Kenyon Middle Pathx

[Kenyon College’s fabled Middle Path through campus. Taken June 19, 2014.]

Surprise, delight & mastery: with one’s tribe on Kenyon’s campus.

One merit, then, of good style lies in the right use of connecting words. (2) The second lies in calling things by their own special names and not by vague general ones.—Aristotle, Rhetoric

He played with genres, including short dramatic works, and kept returning to forms which, he said, “Keep me from being stupider than the law allows.”—from a reminiscence of the poet Howard Nemerov, by his former student, Brian Volck

Kenyon Peirce Dining Hallx

[The Hogwarts-like dining hall. Gund Group photo.]

Rebecca McClanahan began our nonfiction workshop at Kenyon College each morning last week by reciting to us a poem from memory. This was impressive and inspiring. To say the least, it set a tone around yea olde oaken table.

One thing a genius does is to offer us art that’s made, in part, from our own cast-off thoughts. Or from showcasing our better impulses, often youthful, which she’s never stopped acting upon. Like memorizing poetry. I’m not smart enough myself to call Rebecca a genius. And she’d scoff, say that she’s a writer with a practice. True. But I do know one thing. Hers is the finest literary mind I’ve ever dwelt steadily in the presence of.

Rebecca began Day One with a short poem by William Stafford that contains “everything I know” about writing:


When you stop off at rehearsal you can stumble

and still be forgiven. Your shadow practices. A light

says, “Good, good,” where the piano meditates

with its wide grin, maintaining order as usual

but already trembling for time to go again.

Outside the hall a monstrous Oregon night

moans with its river of wind. It stumbles. Lights

flicker, and your shadow joins everything that ever

failed in the world, or triumphed unknown, alone,

wrapped in that secret mansion where genius lives.

Maybe it is all rehearsal, even when practice

ends and performance pretends to happen in the light

that remembers more than it touches, back through all

the rows and balcony tiers. Maybe your stumbling

saves you, and that sound in the night is more than

the wind

The author of nine books, a writer of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, Rebecca led nine of us in a seminar in Literary Nonfiction, a moniker she preferred over the more commonly used Creative Nonfiction because “creative” brings up that ugly specter of truth vs. lies and bogs everyone down in what the morass means.

This can be a messy genre, nonfiction. Itself hard to define. But so fertile and varied and forgiving—part of Rebecca’s message all week. She loved Nemerov’s line about form saving the writer from his own stupidity, mentioning it more than once in the course of our exhilarating week with her. One of her own sayings also pointed to the writer’s imperative to transcend, with form, mere lived experience:

You cannot start a fire with one stick. You need two things for the text to move forward.

[Literary mind: Rebecca McClanahan.]

[Literary mind: Rebecca McClanahan.]

The challenging and transformative aspect of the conference at Kenyon is that it’s generative. You don’t send ahead a manuscript or bring one with you. You create new work right there, from prompts given in the workshops themselves. You share it with your classmates, and at some point you read your best piece to everyone.

My most useable essay, which I read to the assembled workshops last Friday afternoon, arose from Rebecca’s prompt to make as many rhetorical moves as possible in one short piece. And from the following day’s option to employ, as well, substitutiary narration. That’s when, like Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song, you narrate using someone’s else’s diction, edging into inhabiting (implicitly and perhaps fully) their point of view.

You wrote at Kenyon when sleep-deprived and over-stimulated. Given the long day, including the four-hour morning workshop, plus three meals with intense writing talk, capped by evening readings, you were lucky to get writing by 9 o’clock at night. Maybe you were slightly drunk or hungover. You wrote into the wee hours. Then you climbed into your narrow dorm bunk with its mattress cover of crackling plastic, there to stare into space until you slept.

Writing at Kenyon was a distant cousin to pounding out a story on deadline at a newspaper. There was the same pressure and that same relieved lowering of stakes. And the feeling afterward that you’d made something—whether sublime or passable—that was the best you could do with what you had. Silk purse or sow’s ear, you shared it with your new friends. They and Rebecca helped you see a good line, a neat move, a place it vibrated with life.

And such a chatter, from every storied Kenyon path, from 100 literature- and word-nerds. Such an intense summer jam, sweet and sharp on the tongue. Such joy to be singing among your tribe under the arching canopy of old trees.

~ ~ ~

Kenyon Adirondack Chairsx

[Adirondack chairs lend ambiance to Kenyon’s campus, in Gambier, Ohio.]

david lynn

[David Lynn.]

David Lynn is chief of the Kenyon Writers Workshops, ably assisted by Anna Duke Reach and a posse of students. An acclaimed fiction writer and editor of the Kenyon Review, Lynn gave an informal talk Thursday afternoon on what the journal looks for.

“The greatest literature has the ability to surprise us, even when we know what’s coming,” he said, speaking in Finn House, home of the legendary literary journal. “Delight is a deliberately capacious word. It has to engage your emotions in some way.

“If you’re a story writer, there has to be drama—and it has to matter.”

