Excerpt on the Re-Cap of Mills College Workshop: Geography as the Body

From Ruelle Electrique’s “Geography as the Body & Inherited Landscapes: A Shamefully Overdue Re-cap on the Mills College Workshop, November 18, 2012”:

Political Content Engagement Writing Workshop

Absolutely and positively late in re-capping but still here it is, an overview of the Mills workshop that your salonniere was invited to as a guest speaker hosted and organized by the gracious and talented writer and publisher melissa r. sipin , sponsored by ANAKBAYAN East Bay, TAYO Literary Magazine, Philippine American Writers & Artists and Mills College. The Political Content & Engagement Writing Workshop was a series of five free writing workshops where participants from all age ranges and from across the Bay Area also performed at a reading gala and had their work published in the “i am ND” anthology…

…When it came time for writing, yours truly created prompts to play with ideas on memory and/or cultural amnesia regarding native land, family, culture and tradition. The students wrote about body and space, concerning their hometowns of Vallejo, Toulumne, Los Angeles, and my neck of the woods, Paradise Hills in East County San Diego. The slides below are from the presentation on “Love & Labour: Geography and the Body” where writers explored their childhood neighborhoods and were challenged to describe their homes as a lover or an old friend.

Read the entire excerpt here.


Past the Halfway Point

Colony Hall in the snnow
Colony Hall in the snow

Just past the mid-way point at MacDowell, a lot can happen in the space of a week and change. The second week has brought snow, snow plows, a visit with family from Maine, and sightings of one turkey, much bigger, blacker and more shy than California turkeys, a squirrel, which are fuzzier and have white bellies, and finally an interlude of birdsong during a freezing truncated walk through the woods.

It snowed the third night, and the next morning they were plowing the road with such industriousness that yours truly

Eaves Dormitory
Eaves Dormitory

could only think how grateful I am not to live in Russia. Witnessing such hard labor in contrast to the virtually immobile exertion committed in my studio made me consider the usefulness and practicality of this skill I’ve been bent on honing at MacDowell, but that worry was struck down pretty quickly when I turned back to the projekt at hand, and I have no doubt about the urgency of this piece. For a small moment of time, I almost compared the work between plowing snow to revision, trying to clear the path, for others to journey is arduous, sweaty, nerve-wracking, labor, and there is always plenty to plow.

a snowy day in the studio
a snowy day in the studio

One of the many traditions practiced at the Colony is for fellows, or colonists as they’re called here, to give presentations of their work, whether it be a reading or an open studio, you’re encouraged to share your artistic endeavors. The idea wasn’t that appealing, really, until a fellow explained that its best to present earlier rather than later during residency so that other fellows will have much needed context in terms of why you’re here and what you’re doing. This context cements a substantive foundation to conversations at dinner, breakfast, random encounters on the hallway or on the way to the studio. The whole purpose of the colony is not just for individual, solitary work but to be a part of the community, and being a part of a community means sharing. So, yes, there was a reading, and it was gratifying. In explaining my work to this crowd, I have a better grasp on how to explain what I’m doing, which not only helps keep me on track but also helps clarify the concept, so I can share with other communities as well.

Prometheus up in here
Prometheus up in here

I’ve heard it said that the artists who step through MacDowell are the “cultural matrix” of U.S. Arts & Culture. A fellow colonist, over dinner, urged us to imagine all the different figures who have stepped through the doors and walked these grounds. The idea is over-whelming, frankly, and something I will have to sit and live with long after my time here is said and done.

If its possible, the projekt seems to be instructing me on what needs to happen next with revision. Its as if the manuskript is teaching me how to write. How is that?

With ten more days left, I’m trying to prepare myself for the return to someone else’s fantasy that I participate in, which I refuse to call “reality” because, as far as I’m concerned, living in this artistic mind and physical space is my reality.

