Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, May 27, 2011

Words on Tape

I earned my MFA in writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency program in Montpelier. The program requires students to spend twenty days per year on campus. The rest of our coursework included an exchange 'packets' of writing each month with assigned advisors. It was a wonderful system, an exceptional program. When we weren't in Vermont, we'd all get our writing done after work, or in the hours before; we'd squeeze it out on weekends. We'd read books assigned by our advisors or suggested by friends, and then we'd write about them. We'd send our pages off and we'd wait for the letters back, letters that could crush or lift or do both at once. We'd go days without talking about our work with anyone; at those times, I most felt that I was living a dual life. When we came together in Vermont, we'd talk all day about writing and then drink wine in the evenings and talk about it more. An exceptional program, it was.

Most advisors would type out their response letters and email them off, but Philip Graham taped his. He'd speak for an hour, two hours, into a recorder, holding my pages in his hands and making comments. Philip Graham was my third semester advisor. He's also an incredible teacher, an astonishing writer, and a profound person, and today I found the tapes he'd recorded, and I played them.

I started with the third one, because I wanted to know what he'd said about a certain essay I'd submitted to him that fall. But the tape clicked on and his voice filled my rented room, and how like a conversation that tape suddenly felt, and I knew I'd have to listen to all of them. I knew just what he was talking about, though it's been over a year since he recorded the tape. I had forgotten the way his cat comes into the room while he's taping and he talks to her, or the way he makes little asides, giving his opinions on low-fat half-and-half and stiletto shoes in Portugal.

It was like, he'd say something and I'd nod in agreement. Or, you are so right, I would tell him. Or I'd laugh out loud, because he's funny! And when he laughs, you have to, too, because you can't help it. I wouldn't always listen to him, exactly; maybe I'd leave the room to make coffee or to run to the tienda across the street. Still, coming back, it was nice to hear a friend talking to me in there.

Is this wierd to you? A little, maybe? I say, Philip's a friend who knows me as a writer, and I heard his voice today, here in this house in Ecuador. And how I've missed really talking about writing. So thanks for doing the tapes, Philip. They are gifts, every one, and I will treasure them.

You remarked to me, on tape three, that you didn't really understand the term 'travel writing.' You supposed that all writing is travel writing, because everything we read takes us somewhere. So here's to that, Philip, wherever you are. Let's write something today and go somewhere. We've got our lives and we've got our shit, but if we've got the page, then we're free.


  1. Except for the practical benefits of having an Iowa MFA, I still consider those two years to have been largely a waste of time. I continue to believe that beyond the basics (like learning chords on a guitar), the best writers are not "taught." There was the benefit of having a couple of years during which one was expected to do a lot of writing, and ironically, that is probably the best way to become a better writer: write all the time.

    It seems, then, that the way your program operated at Vermont is superior in both practical and personal ways than hanging around Iowa City for two years. I love the idea of voice tapes, and wish I had thought of it the rare times I was forced to teach writing to pay bills. You were lucky to have encountered a teacher that creative. (Also rare.)

    You are already a pretty fine writer, Kate. I don't know if you were already a fine writer before Vermont, or how much influence Vermont has had on your work, but I suspect being a fine writer is woven into your gene spirals. Given that, young and fine writers need to be more cautious about "being taught" than thinking they need to be taught.

    Your being taught days are over. Now you can just go on learning.

    So far, reading only from your blog, you seem to have successfully avoided being a workshop writer mimic; maybe that's Vermont, maybe that's you, or both. But what most "Let us teach you to be a writer" programs do is teach you how to be a cookie cutter writer.

    And yes, all fine writers are travel writers, because yes, the best writing takes us inside and moves us around the world.

  2. They dun learned you good, Kate! Very nice writing, I'm surprised you lugged those darn tapes down with you!

    Summer has finally embraced LP, along with copious amounts of blood sucking blackflies.

    Missing you lots!