The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Bard College

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

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One of the great writing gifts of 2014 was connecting with Lisa Harris, an alum from Bard College. We are kindred spirits although I graduated from Bard in 1991 and Lisa in 1974. In February, Lisa gave a terrific interview about writing and the creative process. We have been corresponding ever since. Her guest post today is perfect for January as many of us are grappling with order and our intentions for a creative life.

 

In All Weather, Under Any Circumstance
by Lisa Harris ( ‘Geechee Girls-–2013, Allegheny Dream—2014, Ravenna Press)

My friend tells me, “You have a high need for order in your life.” Of course this is a relative concept, but she is also right. Open a closet, what tumbles out? Open a cupboard, what falls? Reach in a drawer to locate the correct pair of socks, only to leap back at the mess, then grab the first pair and shut the drawer. I unintentionally leave trails, not of breadcrumbs, but of wrappers and tissues and apple cores. In my gardens, grass root plants spread. At first I welcome them by letting them grow. But when they begin to overtake the bed, I yank them. Within days, they wiggle out from beneath stones, and push up through darkest mulch, defiantly resurrected.

In my studio, stacked papers appear as orderly, but peruse them, and you will discover unresolved drafts of poetry collections, novels in progress, sketches of life observed, a quagmire of thoughts and an abundance of observation. Order is an illusion that prevails until it is exposed by life. My true compulsion for order shows up when I write: I work to get the words in the correct order, based in my presumptions about sound and word weight, texture and effect. Try as I might to banish the poet in me, I cannot. No matter how many shields I put up, no matter my effort to block out the noise of the world, I am still held captive by cadences and melodies, the search for the perfect verb and noun, in an effort to reveal, compel and heal.

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As writers we are drawn to the tumbling, falling, spilling, wheedling, charging disorder of creativity—in all weather and under any circumstance. If we could ignore it, we would, but we cannot; it is how we live.

Allegheny Dream, my second published novel, has been a work in progress since 1982 when I wrote poems about the former and formative landscape of my life, my childhood memories, my ancestors’ stories, the Appalachian culture of honor—the petty, lovely, and horrible. I had to recreate to release these ghosts and mine the emotional truth while avoiding memoir or autobiography. This novel had many previous forms: Collisions, a novella of linked short stories; Resurrecting the Quick, a hopelessly dark saga; and Boxes, the emergence of what it was to become—a study in shame and sorrow evolving into a picture of love redeemed. Allegheny Dream eventually stepped into the world whole, like its heroine, Eliza Schnable Friday, who used the Civil War, Gilgamesh, Hamlet and her ancestral knowledge as a compass to relocate herself.

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So, here is the clincher. We cannot ignore the weather or circumstance, the earthquake or the mundane. In fact, we have to experience them, survive them, reflect upon them, and then report. We have to go for walks day and night, in the rain and snow and fog and sun; we have to sit and do nothing, or read, cook, play—all as counterpoint to the deep work of imagining, of making connections between ourselves and the gigantic cosmos—listening for the birthing cicada as it crawls from a rotten log, its wings still wet from emerging; watching the English ivy creeping back despite all attempts to discourage it; and feeling the insistent, finite thumping of our hearts.

And what about losing faith and doubting yourself when you are tired, rejection slips are piling up, and you are overextended with responsibilities? You need to do something visceral with Doubt; spit on it, or light a candle and burn it away. Do not let it prevent you from writing.

My daughter gave me a wall hanging, which reads, “Your story matters. Tell it.” Get a wall hanging. Your story, the one that teases you and nags you, that interrupts your sleep and mocks you, the one that cries to be held and demands to be let go, has only you to tell it. Sequester yourself; pick up your tools and begin.

 

Lisa Harris is a writer, artist and educator. She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology. Her most recent novel is Allegheny Dream with Ravenna Press. Find out more about Lisa at http://lisaharriswriter.com/

I don’t always read the ‘Class Notes’ section of my college alumni publication The Bardian, but I’m grateful I did recently. As soon as I read the blurb about ’Geechee Girls, a debut novel by Lisa Harris, I knew I wanted to read the book and interview the author. ’Geechee Girls is a coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, Georgia, and chronicles two girls (one black, one white) navigating difficult times and difficult circumstances in imaginative and transforming ways.

