So, I am back from teaching, and learning, at Skidmore, the site of the 30th annual writers’ conference of The International Women’s Writing Guild, attended by hundreds of women doing every kind of writing imaginable, and an extraordinarily large number of gifted and devoted teachers, in an atmosphere unusually democratic and creatively fertile. I will tell you one thing about it now: I will be back next year, my 5th year at the conference. It is that amazing.
I am still working my way to tell you a bit of a story about a painting by Jose Clemente Orozco (one of the Mexican social realist muralists (1883-1949) along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros)-“Gods of the Modern World”-a painting that lives on the wall of a library at Dartmouth College, one that I have a memory of from a long time ago as butchered, parts of the panel covered, as a living monument to censorship, mute against the wall, with Dartmouth students comfortably leaning back and reading, their feet up on the desks as if no one had ever said no to them. This was an image I never forgot. The absolute irony of the juxtaposition of the reclining students with Orozco’s powerful image, and the swathes of silence that worked to make nothing out of something.
The thing is, I read an article online in the Dartmouth News which mentions nothing like this disfiguring of the painting. Was I dreaming? Was I seeing the intention rather than the material reality? Was it some beginning of full restoration of a painting that perhaps had not aged well over some decades? The article does, however, highlight that Orozco’s murals were classified as controversial, noting especially “Gods of the Modern World,” which “depicts skeletal figures clothed in academic gowns attending the birth of infants sealed in bell jars as they are taken from the prone figure of a skeletal mother.”* A harsh indictment of academia, a suggestion that ideas in that environment are stillborn. (This appealed to me greatly at the time, as I was then a worker in a basement at Dartmouth, recently transplanted from NYC into the shock of the picture perfect town-at least “above ground”- of Hanover, New Hampshire.)
What I was really aiming to talk about today is something that I realize is directly connected to this idea of the stillborn nature of an idea, or an idea about an event, or a story, in whatever setting, if it is abstracted away from its full connectedness with other ideas/events/stories.
A decade ago I wrote a story called “Fort Hell”, much of it autobiographical. (It won 2nd place from the Asheville(SC) Writers’ Workshop’s International Fiction Contest, but remains unpublished.) I bring it up because the shock that opened the consciousness of the young girl in the story was not so much any harsh treatment or an understanding of the names she was called in the South, but simply this: “There is always a story next to the story.”
I ask you this, simply, today:
Think of a story you are writing or have written; a story you have begun to write but have been a bit stuck on; or a story you love, a story you treasure; or a story that has always confused you or felt unfinished; or a story that seems to work perfectly; or a story that seems to belong, to fit quite perfectly, into a place, a certain home or room, city or town, street or restaurant; and ask yourself this, and freewrite wildly an answer to it:
“What is the story next to this story?”
More about this in the next post.
Another quick point. I have been traveling a bit too much lately, and so at times have a little more work to do to re-enter writing than when I am home. Here’s a connected little story from a long time ago. I was with a friend, visiting her parents in Chicago. We had arrived in the evening, and they made up the living room couch for me. The next morning my friend’s dad greeted me. He found me just up from sleep, with my glasses on. He was later heard to say something like, “I wondered who that was. She looked like a different person.”
I was a different person. It was the writer who rose from the couch.
I am pushed to answer this question for myself, and would ask you the same:
Who is it that is writing?
Send your comments and writings on this, or any questions about this post, or any other questions about the craft, concepts, and issues of writing, whether story or poem, fiction or nonfiction, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the way, I am looking forward to going to the Michigan countryside in mid-August to teach again at the Leaven Center (www.leaven.org) in partnership with Demetria Martinez (please see Calendar of Upcoming Events), and I will likely be participating in The Albuquerque Labor Day Cultural Conference-Dreaming Big: Cultural Activism, Publication, Education, and the Arts in the New Century.
Save the dates: Friday, August 31 to Monday, September 3. Albuquerque, New Mexico.
For more information, please contact: Leslie Fishburn Clark, event organizer, at ABQconference2007@yahoo.com
*This quote was taken from “Continuing the story: student expands mural tradition at Dartmouth” / Dartmouth News, Posted 07/12/01, by James Donnelly.