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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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Workshop Drop-Outs

A student has dropped out of my class. She says she has scheduling problems but I don’t think this is the real reason. Class #5 and #6 are the most difficult: my students hit a wall. The wall is different for every writer and every student writer. We begin in a state of bliss, keeping our journals, beginning a piece of work, enjoying ourselves. A melody of language pours out of us onto the page, we are released, we are free, we are transported. But as all this happens, students are also becoming better at critiquing—and I am getting tougher. There is potential in the work and my mandate is to suggest ways to lift the manuscript out of discovery draft into a final draft—or project—strong enough for submission.

So the weeks pass and the critique becomes deeper and more telling. Where are the holes in the story? Why isn’t this sentence or paragraph working? In order to sustain self-esteem in this open, demonstrative environment, a writer needs courage, flexibility and patience in equal measure. Some students aren’t ready for this, or they get rattled, or refuse to listen and become defensive. We study what is on the page and how to make it better. That is all.

I make phone calls, have more discussions, write personal emails of encouragement. I do my best. Years of experience in the workshop setting have taught me a great deal about becoming a writer in the most existential sense. I watch with pleasure as my students begin to think of themselves as writers. And though I am deeply sorry when someone drops away, I don’t take it personally, and hope they will not abandon their writing lives.

A critique is not criticism. By creating a warm and considerate environment with firm rules, I can only do so much. The rest is up to the student: s/he has to meet the workshop, and the workshop process, half-way.  Read More 
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