“The third category is mastery,” Lynn added. “We have to feel the writer knows what he’s doing. The word choices are exactly what they need to be.

“There’s an illusion that it’s effortless.”

~ ~ ~


[He abides: Dinty W. Moore.]

You were apt to find yourself talking to a poet at Kenyon. The four poetry teachers—David Baker, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Stanley Plumly—had among them 38 students. Plus there were seven student crafters of handmade books, in the Literary Hybrid/Book Arts workshop, who seemed all to be poets as well. There were 31 fiction students split among Lee. K. Abbott, Caitlin Horrocks, and Nancy Zafris. There were but 19 of us in nonfiction, divided between Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore.

The students ranged in age from teenage—including a gifted fiction-writing college sophomore from North Carolina—to well into their sixties. The middle-aged set included a nun, several retired or almost-retired lawyers, plus therapists, teachers, and businesspersons. The older students seemed such poster kids for vibrant second acts.

At the workshop’s opening dinner, I had talked with a businessman my age, 59, who’d taken up poetry only in the last three years. He was there in part, he said, to learn what poetry is. Since most poetry now lacks rhyme or meter, it’s a fair question—and was an intriguing motif at Kenyon among a few poetry and nonfiction supplicants.

I couldn’t answer my new friend, but leaned on my own recent insight: in nonfiction, the developed persona of the writer is usually crucial—at least that’s an aesthetic principle in the academic literary world I frequent. Whereas in poetry, knowing who’s speaking or observing, and why, isn’t so critical.

Talking to three poetry students at the workshops’ concluding dinner Friday night, I and another nonfiction student faced their mild amusement at our accurate yet defensive Literary Nonfiction nametags.

“If they don’t use ‘creative’ or ‘literary,’ people might be confused about who should enroll,” my compatriot nonfictionist tried to explain. “We use literary techniques.”

“The genre is so varied,” I added. “I think they do it because, to some, nonfiction could be a city council report.”

“But it’s all a text,” a tall young poet replied.

Slam dunk. His was at once a generous and a sophisticated view of nonfiction. True, readers have expectations for nonfiction, presumptions about truth they might not carry for poetry. Yet serious readers know that even the most apparently straightforward news story was handmade and the product of authorial intent. Come to think of it, regular readers know that too, intuitively. Hence the rage sometimes directed at journalists, who are making meaning but who can hide behind “objective” practices that have, somehow, produced a text.

After that encounter with the poets, ashamed of my nametag’s egoistic-insecure designation, I vowed simply to call my genre, from now on, just nonfiction—it appears we’re stuck with the pejorative “non,” maybe the real problem here.

The question What is poetry? still dangled. I forgot to ask those three that.

~ ~ ~

At breakfast the next morning, our last, a poet quoted to me the answer of her teacher, Carl Phillips: “A pattern language broken by meaning.”

[Later I remembered the much more prosaic definition I used for years, given to me by a forgotten writing teacher or read in a book: The poet controls the length of the line. Which still seems the most useful yardstick, if you need one.]

Kenyon-Our Wkshp Roomx

[My workshop’s room in Ascension Hall at Kenyon College, June 21, 2014.]


  • Hi, Richard. You do so many valid and stirring things for your craft that put you in touch with so many creative and knowledgeable people. I think you are a good model for what a true literary craftsman should be. One of the prime requirements seems to be having a generous humility and a willingness to be corrected by people who presumably know what they’re doing. You show an innovative ability to re-think things when the going gets tough that I wish I had. Are we to see another memoir or nonfiction work coming out of this stint at Kenyon soon?

    • Richard says:

      Such kind words. And I am working on a few things I started at the conference, essays which fit into some themes I’ve already been exploring. But don’t hold your breath! If past is prologue, I won’t have much to show for years.

  • shirleyhs says:

    I echo shadowoperator, above, and I wonder whether this seminar is an annual event? I would love to be back in a writer’s workshop again. Last one I attended was Bear River in 2010. Thanks for the in-depth look at both literary settings and conversations. So many riches.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Shirley. It is an annual event; I believe this was the 16th. It is more expensive than some conferences because of the long residency and the teaching talent, about $2,000 for the complete week; some students opt for residential cottages instead of dorms, which cost more, and a few stay in the local hotel on campus, The Kenyon Inn. I found the experience well worth the expense, and met many students who have returned for years.

  • Nice post, as always, Richard.

    I’ve grown incredibly jaded about writing conference and workshops. At their worst, they siphon money away from wannabe writers and from those just a notch above wannabe. They’re a great way to get paid if you’re an instructor or an established brand. I hear Karen Russell is the keynote for AWP in 2015.

    Did/Do the great practitioners of nonfiction/fiction attend conferences as practicing writers? No, not really, they write … but then they don’t turn down the gig to speak or teach. It’s easy money for them and attracts the wannabes. Heck, I want to hear Russell speak, but not enough to fly to Minneapolis.