More to come on the last week. For now, its steady and deliberate work on writing. Though I haven’t nearly gotten as much reading done as I had hoped, which is something I would like to work on, the art of reading, but there’s still time. One can always try.

snowy night at the colony
snowy night at the colony

On To MacDowell

Out of my wildest dreams, 2013 starts off with a three-week fellowship at the nation’s oldest arts colony, MacDowell founded in 1907 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. If yours truly wasn’t also accepted to The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland for June this year as well, I’d be suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome. And below is why. A shortened list of some of MacDowell’s past fellows and the projects they worked on during their stay should give plenty of reasons for doubt and legitimacy. Sally Field, I feel you.

Marian MacDowell in front of Edward's log cabin, the Colony's prototype studio. Archival image.

Aaron Copland
Meredith Monk
Duncan Sheik
Nick Carbo
Amy Bloom
Lan Samantha Chang

Louise Erdrich (known to have worked on one of my all time favorite novels, Love Medicine)

James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room)
Eric Gamalinda
Jessica Hagedorn
Garrett Hongo
Allison Landa
Rick Moody
ZZ Packer
Nzotke Shange
Lysley Tenorio

From their website:

The mission of The MacDowell Colony is to nurture the arts by offering creative individuals of the highest talent an inspiring environment in which they can produce enduring works of the imagination.

The sole criterion for acceptance to The MacDowell Colony is artistic excellence. MacDowell defines excellence in a pluralistic and inclusive way, encouraging applications from artists representing the widest possible range of perspectives and demographics.

So, what will this soon-to-be-fellow do at MacDowell? A game plan would be nice though a very near and dear writer friend called just days before departure with her advice since she’s been to Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and East Anglia. She was adamant about not expecting too much: “You’re not going to get everything you want done, but you will get what you need.” Echoing the wise words of Mick Jagger, she confessed wishing someone had told her that during her residencies.

The expectations thus far have waned and waxed with anticipation, and we’ll see which if any come true, knowing that as my partner’s ukelele instructor once warned during a music lesson, a creative person is never satisfied by their creation, prepare to be perpetually dissatisfied and to feed off your dissatisfaction.

With that in mind these goals may sound abstract but here they are: to tighten voice & style or at least have a stronger sense of each. Not that the entire projekt will be tightened but a firmer grasp on voice & style, and how it changes from character to character, from start to finish, just a keener sense on what each of them are and their evolution would be wonderful. Which leads to the question about structure. Does voice and style dictate structure? Is it vice versa or do the two really have nothing to do with the other? Perhaps that question will be answered on the Eastern seaboard.

More than anything a mental map of where this projekt needs to go is the ultimate aim, and that map needs explicit directives on voice, style, structure, and tone, knowing that all of this should evolve from one chapter to the next depending on character and progression of plot.

This residency is not only a good chance for the physical, mental, and spiritual kick in the arse as all good travel is since I’ll be clear across the country in a completely new and snowy environment. There’s also the mingling with other writers, painters, musicians, architects, sculptors, and who knows what these encounters may bring, but the relationship that is utmost in mind is the intent to gain a newer, closer, almost incestuous, yes, I said it, intimacy with the projekt. Even after five years, it still feels so much of a foreign beast. Is there anyway that the projekt might feel like a part of me, an extension of self? And in getting to know this piece better, getting skin close to it, is there a possibility of taking Writing to a different level? To not just make this art a second nature but first? That may be asking too much.

Satisfaction with dissatisfaction. If that’s one guarantee, I may just be ready.

If you have advice about New Hampshire, Boston, cold weather fun, what do and what not to do at residencies, and or creative-making, I’m all ears. Happy 2013. May yours be a healthy and bright new adventure!

@ Mansfield Studio

and my studio Mansfield in the mist

What is the latest at Mansfield Studio at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire? And who has been the greatest at Mansfield Studio? Mansfield Studio is a spacious hideaway just a seven minute walk from Colony Hall and Eaves dormitory, which is where yours truly finds herself hard at work for the next three weeks. Equipped with its own fire place and bathroom sans shower, an enclosed but chilly porch for sipping hot cocoa, and two desk spaces with enough room to dance the shivers away. Mansfield might be the space where I redefine my role as a writer and where I am renewing my vows to the act and art of writing.

