This past week, Seattle hosted the annual MLA (Modern Languages Association) Convention, which is a gathering of thousands of university-level academics who study or teach language or literature. The city was crawling with them, all humbly spouting literary theories and criticisms of literary precepts, practices and presumptions. Very entertaining! It was definitely fun to hang out in restaurants and eavesdrop on people gossiping animatedly about things like what the hell the editors could have been thinking in the last issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly.
But aside from the voyeuristic opportunities the convention offered to regular folk like me, there were some sessions open to the public, where the discussions were less analytical, and more about public appeal and commerce. I was lucky enough to attend two of them. One was on Pinter in Seattle, organized by the Harold Pinter Society and focused on a local resurgence of interest in producing Pinter's plays here. It offered wonderful insights about the man from people who knew and worked with him and loved him.
I came away from that session thinking I want to delve into Pinter's plays again, even though I remember his work (from reading and attending one play long ago) as disturbingly experimental. I've grown as a reader since then and am more open to less formulaic stories than I used to be, but the main thing that drew me to be interested again was a statement made by one of the speakers (Harry Burton, a British actor and Pinter insider). He made it clear that Pinter's humor was based in vaudeville, and that his inspiration, in all he did, was love. Love of humankind and of higher human values. How can you not want to explore the work of a Nobel Prize winning playwright with those interests?
The other session I attended had a different kind of message. It was more about what it's like to be a highly creative writer. It was called A Creative Conversation with Richard Van Camp: Writing, Language and Indigenous Expression. Okay, the title is pure academese. But believe me, Richard Van Camp is not. A rising star in native writings, and self-proclaimed channeler, Van Camp writes about the Tlicho people of the Northwest Territory, his people. He is from a very small town there and has experienced many of the extreme difficulties we know about in Native American cultures from writers like Sherman Alexie. But Van Camp, while devoted to addressing all the most difficult issues of his culture, seems to do everything from a totally positive point of view. That was palpable in the room, as his enthusiasm and energy demanded we all sit up and not only listen but participate in the joy and beauty that literature can bring. Mind you, his favorite topics are often the forbidden or dark ones like sexuality and substance abuse and violence, but his voice is amazingly upbeat. This was interesting, a window into a voice that compels with insight and vitality about darkness. In terms of form, Van Camp writes everything from children's books to graphic novels to short stories.
The session opened with a 17-minute film that has been made of one of his stories, in which many voices (six or seven actors) express an identical experience, riveting and confusing, of observing and interacting with someone known as "The Quiet One" at a community gathering. One will start a sentence, another will repeat or pick up from there, and so on; all are puzzled by what they've observed, and deeply affected by it. Bizarre and surrealistic things happen in this story. It is mystical and haunting and profound, but has no satisfying explanation or denouement. It only raises questions and awareness of consciousness.
Cut from the end of the film to us, sitting in the session room with Van Camp, who is forty and looks like he might be twenty-two. He talks with speed and confidence, telling us that this was a true story, that everything in it actually happened. A bit later he repeats that it was a true story, one that he dreamed. He has not one single doubt that the mystical experiences in his life are real, and he is so enthusiastic and smart and grounded that you don't really doubt him. At the very least you respect that these experiences, along with more everyday types of events, make his writing real.
Van Camp told a couple of other stories, then talked about his writing process: he knows what he's working on, gets up around five or five-thirty in the morning, writes (channels) for about an hour and a half, then has the rest of his day to be out in the world and devote himself to helping improve things. I'm thinking that it is the living he does later in the day that provides the seeds of the stories he tells through his channeling process. He also talked about rewriting being the real writing, and said that he spends a huge amount of time reworking his stories, "like pulling a comb through tangled hair." So it's not all channeling.
Mainly, I came away from this session pondering what Van Camp's message meant for me, because I knew it meant something personal, even though his process is not mine. A day later it occurred to me that in listening to Richard Van Camp I had experienced the medium being the message. He was the medium, and the message was clear: enthusiasm. Celebrate the beauty and power of storytelling and don't even think about second guessing yourself. You've got the power. Enjoy it. Use it for good.
The message might have been different for others in that room, but for writers, I think that, or some version of that, was it. What a great mantra for our 2012 writing!