The Future

Starting in the summer of 2011, I have had the great privilege to serve on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. After 16 straight semesters, I decided to take a Leave of Absence.

The time off from teaching has been . . . complicated. I miss the students, faculty, and staff. And I even miss the ten-day residency — kinda, sorta, ish. (I’m an introvert and so find the beautiful chaos exhausting.)

That being said, I’m loving the extra bandwidth. Initially, I used a lot of that elbow room to catch up on outdoorsy adventures. (I didn’t realize what a deficit I’d built up.) And along with the trail running, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, and mountain biking, I ramped up my writing, too.

Lo and behold, as if on some sort of auto-pilot, the writing-ramping has continued ever since. I can’t remember that last time I felt this engaged in my work. I’ve finally finished my YA (again), and will be sending it out in the next couple of weeks. Next up is a nearly completed middle grade novel, another YA, and at least two picture books. Zoom!

All of this has given me a great deal of pause. I’ve spent hours on trail runs and hikes, thinking about my future. I’ve gotten left-brained about it, too, and made several lists: “What I’ve Accomplished at VCFA,” “What I’ve Fallen Short On,” “Pros and Cons of Staying vs Retiring,” etc. I feel I’ve been a good teacher, and have always given the students the 110% they deserve. I also feel I’ve been a good learner, and have reaped tons from all the lectures I’ve listened to, workshops I’ve been part of, readings I’ve heard, packets I’ve responded to. There is no better way to really comprehend something than to teach it. I feel so much more educated than I did when I joined the faculty. I’m rebooted, and totally stoked to charge ahead. The question is: Charge where, and how?

It wasn’t until I saw the email from the program director in my inbox titled “Teaching Plans” that I realized I needed to stop sitting on the fence and make a decision. I’m an optimist, and assume I’ll be able to continue writing as long as I live. But I can count. Bottom line: I’m no spring chicken. As much as I love teaching, I have to admit that I’m just not smart enough to do a good job with it and get lots of writing done. And getting lots of writing done has become #1 on my professional priority list. A fantastic job has been done of bringing on new faculty that are young, dynamic, stellar, and who, together with the rock-star lineup of veterans, will continue to elevate the program. It’s time for me to step aside and cede the podium. I am not signing off permanently. I’ve been generously offered the opportunity to sit “on the bench,” from which I can jump back in the game if the stars align and point in that direction. In the meantime, I’m on “extended hiatus.” Now, back to my writing . . .

P.S. Whether on the bench or in the game, I will always, ALWAYS, be a huge fan, and an advocate for VCFA! Writers, if you want to exponentially up your writing, apply today!

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The Hover Theory of Writing

“Running is flying.” So says Paul E. Richardson in his book of the same title. He backs up the assertion by pointing out what photos and slo-mo video confirm: “When you walk, one foot is always on the ground. When you run, most the time you are actually airborne . . . 76% of the time. So don’t think of it as a 10-mile run. Think of it as 7 miles of flying.”

As a trail runner, I find this math appealing, even if it doesn’t make the 7 miles and 1,000+ foot elevation gain to the top of Dimple Hill any easier. “No worries,” I can say to my sweaty, gasping, lead-legged self, “you’ve got wings on your feet!”

But could I also apply the same math to my writing? For every second a finger is actually pushing a key down, are there three or so in which they are flying?

No, not flying. How about . . . hovering? Yeah, that’s the word — hovering. I’m guessing that even with the complexity of ten fingers factored in, the majority of the time most of my digits are hovering over the keys. Sure, hovering because they are not needed for the creation of a particular word — “no, Z, you are not invited to the redundant baby shower.” But more often hovering because I am thinking about what I want to say next. Hovering while I consider how I want to say it. Hovering as I make sure I know why. Hovering while I ponder nuances. Or just hovering while I wait for my mind to un-blank. Lots of hovering.

So running is flying, and writing is hovering? What do you think? Anyone up for doing a scientific collection and analysis of data to prove or disprove my Hover Theory of Writing? I’m waiting, fingers poised . . .

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A Luminous Presence

I was already a huge fan of Toni Morrison. Her writing is raw, powerful, and at the same time beautiful. Now — after watching the documentary TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM — wow. I don’t toss the word “hero” around much, but she is one to me. Through her stories, she will always be a luminous presence in the world.

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What to read?

People joke about “so many books, so little time.” You can even buy a t-shirt with the phrase splashed across the front. But it’s true — there are so many books, and for me, who just turned 68 . . . well, I can do math. And so I find myself increasingly wanting to read very selectively, and only the books that will push me the most as a writer, and as a person. How do you decide what to read, or what to skip?

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Remember When?

Two weeks ago, I traveled from Oregon to Kentucky to attend my 50th high school reunion — Danville Admirals, Class of 1969. What a trip it was, both in the literal sense, and the metaphorical — across the continent, and back in time.

Reunions are centered on memories, and the attendees trigger them in each other, often just by being there. You see the teenage face hidden but still recognizable among the wrinkles of age, and zoom, you’re seventeen again. Well, okay, not seventeen. But you’re at least in touch with the feel of it once again.

