Cover illustration: Kyle G. Hunter; istock photo.
Milkweed Editions publisher Daniel Slager’s gift of “A Portable Writer’s Workshop” and a vital practice manual
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
The fact is that you can’t begin again, there’s no way.
But you’re encouraged by the fact that every day is a new day. It’s always morning. There’s a way of maintaining a view of the world as new.
That’s really what it’s about.
- Grace Paley
Views from The Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop is a joy and a soul mate for anyone whose life is profoundly involved with the creative act, and for this reason it will be a breath of fresh air for anyone who practices yoga.
It’s a staying-power book that will enjoy a long sojourn in my relentlessly edited piles of current reading, because I can open Views from The Loft at random and fall in immediately with a kindred spirit, someone with their sleeves rolled up who is working, too.
The Loft of the title is The Loft Literary Center, the nation’s largest independent literary center, located in Minneapolis. This book is a sharp eyed selection of columns from The Loft’s newsletter, covering everything from Teaching and Critique, to Publication and “Writing for Life.” Smack in the heart of all of it is Writing.
There’s no show biz in this book, and no soft-pitch encouragement for best-seller-eyed freshmen. Rather Views from The Loft is that rare bird – an unapologetic practitioner’s manual for people who are “in the life,” with a gritty appeal and durable humor that’s bound to attract those who practice yoga – or almost anything – with a daily hands-in-the-guts-of-it commitment and vocation.
It’s fun to hear about what works for other writers, in the same way that it’s fun to hear about any private little rituals of other people–how they make coffee, disperse their anger, buy themselves treats when they’re depressed.
When I interrupt my writing to make a pot of coffee, it is a great pleasure for me to recall Balzac working by night, fueled by the thick black coffee he drank like a fiend.
This fact of his life means more to me than any of his works that I have read.
Working from Experience, Larry Sutin.
What is lovely in this volume is the mix of late afternoon laughter and wee hour confession about the making and doing of writing; it’s the book’s celebration of high and low, feeling, thinking and technique, and above all being in the practice:
the practice of making, the practice of doing, and relating to practice as something that has a life of its own.
Real life is the material of real practice
When we talk in yoga about what we bring to the mat, we struggle together for the authenticity poet Tess Gallagher describes as the balance of reality and maturity that connects her to her readers:
I’ve never thought of anger as the main energy of my work, but I have made use of it at times. Anger is a valid emotion in one’s life. It has a certain authority that other emotions don’t have at crucial moments, and there’s a certain honesty to it that I like.
But if you are obsessed with anger, you become very depressed and you can, in a certain way, cripple whatever creative aspects you can imagine for yourself.
Likewise, Marilyn Hacker, in her essay “A Few Cranky Paragraphs on Form and Content” suggests we have to come to terms with the glib repetition of insider language in order to free ourselves from our resentment of being trivialized by it:
A fresh-faced young woman came up to me to say she’d recognized me, and she loved my sestinas.
I found myself wishing ungraciously that she’d said (instead, or also): I love the way you write about women’s friendships, or convey a sense of urban movement, or mix credibly ordinary speech with imagery. Then I’d have known I’d met a reader, as well as a probable alumna of a creative writing workshop.
Practicing yoga with a view to our own potential
Reading Jim Moore’s essay “Twenty-five in an Infinite Series of Numbers” is like eating a really perfect tree ripened peach. It’s just that damn juicy and sweet and firm. Discussing Annie Dillard, Moore lays bare the work left to do in how we teach and practice yoga
In spite of the sense of strain that almost all American essayists since Emerson have in their writing – the strain to be right, good, positive, and energetic – one finds here the pleasure of an adult as well as an ardent mind at work, not attempting to show how easy or correct life will be if only we go along with her.
An adult lets her adult readers draw their own conclusions.
An adolescent needs to convince you that he or she is right.
The key to a really great practice, of course, is refusing to phone it in.
Many of us are able to summon the strong feelings of adolescence which can feel cathartic, and practice can lend our personal conclusions a kind of grandiosity. Yet we’re less courageous, less willing to be fumbling and merely human in a genuine inquiry. We want practice to feel a certain way, to conclude on the note we script, the one that resolves things.
Likewise, if at the end of a workshop or class, a participant has the impression the teacher has done a great work, then everything that can go wrong, has. The key to really great teaching is for it to be personal without it being about you, if you happen to be the teacher. Like good writers, good teachers know how to locate and work with their own emotions, to teach from authenticity, to teach in plain sight without being a distraction.
When amazing classes happen, their practice belongs to the participants, without being appropriated by the teacher, without being colonized by the teacher’s needs or thinking. Doing practice together is instrumental in a way that insisting on teaching is not.
Moore goes on
Beware of essays that are right rather than true.
Truth is not just a specific temperature but a whole weather, the landscape out of which temperature emerges for a moment. Too many essays settle for being right, for giving us the specific temperature rather than the whole weather pattern.
These essays can often be identified by a one-note emotional tone: pissed off.
Enlarging the scope of practice
Views form The Loft is alive with inspiration like that of Emilie Buchwald telling Grace Paley, “You’re one of the writers who’s made it possible to enlarge the scope of what we can write about.”
It makes you want to be such a person, it asks how is it possible to proceed with our relationship to practice in a way that never grows rote because there’s always more to open to, always a legitimate path of engagement as yet untouched by rules or dulled by prescription.
As practitioners of yoga and as teachers we’re well advised by the terse yet passionate admonishment of poet Deborah Keenan:
I find poets who don’t read poems or poetry collections, who don’t study the extraordinary poets from past centuries, from all parts of the world, highly suspect. There’s no worse moment for me in a class or with a client that to hear that a person loves to write poetry but can barely stand to read it. What does this mean, to want to be in an art form that doesn’t inspire? Baffling.
So, keep writing. Keep reading.
Be as honest with yourself as you can be. Stop longing to be loved for your first drafts. Don’t be a phony. Don’t be a jerk or a creep. If entering the writing life, the competitions, the public area in any of its forms is making you a lesser human being, stop writing immediately.
Keep your eyes open for possibilities –
Views from The Loft is a book written in conversation, in interview and by essay, about writing with the shine dunned off it. With the klieg lights down, it’s also writing – and practice – with the patina that comes of staying at it: practice as a light of its own that has no need of being idealized.
As Rick Bass says, It’s about feeling alive.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.