On teaching, writing, ringing, and being rung
I spent the week before last teaching a new workshop outside Tucson, in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. As always, teaching was invigorating, challenging, an honor. We spent mornings unpacking writings from Carl Phillips, Patricia Lockwood, and Jo Ann Beard; afternoons writing; and after dinner we either wrote more or read aloud around a campfire with varying audiences of animal interlopers: five javelinas one night, a black cat another.1
My room looked out onto Saguaro National Park, home to the nation’s largest cacti, a phrase I cannot read without shouting NATION’S LARGEST CACTI like a Monster Truck Rally announcer. TUCSON! TUCSON! TUCSON!
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While there, I learned that a saguaro cactus doesn’t grow “arms” until it’s at least seventy-five years old. Not to be anthropocentric about it, but there must be a metaphor in there about aging and agency?
Coincidentally, I came home and went promptly to the dermatologist for my annual skin exam because, in addition to being someone perilously lacking in melanin, I have become a fount of seborrheic keratoses, which — as I just learned when I Googled the term in order to spell it correctly — are sometimes referred to as “barnacles of aging”!2 May I, may we all, live long enough to acquire a multiplicity of arms and barnacles, to return to the tidepool (or other aquatic environment, TBD) from whence we came.
My next online workshop is in April, and my next in-person workshop is in June, on the site of an old dairy farm on beautiful Madeline Island, Wisconsin, in Lake Superior. If that sounds like an out-of-the-way location, it is, and that’s what makes it ideal: there’s little to do but write, read, make art, take walks, and put bird names to birdsong. There are usually three workshops happening on any given week — could be quilting, sketching, floral painting, writing — and because we eat our meals at the same time in the same converted barn, a lot of cross-pollination goes on.
I wrote a newsletter about the experience of being there in June 2022, and it was also about being in Wisconsin only two days after Roe v. Wade was overturned, triggering the return, zombie-like, of a statewide abortion ban that predated the Civil War. It’s complicated, but from what I understand, the 1849 ban has since been contested and is not in effect. Abortion is once again legal in Wisconsin, at least until 21 weeks. But that week in 2022, my students were all women, as they often are, and so were the students of the two other workshops. It felt like an island of women, I remember thinking, like an island-on-an-island. It felt like shelter where we could hide from the aforementioned zombie, though we never forgot it was out there.
Anyway, I like thinking about past and future travels, because the past week at home has not been my favorite. I don’t even know why, really — just the difficulty of being a person? January, maybe. Judging by my inbox, many of us are having such weeks. When I am having a subpar week, it generally results in my having less time for writing. Typing this, it occurs to me that we might have a chicken-or-egg situation here. Whatever.
I stole a half hour the other morning to watch a YouTube video ofreading from his forthcoming third novel, Small Rain. The subject matter was not easy: it is, as Greenwell has written elsewhere, “a passage where the narrator, who’s in the hospital on bed rest and is being bathed by his nurse, considers his own body.” He says it was very hard to write. I hope it surprises no one that I sat there barely breathing for the entire thirty minutes. I had to press my lips together hard to keep from sobbing. But I don’t think it was the subject matter, or not only that. It was the emotion in his voice as he read, the quality of his deliberation, like he was speaking a prayer.
In my particular body, I notice that a certain pressure builds, a psychological magma, when I am not writing enough. Or when I can’t write my way through to a complete thought, which takes longer than you might think — days, usually. When I teach, I often hear myself say that writing is how I get “aligned”: that’s the word that comes, however chiropractic it makes the endeavor sound. Writing is the mechanism I use to find — and find again, and then again, because I lose it as quickly as I find it — a sense of alignment. It’s like using a magnet to pull a pile of iron filings into a straight line. Or, as I’ve been thinking since I listened to that Garth Greenwell reading, it’s like ringing a bell, which is really nothing more than molecules being pushed into a form of alignment that we call a sound wave. I am the bell, ringing and being rung.
Teaching brings me a similar feeling of alignment, though teaching mostly makes me feel like my best self, whereas writing is capable of making me feel like my best or worst self, sometimes at the same time and occasionally like my selves have been tied together in a sack and thrown over the side of a boat at night. There’s no other way to get where I need to go. Eventually, writing rights me.
What I call alignment might elsewhere be called purpose? A calling, maybe. I wonder how people who don’t write do it, how they get aligned. Do other art forms do the same thing? If not art, what else works? Exercise? Is this what organized religion is for (jk? not jk)? Leave a comment and tell me how you do it.