Some of the memories triggered in me at my reunion were so fuzzy they seemed like dreams, made all the more mysterious by the passing of decades. Others were vivid. Someone would say, “Remember when?” And the next thing I knew I was behind the wheel of that blue Chevelle again, on a double date, driving too fast on Gwynn Island Road. I hit a patch of gravel, did a tire-screeching doughnut, took out a farmer’s mailbox, and ended up in the ditch. Everyone piled out of the car and stood there in the middle of the night, car engine clicking, cicadas chirping, and said . . . nothing. Well, until the farmer came out in his pajamas to see what the hell was going on. We all started apologizing at the same time, even though it was only the driver’s fault; that would be me. But the farmer just shrugged — that damn mailbox post was rotten anyway and needed to be replaced — and helped us get the Chevelle out of the ditch. As so often happens in youth, the consequences didn’t match the level of stupidity. My stupidity.

Remember when?

Reunions are centered on memories, but part of their geometry is measured in negative space, too — those who aren’t there. Some weren’t at my Class of ’69 gathering because they are no longer among the living. Out of 140 or so grads, over 30 have passed away. But then there were the classmates who are still living, but chose not to attend. Another kind of memory was triggered by that lack. High school was overall a pretty good experience for me, but I remembered those for whom it wasn’t. They didn’t fit in, were maybe a bit quirky, or just different from the norm, and so suffered. Those who suffered the most tend to stay away from reunions. Sure, there was some drama and angst in my teen days. I got my heart broken, and flunked out of trig, and at times felt misunderstood. But the bottom line is that I did not suffer. I was lucky. Lucky to be born into a position of privilege: white, cisgender male, straight, US citizen, native English speaker, well clothed and fed, a complete family that supported my dreams, just to name a few perks. I was of the majority — the acceptable majority — in every way. No wonder I had a good high school experience. No wonder too many don’t.

Some will call me a naive idealist, but going to my 50th reunion renewed my hope that there will come a day when every adult can look back and at least know they had equal opportunity — to have dreams, and a level playing field on which to work hard to fulfill them. And when they return to their 50th high school reunion, they’ll laugh with their classmates like I did, and say, “Remember when?” And the memories will be good.

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Collaborative Experimentation

Many thanks for all the birthday wishes. 68 is going pretty well, so far. I’m still trail running, and riding my mountain bike, and climbing, and writing a lot, and — this may be the most amazing part — I even got my office purged of junk. See? Isn’t that nice? (Tom pats self on back.) My theory is that a clear space will equal a clear head and ergo more room for creativity. Anyone have any data that supports or refutes that notion they’d like to contribute? We’ll think of it as collaborative experimentation.

Leave of Absence

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In 38 years of writing, there has never been a time in which I haven’t split my energies: writing and teaching 5th grade, writing and teaching ESLin Japan, writing and teaching kindergarten, writing and traveling all over the country (and the world) to do author visits in schools, writing and serving on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts. For 34 of those 38 years I have also been an involved dad, helping Debbie raise our two daughters, Kelsey and Amy.

That has changed. (Well, not the parenting part; you never stop being a parent.) I am beginning a leave of absence from VCFA. This will allow me to concentrate on my next young adult novel (tentatively titled Blowup), a middle grade novel, as well as several picture books. To say that I’m excited is an understatement. I am totally stoked!

The flip side to this elation is knowing that I won’t be in Montpelier in July for the VCFA residency. Which means I won’t be able to meet in person with my previous students at the picnic tables under the big maple and talk about writing. Or to sit in the audience clapping wildly when Max and Adam give their graduate readings and deliver their lectures, then cross the College Hall stage along with the rest of their stellar class to receive their MFA diplomas. Or to to stay up late with beloved and brilliant faculty in the Noble Landing Lounge and discuss . . . well, anything under the New England stars. I will miss all of that, and I’m very very sorry.

Still, in my mind I will take a walk with each and every one of the VCFA community who mean so much to me — down to the waterfall by the old mill, and soak in that beauty together. Once on the trail together, always on the trail together . . .

 

What is art, anyway?

After a discussion at breakfast about art and how it is defined, a question arose: If the same aesthetic mindfulness brought to the arts we have traditionally considered “official” (painting, music, theater, writing, dance, etc.) is brought to something most people would brush off as “ordinary” — say, pruning an apple tree, or setting the table for dinner, or folding laundry — can that be art too? And if so, what would your ordinary art(s) be?

Mouth Wide Open

Writing is not an 8:00 to 5:00 job. It’s a way of being, and looking at the world, and the hours are pretty much 24/7, year round. It requires being a good observer, ever on the lookout for bits of life that have story potential: a scrap of overheard conversation, an interesting mannerism, a quirky detail, or sometimes an idea big and expansive enough to add a new level to a novel.

Recently I had one of those big and expansive ideas pop into my head. The only problem was that it came to me as I was leaning back in a dental chair, mouth wide open, getting my teeth cleaned. It didn’t seem like a good moment to pull out my notebook and jot the big and expansive idea down, like I usually do. The polisher was whirling like it was angry, and mint flecks were flying. So instead I used a little chant, which I sung in my mind to help me remember: “Existential sandwich. Existential sandwich. Existential sandwich.” And it worked. As soon as I got back in the car, I captured the idea in my notebook.

Then I went home and had a PB&J.

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