When I was in the first grade, my class took a field trip to Santa Claus Land, an amusement park in southwestern Indiana. My mother gave me a quarter in case I had need of it. Maybe I’m thinking about this because it’s Mother’s Day, or maybe because this happened in May when it was hotter than it should have been, and at a time when there was no air conditioning in our school bus. The point being that on the drive home, everyone was extremely thirsty. Parched, I guess you could say.
I just got back from the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where for some odd reason the weather was much cooler and much rainier than here in Columbus, Ohio. So much for my plans to enjoy some hot, sunny days. That’s all right. Sometimes it’s better for a writer to delay his or her gratification.
At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”
Sunday morning, and I’m thinking of my students who are about to graduate, and another Sunday when I was fifteen, and my mother was working in the laundry at a nursing home in Sumner, Illinois, where the population was around 1,000 at the time. She had to be at work at 5am, which meant I didn’t have to go to church because my father wasn’t interested, which meant I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted, which meant I was walking the streets just to be out of the house.
Maybe this is nostalgia, or maybe it has something to say about the work a writer does. I’ll leave that up to you.
I was a boy who didn’t understand the things my father loved. I had my sights set in a different direction. Each spring, before I graduated from the eighth grade, and my parents made the decision to move back to our downstate farm from Oak Forest, IL, where we’d been living the past six years, we’d often make the five-hour drive south after school was done on a Friday, so we could spend that night, and the next day, and Sunday morning on those eighty acres my parents still thought of as home.
It’s MFA thesis defense season, and that has me thinking about the best and the worst things that can come from such an exercise.
I remember well my own thesis defense in which I was told all the things I’d done wrong in my slim collection of stories. Helpful? To the extent that it gave me things to pay attention to when I continued writing, thinking all along about what sort of writer I wanted to be, what world I wanted to inhabit, and how I wanted to represent it in my prose, yes. Encouraging? Not much.
A series of articles has appeared lately about the inclusion of the rural poor in a university’s attempt to admit a diversified group of first-year students. Syndicated columnist, Ross Douthat, writes, “The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.” I was one of those working class whites, and when it came time to make my college choice, it was simple. We had a community college twelve miles from my home. I knew how to drive there. I knew that after two years, I’d transfer to Eastern Illinois University, an hour away from home up Illinois Route 130. That’s what people did in my neck of the woods. I would follow the path that others had set for me. I never even considered the quality of these schools. They were what I knew, and what I knew felt comfortable. That’s about as far as my thinking about college went. I never considered other options. Even the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana seemed like a school meant for other people, but not for me. I came from a small town of a thousand people. The year I graduated, our high school had an enrollment of 132 students. My class had twenty-eight people in it. Nearly all of us were the children of working class parents.
Help me out here. Last week, I was in the audience for Famous Writer X, who had been invited to my university, and whom said university had paid a handsome sum. We were a diverse audience, made up of community members, university dignitaries, faculty members, graduate students, and a large number of undergraduate students. In short, this was a very big deal, and the audience filled a performance hall in our student union.
Recent proposals to privilege those college students who major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), by charging them lower tuition than their peers who major in the humanities have me feeling more than a little cantankerous. I remember a piece by John Ciardi that I first encountered when I was a new teaching assistant at the University of Arkansas. I want to share a lengthy excerpt from that piece, “Another School Year: Why?” I know that blog posts shouldn’t be this long, but this is an important issue, and I can’t think of a smarter and more eloquent response to STEM than these words from Ciardi:
I was fortunate enough to be on a panel at this year’s AWP conference in Boston with Mort Castle, Alice Hoffman, John McNally, and Sam Weller. What did we all have in common? An appreciation of Ray Bradbury and original stories published in the tribute anthology, Shadow Show. The panel, “Shadow Show: Writers and Teachers on the Influence of Ray Bradbury and Other Genre-Bending Authors,” took place during what’s usually a deadly time at AWP, 4:30 on Saturday, the last day of the conference. By that time, many attendees have already caught flights home or are too exhausted or hung over to make it to the last sessions. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to find our room filled with people, some of them standing in the back. The questions and comments from the audience after the panelists’ remarks were lively and stimulating. I’ll tell you this: there was a good deal of love in that room, enough to lift us up and send us home with the exhortation from Sam Weller, channeling the spirit of Ray Bradbury, to write. “Why aren’t you writing?” Sam thought Bradbury would say to us. “Go home and write.”