Friday, February 20, 2009

An Evening with Catherine Field

“We are here because we must write,” she said early in her talk—meaning all of us in that room at John A.Logan College.

Oh, yes, I thought. I must. I cannot imagine life without attempting to put life into words. I do not know why the breeze on my skin, the peach on my tongue, or the laughter in my ear is not sufficient without words. But for me the words after are the essence of the experience. Even if I only say the words to myself.

Catherine Field, poet, teacher, sociologist, mother, and one of the first class of MFA graduates from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, was our guest speaker tonight at Southern Illinois Writers Guild.

With the democratization of education, the ability, paper, time, and technology for writing is now available for most people. More than any time in the past. Writing is no longer reserved for the elite. Yes, during my lifetime, the laborious use of a typewriter and a bottle of white-out has been replaced with the speed of the computer. Even more amazing is now that writing can be sent all over the world with a flick of a finger.

And why do people read? She postulated because we are lonely. No matter how large a following a writer has, it is the individual reader who creates the sociological dyad. The writer shares, and the reader says me too. I have felt that. I am not alone. Oh, yes, I thought. I starve to read the words of other humans, and when my mind is entwined in book or blog, I am not alone.

She described the difficulty we all have in making our writing pay. Competition is stiff. Markets change. Society changes. The new reality of online publishing is causing major shifts in the way things are done, and how can you make online writing pay? More changes are in the offing.

If you choose to make a living by teaching writing, as Field has, you are likely to find yourself patching together a full-time job by teaching part-time in two or three institutions at once. Teaching well at one college is hard. Traveling throughout the area to two or three extension centers for different colleges is really a challenge. Ah, yes, I remember those days. Happily, Field is now at SIUC all the time teaching sociology and exploring social movements.

An anecdote she shared illustrates well the state of flux we are in. Their department has once again been asked to drastically cut their journal orders. How will they cope knowing their students need those journals in the library? Field said they would have to bring their personal journals to their department to share with students. The kids can go to the library for coffee now; but as the cuts take effect, they will have to come to the department to read the literature in their field. (I had to wonder if this will cause more journals to go online, as we voted to do with our SIWG newsletter tonight in our business meeting.)

Among the tips she gave us for our writing was to throw out the first part of our story or novel. It is important that you write that first part, she explained, to get that information firmly fixed in your mind, but don’t bore the reader with it. Start the story or novel where the action is happening.

She encouraged us to take use our writing community for feedback to help us with our writing. Keep your vanity out of it and listen to one another, she urged. But she also wanted us to realize that when we are back home alone with our manuscript, we have the ultimate responsibility. She could not resist telling how she gathered the courage to send off a poem her graduate student friends had not found effective in their workshop. Thus, she had the poem published in Poetry. “So there,” she smiled as she acted out smugness.

“A poem is not about something. It must be something,” she declared. It must be a delight to be enjoyed viscerally, she told us as she rubbed her stomach for emphasis as to where and how we need to touch our readers. Theater is an important part of Field’s life, and that was obvious when she constantly used her hands and swayed her body to illustrate how essential rhythm is to our writing.

She also warned us that we have to be willing to let our writing go. We cannot always control what happens to it once we have created it. She quoted her mentor Rodney Jones, poet and professor, that poetry has to be “an event of language.”

She quoted Robert Frost’s words that poetry needs to begin in delight and end in a surprise. “When you go into your poem, you should not know how it will end, “ she advised. Surprise yourself and the reader will be surprised. The writer needs to provide an emotional pay off at the end.

Ah, yes, I thought. But that is easier said than done. When I left home, Gerald teasingly said how glad he was not to have to go out in that bitter cold tonight. I thought longingly about the comforts of staying home. But I am glad I didn’t stay. Catherine Field provided me with an emotional pay off that made the evening worthwhile.


Kristin Francis said...

I'm mad you Ms. Sue! Only kidding. I wanted to write a blog about the speaker, but she said so many golden nuggets, that I had to process before adding. And your prolific blog is too good to follow up with! I was writing quotes like a mad woman. I'm looking to a long wonderful friendship with you! Your site is wonderful and makes me feel good like a warm, blackberry cobbler! Talk to you soon!!!

Kristin Francis said...

Oops, I should have proofread my comment a bit better. It should have said "I'm mad AT you, Ms. Sue." Oops again, and I'm looking FORWARD to a long..." Sheesh! I'll do better next time. ;-)