reads from his new novel, set in 1985, kids in a beach community left to themselves for the summer. He dissects their insults, using a visual aid, building phrases like "fake-Adidas-wearin' motherfucker." He does a full rundown of frozen convenience foods of the era, including Weight Watchers and Stouffers french bread pizza.
41. I'm not "up" in my workshop until the last day, Saturday. I've fainted at these things before so I work on prevention. Some of Steve's chocolate, some water, some quick aerobic exercise in the hall. The discussion is helpful. Almond suggests I take away the "scaffolding" on the story. It hits a nerve, in a good way. I don't faint. I'm grateful.
42. Long talk with a classmate about her novel, about a woman who can communicate with animals. I want to read it.
43. Charles D'Ambrosio's lecture on conflict. He lists signs of conflict-avoidance to look for, like the character who "watches" or "wishes" he/she said something. Suggests when you're painting in a limited palette, sometimes it's good to take a wide, bold brush. It's what I need to hear and I nearly cry as I scramble to write it all down. Later, people talk about the talk's nonlinear chaos, but it felt very linear to me. Maybe this is how I think.
44. The last reading: Abigail Thomas (who I can't wait to read), DA Powell, Charles Baxter. Baxter says "Don't you love the dog?" and competes very well with many distractions--the nutria moving a log behind him in the lake, the pink sunset. He reads from a new novel, in which the protag's young child calls himself "queer."
45. The last night's dance. I take a leap and put on makeup for the first time all week. Hard to do, since we don't have mirrors in the room. I boogie with a new female friend and we admire the dance stylings of Stephen Elliott in his bright orange sleeveless shirt and heart tattoo. He knows how to work it. Several classmates have just been introduced to his work, and are staying up nights reading his new book.
46. Last breakfast, and I get a chance to tickle Josie Almond's fat toes. "Am I invading your personal space?" I ask. "She has no boundaries," her dad says. He plops her on his shoulders and she grabs hold of his hair, then pushes his head aside so she can grin at all the adults at the table.
47. My cousin picks me up, and takes me for a hike, a lake east of Vancouver. Red poison oak in sunny patches. We hear that birdsong again, and she does a good imitation of it. I haven't seen her in years, and she looks just the same. She takes me to her house, and plays piano for me. I swoon over a Mendelssohn piece. She plays with a gentle touch, and lots of feeling for the melody.
48. My cousin gives me a tour of her garden. Perennial flowers, mostly--lilies, monarda, echinacea--and lots of bees. I take pictures. Her cat follows us, but "it has to be the cat's idea." We share notes on cats. A rabbit visits and snacks on the flowers. I tell her about our aunt's "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" ritual. "We do that too!" she says. Later, her son calls, and she and her husband both run to the phone, eager to hear about his experiences at ski camp.
49. Benadryl. I'm falling asleep before I even get on the redeye flight at PDX. Snooze the whole way to JFK, am surprised at how early the sunlight hits my face.
50. Big barks from Willie, hugs from the guy I've been missing, a shower, and back to the office. Feels weird to be wearing a suit again. 400 emails. I dig in.