Monday, June 25, 2012

Voices from Beyond

In Ginny Brock's By Morning's Light: The true story of a mother's reconnection with her son in the hereafter, is a warm, sad, happy exploration of how people can connect even after death. When Brock's son Drew died suddenly in November 2008 at 26, she was unprepared to lose her youngest child. No one is, but Brock opened her mind and heart to the possibility that he was trying to connect with her.

Drew asks his mother what happened to him five days after he passed from unknown causes. Her account of guiding him toward the light calms the reader and her son, releasing him to cross over. Over the next year, Drew returns often, arriving in a rush of energy, sometimes materializing, sometimes appearing in thought only. Brock isn't the only one who communicates with her son. His sister and brother do. Many of his friends call to report "Drew sightings."

As the year progresses, Brock moves through deep, almost unfathomable grief to a lightness of being, at one with her beliefs and her son. Because she studied Buddhism, meditation and Native American mind-body-spirit connection, she was open to reconnecting with her son.

Brock belongs to a group of mothers, her earth angels, who belong to a unique club none of us want to join: mothers who have lost their children. Her story recounts how a stranger reached out after learning of Drew's death and offered understanding and a shoulder to lean on. Other earth angels came forward, until the local group grew close. They meet to help survivors overcome the miasma of grief over the loss of a child.

Brock doesn't ask you to believe what she does. She doesn't ask you to change your mind about connecting with people after death. What she asks is, read her story with an open mind. If you change yours, great. If not, she wants readers to know that "We all go on. We don't die. We can reach across dimensions."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tinker Mountain Wrap Up

I waited a couple of days to organize my thoughts about Tinker Mountain 2012. I kept thinking about the 2011 workshop and how it compared with the 2012 workshop.

At the 2011 workshop, I had to privilege of studying fiction with Fred Leebron, director of the program and one of the leaders of the Queens creative writing program. As with the 2012 workshop, we had almost more people than we could handle, but Fred made sure everyone was critiqued. We had so many fresh voices at many different stages of writing. Some, like Cliff Garstang, already had a book of short stories in print. Others, like me, had been writing for many years but still wanted to improve our grasp of our craft. And, lastly, we had several promising beginners who were just starting on their writing path. 

Fred has such a good grasp of the fundamentals of the craft. He walked us through places where we could improve our manuscripts by employing new techniques. He gave us a lot of writing prompts to help erase writer's block. I've kept in touch with a few of the writers through e-mail and Facebook. 

Dan Mueller's workshop on writing about trauma was a totally different experience. Each of us approached trauma from divergent perspectives. We wrote about genocide, child abuse, divorce, cancer. Each brought to the workshop personal traumatic experiences we wanted to render to readers in personal essay, fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. 

The first night when we received our manuscripts we were all strangers. By the end of the week, we had bonded into a supportive community. Supportive? Yes, we supported each other's writing with solid written critiques and discussion. We supported each other's personal traumas, because it immediately was obvious we couldn't separate the writer from the trauma. We laid ourselves open, exposing our warts and stretch marks, our pain, our stories of deciding to be survivors rather than victims. 

We had so many new voices. I want to read the rewrites, the finished products, of each workshop member. We survived. I came away from the workshop stronger as a writer, more centered as a person, perhaps more compassionate towards those who've survived things I can't imagine.

Dan Mueller is to be commended for guiding us through the depths and emotions of a very intense week. I recommend this workshop to anyone who wants to write about the dark places with compassion and care.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tinker Mountain -- Day 4 -- Life in a Sorority House

A writers workshop is all about the manuscripts we review, the people we meet, the instructors who bend our minds and challenge us to write better--and living in what feels like a sorority house.

Last year, all of us were housed in a dorm. Big long hallways. Small rooms. No carpeting in the rooms. Quasi-communal showers. This year, that dorm is undergoing HVAC work, so we are housed in an old 1889 house that was converted to be a row house or a sorority house.

It reminds me of my sorority house during undergraduate days. My room is bigger than the dorm room, designed for two residents. I'm too set in my ways for any roommate other than my husband. I'm glad for the privacy where I can read manuscripts and weep as I see fit.