Who has been the greatest at MacDowell? Each room has a set of boards, called headstones, where past fellows inscribe their name and the date of their stay, some of the greatest, though by no means not all include: ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, Tillie Olsen, Richard Yates, R. Zamora Linmark (two fellowships at Mansfield!) Jean Valentine, Tayari Jones, Mary Jo Salter, Susan Steinberg, Julie Orringer (who I worked with in grad school, thank you Julie, your wise words stay with me even today). Rosellen Brown, and Rick Moody. So in the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve tried to channel the best of these great writers, who have paced the floor where I now pace, stared out the window, possibly pulling their hair as I do now, and rested on the bed staring at the ceiling. These are the artists and writers I know in my limited experience though the headstones span all the way back to the turn of the century.

Check out R Zamora Linmark

Since arrival, the first thing one may notice is how astoundingly loud a single, individual mind can be. The silence is deafening meanwhile my brain has been screaming to make up for the void of sound. In the dormitory, the most noise you’ll hear is the clank of the furnace when it switches on, which can seem thunderous compared to the moments before and the moments that follow. The studio is twenty time as quiet, and my brain feels like an airport. I can’t seem to shut off the flow of thoughts, words, song snippets, and random dialogue with myself that manifests in instinctual reaction to the utter noiselessness. Obviously some meditation is in order here.

a misty afternoon

What happens at MacDowell stays at MacDowell, particularly the meals, which are outrageously decadent. Soon as I arrived my first dinner was a hearty serving of ginormous pork chops with a cherry and red wine reduction, and someone offered me a gin martini. That’s right, gin, not vodka. Blessed be. The next night, lamb as the main course and cream puffs for dessert. We enjoy baskets of lunch delivered to our doorstep, and I’m trying my best to keep working past noon, so I don’t stand at the door like a panting dog, Pavlovian conditioned.

the daily basket of lunch


Aside from stuffing ourselves silly and hanging out like college kids again in Bond Hall, we are here to work, and there is plenty of work happening. Its twenty-four, seven. Someone is always away @ their studio, no matter the hour or deep into research in the one building that has internet connection. The underlying idea here is that each fellow forges a new, more committed relationship with their craft. I really feel like I’m renewing my vows and wonder how my role as a writer, my relationship with writing may gain a different and/or deeper meaning in this completely new and wholly dedicated context. Its exciting, the evolution.

There are readings almost every other night and open studios for artists who want to show their work. I’ve met architects, composers, photographers, poets, writers, ceramacists, and painters. What is easy to take for granted but is most sacred and special about this fellowship is that the process is prized above all. It doesn’t matter what you end up creating. Its not really about creation or a finished product, at all, but about creating and even thinking about creating. One doesn’t have to necessarily create. I consider a stay here the equivalent of those long peripatetic walks that the Romantics took. As much as it is about the act and art of creating, what this time and space encourages is the meta, being conscious about the form and matter of the act of art-making.

work in progressIf not in the morning then in the evening someone is bound to ask how the day went, and that question has an entirely different meaning here than in any other context. There’s an unspoken understanding if the day went well or was steeped in hair-tugging frustration. Asked the same inquiry a couple of days ago, I could only respond that I felt like I was in the boxing ring, going to toe-to-toe with a beast of manuscript I had sworn to tame. Now I’m feeling that the projekt is more like a cousin who I’ve only seen on holidays but am now enjoying a long season with and starting to find some rhyme and reason to this cousin’s idiosyncracies. Though I’m fully aware that this relationship can turn on me much like the weather. One day its 53 degrees and warmer than the Bay Area, which I’m missing like crazy, and tonight we’re expecting snow showers.

I’ve been reading Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, and she quotes a Turkish saying: “The soul needs to shiver to wake.” We shall see if my soul shall waken with the cold to come.

the road to my studio