A couple of years ago, right after my Dad died, I fell into this funny mid-life thing where I felt really flat about teaching – felt in fact that I had taught everything I knew how to teach – that I was doing it with my eyes closed and it wasn’t serving me or anyone else.
It started when I watched my Dad die a few months earlier. There we were, the whole family, my sisters and brother, my Mom – all of us sitting around Dad’s bed as he took his last breath. And as he did, this huge WHOOOOSH came straight from him to me and it screamed silently LIVE! As in STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH EXCUSES AND REASONS WHY YOU CAN’T DO THIS AND WHY YOU CAN’T DO THAT. It was a HUGE call to myself to wake up to what I was doing and to reflect on the things I’d wanted to do but told myself I couldn’t.
So I made a list of some of the things I’d always wanted to pursue. I got back to guitar lessons. I moved into a coaching program, I scooted around the world of commercial ethnography – and that was all great – just the exercise of trying new things was energizing. But what I really wanted to do, if I could do anything, was to travel around the country and study with all of my favorite writing mentors – nobody I actually knew – but people whose books I’d read and taught from for years.
Thing was, I didn’t have the time or the money do that. I had to work and I had my kids. So I did a funny thing – and I don’t remember how it occurred to me to do it, but if I couldn’t go to them, I’d bring the teachers to me. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years – turning my living room into the most incredibly creative learning center for me and other people. It’s purely selfish. I ask myself who I want to work with, and then I invite them and advertise it.
In the beginning it was all my favorite poets: Ellen Bass, Tony Hoagland, Stephen Dunn, Marie Howe, Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar. They are all exceptional people and amazing teachers. After every workshop I walked in circles around my house muttering, “holy shit, holy shit.” My mentor Deena Metzger has been a mainstay – a truly inspirational teacher who has changed people’s lives. This past weekend the ferocious marketing writer, Ms. Alexandra Franzen was here, entertaining a room full of women who had flown in from all over the country. She’s coming back next weekend to do it all over again. I wrote to Philip Gerard, whose books about creative nonfiction were like bibles to me. He was one of our favorite teachers last year, teaching entirely through story. The actress and writer Ann Randolph has been here and is coming back – honestly – I just saw her perform one night and knew she had something to teach me, so I went up to her after the show and introduced myself.
That’s how I met everyone, I just approached him or her and asked them to come and they did. It’s been like my own personal MFA program, but one that I get to share with a lot of other people. And it’s not just what we’ve learned – but how we’ve learned it – sitting in circles with each other floating ideas and words and trying new things. It’s been incredibly rich, not only for the students, but for the teachers too. It’s very different from teaching in a classroom and trying to cram everything you care about into an hour. We sit together for one or two days and we evoke the muse together. Just amazing. So lucky.
I hope you’ll join me for the coolios that are coming in 2013. Marie Howe will be in Los Angeles with me on February 15th for the day. Actress Ann Randolph will be in Alameda in May, and Philip Gerard and I will be hosting a 4-day workshop, also in May, in Calistoga/Napa all about finding the DNA of your book and getting it off the ground. And how could I let Alexandra Franzen go without getting her to say yes to October 2013 in L.A. and December 2013 in Hawaii on the Big Island. People, the fun has just begun!