Our Associate Director reports back after her week at the Glen West Workshop, hosted by Image Journal at St. John’s College in Santa Fe NM.
This summer, a slew of writers across the nation trek to writing workshops, conferences, conventions, residencies, and retreats. We’re seekers. Some of us pursue feedback on new work, others are looking to land that perfect agent, still more are searching for something deeper, a retreat from the material world, a community of friends, inspiration. As a new writer these happenings are often a fascinating subculture of the writing whole, a mysterious unknown.
At this year’s Glen West Workshop, Image Journal Editor Gregory Wolfe addressed his keynote to the theme of the conference, “The Cloud of Unknowing: Art as Intuition.” He spoke of ancient cave painters, who made their art in darkness out of a desire to create. He mentioned the melancholy of modern culture, how we become disconnected from our here and now, even as we are more and more connected, rational, and efficient. This wasn’t a discussion of those tired mechanics of story – things like character and plot. It was an invocation to the mystery of why we create art. I appreciated this approach, because while in writing workshops, I hear a lot about mechanics. These things are important, but what we often miss is that the impetus for creation is key. It comes out of a place within ourselves that we don’t understand. Why do I want to be a writer? I don’t. The writing wants to be me.
Here are a few qualities of the unknown that I discovered at Glen West this summer:
The surrounding beauty of Santa Fe is the crowning jewel of Glen West. Whether you are there to take a workshop by one of the amazing faculty (all vaguely religious in background but not overwhelmingly so) or just to take in the retreat option, which gives you the mornings to yourself, you’ll find that the landscape takes on special meaning in Santa Fe, a mystique that is altogether entrancing.
Still further is the mystery of how to get started. The first day is a pile of confusion. I felt something akin to third grade panic upon my first entry into the teeming cafeteria, holding my trembling plate of vegetarian food. But by the end of the week, I was a pro, able to find a conversation partner at any table. One mystery solved!
My poetry workshop leader was Karen An-hwei Lee, who publishes under Tupelo Press and has won several prizes. I immediately felt at ease in her workshop, her calm presence presiding over us with peace. But I was delighted to find that at her reading, where she shared some of her poems, and was asked about the issue of diversity in literature, she transformed into a firebrand. She held her small fist in front of her and insisted on change. Later, when I attended Carolyn Forche’s reading, I found the same power emanating from her work of witness. I was pleased that among a group of mostly white artists, the desire for diversity, acceptance, and change rose up. It is clear the Glen is seeking out new voices, and this will be a powerful (if not somewhat unknown) agent of change for years to come.
Did I mention I got to spend a whole week writing? The air up there in Santa Fe sure does bring clarity of mind. By halfway through the week I had already thrown out my plan of revising the short fiction I had brought with me, and had dived into writing new poems. I left with about twelve new poems, all of which I think I kind of like. I’m not sure if it was the gentle influence of Karen An-hwei Lee, or the fact that I was alone with my thoughts in my room (no husbands or cats to distract me), or the blue mountains of Santa Fe watching over me in the distance, or the afternoon thundershowers that left the air smelling of raw lavender, or the experience of interacting with a community of artists that did it, or just a combination of the above, but the wisdom I found in my own writing shocked me.
At the end of the week, the last worship service (an optional event held every evening) featured an anointment ceremony. Traditionally, anointment was reserved for royalty, and was said to introduce a divine presence. For a Baptist girl from the south, you’d think the idea would be alarming. However, I was immediately transported me back to Israel, where seven years ago I visited the church of the holy sepulcher. In the church is the stone of anointing, symbolic of the stone on which Christ’s body was anointed.
As the Glen participants lined up to have their hands anointed, symbolic of the work they would accomplish in the next year, I noticed one line was longer than the others. At its head was Lucy Shaw, poet and Glen darling, who presides over the Glen like a benevolent angel. I can’t say I blame those who wanted to be consecrated by her hands. The Glen is foremost a community, one which grows out to accept new members, and contracts as members leave and return.
As I left Santa Fe, a little of the magic of the place seemed to seep out of me. I felt bereft, as if I had misplaced a part of myself. I always feel this way when I leave a place I love dearly, but this time I knew I would be back. I felt rejuvenated for my return to real life.
As Gregory Wolfe argued in his keynote address, “What’s at stake here is nothing less than the nature of consciousness itself.” If you are a new writer or an old hand at the word, you still need to stop occasionally and be aware. As writers, we observe, we posit, we question, we critique, we represent, but mostly, we seek the unknown. I say, seek thee Santa Fe – a place where mystery still presides.
Holly Walrath, the director of Writespace's marketing team, attended the University of Texas at Austin for her B.A. in English and the University of Denver for her M.L.A in Creative Writing. She is a freelance editor and teaches in the Houston area. She has spoken at Houston YA/MG, SCBWI, and the Child and the Book Conference. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pulp Literature, The Vestal Review, 365 Tomorrows, and Spider Road Press. Holly enjoys geekery, sarcasm, and puns. She currently resides in Seabrook, Texas.