I used to stay in a row house when I'd visit friends at Berkeley or Stanford. Same thing. Communal living at its finest and worst. Showering in large bays separated by thick plastic curtains that never hung properly. Steam made them billow into the next area, leading to curtain fights that were comical. Ever try washing long hair while being attacked by curtains from either side. Eventually, you make peace with the curtains and get on with your business, but at first you really miss your bathroom back home.

This sorority house is air conditioned, at least. Those old row houses had open-window air conditioning, when the windows weren't painted shut.

One thing is missing. Panty raids. Nothing was more embarrassing than having to "buy back" your bras and undies from some frat guy who stole them in a drunken romp through the house.

I miss panty raids.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tinker Mountain -- Day 3 -- More Readings

Writers workshops come in many different sizes and colors. We have workshops on poetry, fiction, memoir and trauma. Why trauma? Because the subject matter requires sensitive treatment. Writ small, and the story could be just one person's cathartic experience that has little interest or value to a larger readership. Writ large, and the story can be melodramatic. Writ right, and the story moves the reader, demands much of the reader and gives back for that demand.

Yesterday we reviewed and discussed two different types of traumatic events. Both were creative or narrative non-fiction, meaning that they were representations of actual happenings in the author's life.

One poignant story was about a girl breaking free of her family and returning to college on a snowy night. She's done something no one in her family has done before and she's scared. She hears whispered memories from her parents that she's wasting her time and should get a job. Nothing learned in old books can be useful today is her father's opinion. She has to trust a stranger to help her get to college after she misses the last connecting bus. Her internal monologue as she wars between trust and distrust make the piece worth reading a second time.

The other story was about revenge fantasies. A mother wants revenge for the near-rape of her daughter. She buys how-to books on revenge, learns how to shoot, researches poisons, thinks about running the man down with her car. The narrator takes us on her journey with humor that never approaches pathos.

Both stories were solid drafts. Both could be improved. Both evoked strong feelings.

Only one emotional meltdown. That's to be expected. We are treading on toes, pouring acid on open wounds, surfacing memories we'd rather not think about. And today we begin again. I'm equipped with my readings, my trusty green pen and tissues. I've done my homework. I've cried already over two pieces. And I will probably become very emotional over one particular piece. I can't wait to get started.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tinker Mountain -- Day Two -- Getting Down to Business

Yesterday, my workshop met for the first time. The opening meeting is all about introductions and the beginning of trust. No, no one sang Kumbaya or Getting to Know You. This was more about what motivates us to write about traumatic experiences that happened to us or to someone close to us.

We agreed that we have a passion to tell our stories. Some are painful; some are redemptive. Others are downright terrifying, but all are stories we must tell. I don't think we are going to keep things hidden in this workshop.

While this is not a group therapy session, we will be dealing with stories about the dark places and monsters that don't live under the bed. Some live out in the open. We have stories about disconnected, alcoholic parents. We have a story about a peeping tom turned into rapist. We have stories dreaming about revenge. We have stories about wishing you lived in a different family, that Lucille Ball was your real mother. We have stories about dissociation and wanting to be anywhere but where you are.

We have stories with humor and others utterly devoid of humor. Most of all, we have honest representations of emotion. And that's sometimes hard to read. It's even harder to sleep after reading the next day's materials.

And so today we begin with our first workshop discussions of three stories. I marked them up last night and added lots of marginalia and end notes. I bled green ink all over the stories, underlining what I liked, questioning what I thought didn't work for me.

Bled green ink? Does that make me an alien???

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop - Day 1

Today is the beginning of the annual Tinker Mountain Workshop at Hollins University. It is also my second year in a row attending. Last year I studied advanced fiction with Fred Leebron. This year, I working on writing about trauma with Dan Mueller.

The group gathered last night for dinner, introduction, distribution of reading materials and poetry and fiction reading by two of the instructors.

Dan issued an interesting set of instructions: go back and read a four-page handout. Pick one quote that resonated with you. Read the student writings but don't mark on the pages. Today, we are to go back and reread the student materials, this time with pen in hand. He wants comments on every page, marginalia and paragraphs of explanation on each piece. Glad I brought two new green pens...

I read the first three student writings. I am blown away. They are very personal, well written and sometimes painful to read. I am going to get so much out of this workshop.

More tomorrow. Or maybe later today. Who knows? I don't.