    I struggle with conferences (as a repeat purveyor). It’s good work if you can get it, and if good work comes out of it (because you’re not a wannabe), then it has its value.

    Sometimes I think, for most people who attend the Writer Industrial Complex conferences, that their money would be better spent on a plane ticket to an interesting place to write about something interestingly. You know what I mean?

    Phil Gerard (often a speaker at these things) spent time in Paris following the footsteps of Hemingway. Now THAT’S interesting.

    There’s my writers conference rant!

    • Richard says:

      I hear you, Brendan. Have thought the same things – sometimes even at Kenyon. Hearing the amazing work produced by all workshops was a partial answer, however. Kenyon was a very interesting place, and cost what a big trip somewhere would have and stimulated in the same way, albeit within a certain focus. There are conferences I will never return to, and I aim to be more and more selective, but Kenyon was special. Writers have always learned from their peers and from those farther down the road. Both are in abundance at certain confabs. What occurred to me at Kenyon is how, like endless reading, it was a way to develop one’s aesthetic taste and thus standards and thus practice. Am not sure if that will/would limit mistakes, because my writing at least seems to be a long process of fixing mistakes, but it is part of building one’s personal touchstones.

      • It comes down to taste, doesn’t it? I’m sure you’ve heard/read the Ira Glass quote on taste. If not, do the Google.

        I’m reading “The Artist’s Way” right now. It’s a tad spiritual for my taste, but that’s not really the point and Julia Cameron rebuffs that at the beginning for the agnostics/atheists (a good hedge for her).

        It’s a great read about creative block. I’ve never had writer’s block, but I have had creative block in terms of jealousy and overall bitterness. That’s a me problem I’m dealing with. I recommend it.

        A big premise to it is doing three full pages of free-form, free hand writing in the morning upon waking. Just a mind dump. You can write about how you have nothing to write about, or how Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is better than Starbucks, or the latest iOS. I’m kind of addicted to the Morning Pages now even after just four days.

        Worth looking into.

        Also, if you’re into podcasts, find Brian Koppelman’s (Rounders, The Solitary Man, Ocean’s 13) “The Moment” on iTunes. He talks to all kinds of creatives about the process, rejection, breaking through, finding those “moments” where things could’ve turned Perry or Truman, front door or back door. Also, follow him on Twitter and on Vine (he does these great inspiration Vines about writing).

        • Richard says:

          Thanks for all the references, Brendan. Sounds like you are fully engaged in continuing education, which this is all about, really. Writers, even the hairy chested Lost Generation ones who “didn’t even go to college” (now it’s “didn’t get a bullshit MFA”) are highly educated folk in their own way.

  • Ron D. White says:

    Thanks for the great story about your time on a different campus, quite moving.

    As a nonfiction worker, I decided to write a small piece about discovering that listening to discussions between other writers gives better dialogue than spending time in coffee shops. Here’s a snip from what was included in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop blog:

    “The Lit Fest booklet had the details and I circled one that jumped out as a different perspective on dialogue—The Screenplay: Form and the Visual Narrative. If I put real energy into preparing for class, it had to work. I asked myself what my last draft might look like if Chekhov wrote it. Reading a few scenes from the Cherry Orchard and rewriting some dialogue of my own felt like real learning. No Russian agent would consider me a marketing threat, but it was more productive than spending the next week at a coffee shop listening and taking notes.”

    Now I write something about what I learn in each class, including what brought it out.

    Thanks again.

    • Richard says:

      Excellent point, Ron, and thanks for sharing your passage. The cross-fertilization was so great, such a neat mixing, especially in my case between poets and nonfiction writers. But I also had a few great talks about genre and differences with fiction writers.

  • Richard, your post and photos made me doubly sad I could not be at Kenyon this year. It is a standout experience, and I have attended many conferences. Rebecca McClanahan’s teaching changed my writing life, as did the dynamic of the entire week. David Lynn and everyone on staff have created a culture that manages to set a high bar while still encouraging exploration and risk-taking. Your post made me determined to return next year.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Thank you, Marsha—I appreciate the comment, the endorsement, and the confirmation. I was thinking today that I got three essays with potential out of the week, which is pretty amazing, and was inspired to my toenails by Rebecca McClanahan as well. Her lessons and her example continue to resonate for me, too.

  • It sounds like a wonderful time. I miss going to writing conferences. When I went to them back in the early ’90’s, I was definitely in the category of wanna-be-writer. Back then, I think they were less about the celebrity-status of the writer, and definitely less expensive. But I do think they’re valuable for the same reason an MFA is valuable–they provide necessary community.

    The best literature is, in my opinion, a solo supported by the communal choir.

    A good investment of time and money, I’d say. Your report makes it clear that it was inspiring and productive.

    Just for laughs, I’ll share what I read when I skimmed your previous comment to Marsha. Somehow the P and the L in potential (above toenails) jumbled together with the C in continue (below inspired) and my banan-gram infected mind constructed: “was inspired to clip my toenails by Rebecca….” :)

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