Surprise, delight & mastery: with one’s tribe on Kenyon’s campus.
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 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
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 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:
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.
You cannot start a fire with one stick. You need two things for the text to move forward.
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.
~ ~ ~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.”
~ ~ ~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.]