Toward the end of May, I spent a week at Queens University in Charlotte, teaching in the low residency MFA program in writing there. I have done this for getting on to fifteen years now. The Charlotte spring is always well ahead of New York; is on the verge of summer by late May. My room on the campus was on the second story of an old dorm which had a felicity of design lacking in the newer dorms. Outside my window, close-up, the boughs of a tree in full leaf were loaded with red berries. One morning, a pair of cardinals visited, she almost invisible in the mist of leaves and berries, but even the glorious male was camouflaged to a degree. The next day and every day thereafter a flock of cardinals arrived in the early morning to devour the berries. They would become the tree.
When you see people once a year for an intense period of time in common enterprise, year after year, for a decade going on two, a type of connection can develop that is largely lacking in the normal narrative details, that is not quite friendship, and certainly not the continuous relationship between workers that develops at a normal place of business. Relationships under low-rez conditions, acquire a special kind of depth and richness uncluttered by normality, that is intimate and yet in a disembodied way, like an X-ray. While its true that the enterprise of the program is common, the fact is that at Queens members of the faculty are not required to attend each-other's lectures and rarely do. Certainly we do not attend each-other's workshops. Yet when writers engage with the subject of writing they almost cannot help engage from the depths of their being, bringing a kind of soul passion into play--at least that is true for me and I am pretty sure its true for my colleagues. Never have I experienced cynicism or ironic weariness on the part of my colleagues in any of the programs I have ever taught in that does not yield fairly quickly to deep, prevailing commitment to students. And yet, because there is no pedagogy, because we teach out of our own experience, there is nothing standard about what happens in our classrooms. So a residency of this kind is also, socially speaking, a collection of silos containing soul passion in a variety of expressions, discernible the rest of the time for the most part as a kind of idling hum of inner being. We talk plenty and know each-other's way of dress and being in the body and idiosyncracies of interaction--writers are often deeply shy, myself being no exception---but its also as if we know each-other as if in the dark using sensors other than sight and even hearing.
But sometimes, however rarely, some of us, if our personal schedule permits, do in fact go to a colleague's lecture, as I did to Myla Golberg's this Spring. Myla is a novelist, author of "Bee Season," and also of a nonfiction book of novella length, less known than her novel but of which I am an admirer: "Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague. The topic of her lecture was the process of factual research and how to use the results without messing up your style. I viewed this topic with some bemusement since, as a writer for whom nonfiction is my primary form, facts, in all their awkwardness, in the way they inconveniently disrupt our view of what we think the world is, should be seen not as anti-aesthetic or restrictive artistically, but as the very basis of the aesthetic of nonfiction. In Myla's novelist silo that day, however, I learned. Research, she said, is an interrogation of the world, and an interrogation of the self. She talked about the globalization of libraries: about how one can now instantly access images of every kind of bowtie or icebox. (I wondered, though, if this didn't eclipse the power of that memory of a particular bowtie that inspired the choice of a bowtie for a character in one's novel, and then she mentioned that, yes, there was that too.) Then she talked about the persisting special virtue of brick and mortar libraries. She told about how some years back-- when she was writing about the flu epidemic of 1918 and wanted to know about the experience of men who were incarcerated in military prisons, World War I still being in progress--she went to the Public Library at Forty-Second Street in New York, one of the most magnificent buildings in the city, made her way to the main reading room, looked up her subject in what was still a card catalog, found one entry on naval incarceration in 1918, filled out the slip which was physically sent into the bowels of the library by the pneumatic tubes still then in use--not so long ago--and waited. What eventually appeared was a thick mailing envelope of material, bound in twine. It had never been opened since having been deposited in the library--you could tell that from the attached card. She undid the knots in the twine. Inside were clippings from military newspapers, that told her much but what also mattered was the time capsule aspect of these untouched artifacts of the period, the smell and feel of them, the reality of this untouched bit of the past sitting there before her. Later in the lecture she advised novelists researching place that they not only seek conventional knowledge about the place but take time to put the brain on hold and just stay still, smell, listen, feel, take in the small sensations of being there to allow it to move in on the imagination. Good advice for nonfiction writers too. Then, she said, whatever gaps there might be in your knowledge, you can fill it in with imagination. Bad advice for nonfiction writers. A fork in the road.
People come and go on a faculty, of course, and there is also a full spectrum of possibilities in the X-ray intimacy, from my yearly ongoing conversation with David Payne, (novelist, more recently author of a memoir, "Barefoot to Avalon" about his relationship with a tragic brother,) about how the deepest levels of psychic injury affect public life, to that with novelist Pinckney Benedict, ("Town Smokes," "Dogs of God," "The Wrecking Yard") with whom I appear to have zero connective points in the normal sense, and yet whose silo hum I have come to know as well over the years, in a way, as I know Payne's.
A precious and deeply real register of knowing, so easily eclipsed: the clippings, the way our bodies sense place, X-ray intimacy, the way the cardinals become the tree. It has been here all along, of course, a part of the human instrument. But in our time of enclosure, in the walled garden that the planet has become, they assume a new importance; become possibly essential to the response we must build to these new conditions, to our re-imagining of our condition. Just possibly.