Joyce Hinnefeld


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Listening for the Wood Thrush

I haven’t yet heard wood thrushes in the trees near our house. It’s still a little early, but each year I get nervous. Thanks to my teaching colleague Diane Husic for pointing me toward a sad and beautiful song by Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Friends, called "The Wood Thrush."

I’ll be turning in grades and then turning my attention to other things in the weeks ahead—including, I hope, focused work on a new novel. Will be traveling to Berea College in June and probably doing a few other Stranger Here Below-related talks, etc. this summer. But I think I may excuse myself from regular social networking for a bit while I get back to work and start listening (for the wood thrush, among other things) again.

Hope you’re hearing lovely birdsong, wherever you may be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yes, We're Closed. Forever.

My visit to Indiana University South Bend last weekend left me feeling old (old and, when I see myself next to writer and creative writing faculty member Kelcey Parker, my host at IU South Bend, in the photo above, short).

Actually, I found my conversations with writing students at IU South Bend--including winners of the creative writing program's Student Writing Awards--lively and energizing. What makes me feel old is realizing how young traditional-age college students are now. You’d think I’d know this already, teaching traditional-age college students regularly, as I do. But what triggered this daunting “aha” moment last weekend was talking with the IU South Bend students about books--specifically about the traditional book vs. digitized forms and their various devices.

This was a continuation of a really fascinating, and ongoing, conversation I’ve been having with my poetry students at Moravian this semester, set in motion by one student’s draft poem about her sadness at the potential loss of the physical book--the way it feels in your hands, the way it smells, etc. “But you’re supposed to be the ones who are making this happen,” I said, only half-kidding. “You know, you ‘young people.’ You ‘young people who never read.’”

This released a wonderful torrent. They’re not the problem, they told me. They can’t afford Kindles and I-Pads and the like anyway. The problem is their parents’ generation, and their love of all these new gadgets and devices. “It’s the boomers’ fault,” one of my students said, with a definitive nod.

Of course, everything’s the boomers’ fault (including the alarming rate of climate change, as I learned at a lecture this week). I’m not really kidding here. In a sense, I think this is true. A lot of this mess is our fault. (And I do count myself among the baby-boom generation--though I’m at the tail end of that boom.)

When I mentioned my student’s remark during the Q&A conversation with students at IU South Bend, I jokingly added, “But of course we all love to blame our parents for everything, right?” Here’s what I heard in response: “Um, my grandparents are boomers.”

Well, of course. But I mean, ouch.

Here’s another really interesting detail that came out of this whole conversation with my poetry students: They’re distraught that our local Borders has closed (though they got some great deals on books during the close-out sale). Another realization that I’m old: I still harbor lingering resentment toward both Borders and Barnes & Noble for what these “big box” stores did to small, independent bookstores--way back in another century. But for my students, those are the bookstores they’ve known and loved, and in many cases, worked for. They’ve bought lots of discounted books there, and they love how those rare, antique things known as paperbacks feel in their hands.

It’s good, if a little humbling, when your students bring you back to reality. I’m guessing it was someone around the age of my students, or those students I spoke with in South Bend, Indiana, who made the handwritten sign on the door of a Borders in Wappingers Falls, New York that I tried to stop into recently. “Yes, we’re closed,” it said. “Forever.”

Thanks to Kelcey Parker and other faculty and students at IU South Bend for a wonderful visit last weekend. And thanks to my brother Jerry and sister-in-law Suzanne for the excellent company and comfy guest room and delicious meals.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lower Your Standards, Try Again

Last Friday I returned to Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I taught fifteen years ago (!), to do a reading. I was invited back by Tom Denton, Director of the DCCC Writing Center, and one of the most thoughtful and engaged teachers of writing I’ve met. It was great to be back on the DCCC campus, to re-connect with fellow teachers from all those years ago, and to hear news about former students that I still remember from my days there.

Tom asked me to provide a “statement on writing” prior to my visit. I thought I’d include what I sent him here on the blog today. Not sure why I've also included a photo of Buddha in the snow here; just seems to fit somehow, on this cold, rainy day, with spring seeming constantly just beyond our grasp.

Writers and writing teachers are fond of quoting poet William Stafford, who, when asked how he managed to be so prolific, to find subjects for so many poems, is reported to have said, “Every day I get up and look out the window, and something occurs to me, something always occurs to me. And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.” What Stafford provides here, of course, is the cure for any and all forms of so-called writer’s block—the hesitation, the fear, the feeling that one has nothing valuable to say, all the things we say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, that prevent us from simply writing.

I often tell my own students that there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who need more discipline and restraint in their writing, and those who need less. But the truth is, I think most of us who write typically need both. We need the discipline and restraint to say, I’m writing now (from 5 to 6 AM, from 12 to 1 while eating lunch, from 9 to midnight, after the kids are in bed—whatever windows of time our lives afford us). I’m writing now, and that’s all I’m doing. Don’t bother me. But then, once we’ve staked out that time and space for us and our work alone, we need to shut up with the discipline and restraint already. I’m writing now. I’m not reading. I’m not editing. I’m writing without even looking at it. I’m not testing every word before it hits the page. I can do all of that later.

And we have to mean this part—the “I’ll do that later” part—too. So here, again, comes the need for discipline and restraint. It’s like that, a constant back-and-forth, and if you can somehow find a way of balancing both, of sitting in your canoe and paddling fast for while, then floating and looking around you, then turning and pushing hard again, maybe this time with your eye on the shore, you might just write something good.

Here’s another thing that all writing students and all writers must learn: You have to attempt this balancing act over and over again, sometimes for quite a long time, if you want to write something really good. “It has always seemed to me curious,” Mary Oliver writes in A Poetry Handbook, “that the instruction of poetry has followed a path different from the courses of study intended to develop talent in the field of music or the visual arts, where a step-by-step learning process is usual, and accepted as necessary.” In other words, writing—like music, like art, like athletics, like any endeavor in which someone hopes to achieve true competence—requires lots and lots of practice.

Maybe years of it. I was thirty-six when my collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything, was published. After that, it was ten years before I published another book, my novel In Hovering Flight. It seems to me that with every writing project I begin, I have to learn how to do it all over again. Lots of false starts, lots of faulty pages, until, like a motor that’s gotten corroded and slow, I turn my words over and over until something catches—a phrase here, a passage of dialogue or a lyrical moment there—and then I’m revved up again, running smoothly, humming along.

Or, some days, not so much. Some days it’s all stuck in the gears, stuck in my throat, just not working. But if you’re a writer, if you feel like it’s simply what you want and, on a very basic level, need, to do, you’ll get up the next day, claim that window of time, however small, for your writer self, lower your standards, and try again.