If I Owned a Writing Institute


Leaving for Bread Loaf in the morning, after starting the summer at Tin House.  Next summer, I'll be returning to Fishtrap for their 25th Anniversary blow-out.  Some of my writing pals make a writing conference circuit and pile on the paying teaching gigs all suummer so they can write the rest of the year.  I vow every year that I'm not doing it anymore, but when the Loaf calls, or my new family at Tin House...or Squaw Valley...or Fishtrap...it's hard to say no.  Even though Perpetual Book Tour, Year Eight is underway, and I am trying to balance writing, teaching at UIC, touring, judging and family duties--it's hard not to try to share the joy and awe in writing with good people who want to learn.  Besides, where else can you have Benjamin Percy threaten to disrupt your appearance by sneaking up behind you naked?

Still, I dream of a writing institute to teach writing in another way.  Those of you who know me know of my mystical leanings, my Chinese wen-fu ideas, my Japanese haiku/wabi sabi proclivities, my indigenous hummingbird/dragonfly shamanic spirits experiences.  How the heck would you teach that?  Or offer it as a writing conference?  (These are, let's face it, Summer Horse Camp for grown-ups, a kind of literary Princess Cruise.)  I have to say, if only William Stafford were still with us, he'd know.  His son, Kim Stafford, one of the great writing teachers in the world today, had it going on at Lewis and Clark college in Portland--the fabled MNorthwest Writing Institute.  Until Lewis and Clark withdrew from the game.

As Steve Martin once said: "First you need a million dollars."  OK.  Say we have a million dollars--let's go to Oregon.  This is a place that seems sacred and pretty and lively and funky.  "Whatsoever it is, it gots to be funky"--James Brown.  All the great writing that sprouts in Oregon could fill a university.  So, there.  In the country--sorry, you concrete-junkies, you bus exhaust breathers and neon Bodhisattvas, this is my institute and we're out where there's some deer and water and some trees and birds.  We could be near the shore--Cannon Beach.  OMG.  Or near the Columbia River--The Gorge.  OMG!  Could be up in the fruit loop amidst cherry orchards.  If so, then we could make the workshopppers go pick fruit one morning, just to get the soul awake.  But we'd be close enough to Portland so you city slickers could get into town and gorge on lattes and hit Powell's to buy buy buy buy books and magazines.

We park across a creek from the institute--we need to walk in.  We need to  cross a wooden bridge over the water.  Just like Tin House. We have a great barn which we steal from Bread Loaf--coffee all day, conferences, dances, readings, AA meetings, blues concerts.  There is a labyrinth off to the side, and a Zen garden on the other side.  People live in cabins.  There is a small hill where we have a trailer park with cool retro trailers--authors stay here and work.  Outside the property, there is an old motel given over to bohemian writing lofts as well.

We offer martial arts, pottery, dance, bird watching, horseback riding.  Anything that reminbds us of the creative spirit we seek to engage.  Free notebooks.  A book store.  Because the Border Patrol taught me a new way to think about writing when they taught me how the track--we will have trackers take us out and show us how to read the land.

But the cool part is that every cabin has a small library of carefully selected books.  Every cabin has a full magnetic poetry set on its fridge.  The cabins have registers where you enter your poems.  And, I've written about this before--a place of deep resonance, a place of writing vibes full of actual prompts.   We call this farmhouse, The Widow's House.  No one goes there.  It has a fence and a garden and we see lights in it at night.  Once, before each participant leaves, she or he goes in alone and prowls.  Every drawer has something evocative--letters, diaries.  Buttons in boxes.  Old shoes in the closets.  Photo albums.  Toys.  And we must find a story for ourselves fabricated from the hints, clues, suggestions, inspirations the widow has left behind.

Um, we get another million and make it free.  If not, whoever wants to tend to the rose garden can get free tuition.  It'll last a week, and the rest of the year, it's a sanctuary where one can dream in peace.

That's where I'd start.

See ya there.

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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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