Bard is a small, private liberal arts college that I graduated from in 1991. It profoundly shaped me. Lisa Harris graduated in 1974 and received her MFA from Bard in 1991. When I read Lisa’s bio, I saw that we had many overlapping interests including an interest in girl’s coming of age stories, female empowerment and creative production across multiple genres.

She says she started writing started when she was nine years old and won the Read Magazine short story prize. She did not write another story though until she was thirty-two (but continued to write poems and still does today). She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology.

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Lisa has received residencies from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation and Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, as well as support from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Ithaca College, and the New York State Council of the Arts.

She is also a collaborative artist and has completed several installations with Carol Spence, print maker; Susan Weisend, print maker; and Nancy Valle, ceramic sculptor.

During the last six weeks, we’ve had a tremendous amount of fun reminiscing about Bard as well as discussing the demands of a creative life. I am in awe of Lisa’s dedication to writing and commitment to the creative process. I am delighted to welcome Lisa Harris to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new novel,’Geechee Girls. Why did you want to write this book?

I lived in coastal Georgia for eight years. Wherever I live, I begin to take in the landscape—until it enters my memory and lives in my bones. Writers are observers, and I watch the world closely. After I left Georgia and moved to New York state, I yearned for the languid humidity, the sweet, rich scent of magnolias, the painted buntings who used to perch in my live oak trees, and the voices of all the people I had listened to—close up and at a distance. I wanted to write a book to bring the world I had been a participant in to readers who have not gotten to live in Savannah and along the Ogeechee Road. I also wanted to preserve my memory of it.

How did you get bitten by the ‘writing bug’? Did you always wish to become an author?

I began writing when I was in fifth grade. I wrote a short story called “King’s Rescue” which won a Read Magazine award, and a poem, “The White Wedding Dress,” at about the same time. I always wanted to be a writer or a detective. Yep, another Nancy Drew fan. I grew up in a family of storytellers and talkers—people who worked to make sense of the world through stories and also used stories to entertain. I received a lot of support and belief from my family. Reading and writing have been good friends to me.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you had to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

Point of view is so important in a story, and I wrestle with it and using tense effectively a lot in my fiction. I have to laugh a little here regarding the question have I ever completely rewritten a story from a different point of view! Yes, and yes, and yes. ‘Geechee Girls  was always in third person—so point of view wasn’t the challenge for me with that book—chronology was—because I wrote the book over a long stretch of time in bits and pieces, in meetings and on planes, at night when I was tired, with a lot of sketches dropped in and pulled out—until, ta-da, I completed it. Every rewrite made it better. Allegheny Dream had three different titles, Collisions, Where the River Meets the Rain, and now Allegheny Dream. It was written from the first person point of view initially and also had the sequencing issues because of my day jobs. In its completed version, it retains the first person point of view in the diary entries, which introduce each chapter, and the majority of the book is in third person. Both books had more than half of their contents published as short stories, so that was a rewriting demand, as well. I had to shape them so they could stand alone, and then reshape them to fit back into the books.

What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching the geography of where your novel is set (i.e. Georgia and Savannah’s Low Country)?

I loved learning more about snakes, birds, and the Yucchi, the first name for the Ogeechee Indians. I did not know that snakes shed their skin in such a way that for a short time they are blind—they wiggle out of their skin as if it is a too tight turtleneck sweater. Echo location intrigued me in bird communication and also the fact of the bird’s extra eyelid. Readers will discover interesting lore about the Yucchi upon reading the book.

What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed (or in your e-reader)? What are you reading right now?

I am reading Pavitra in Paris (Vinita Kinra), background non-fiction regarding Newfoundland and the Vikings for my novel-in-progress, THREAD, Landscapes of the Sacred (Beldan Lane), A Mercy, (Toni Morrison), The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, and the Bible. I read the King James’ Version to help keep my ears smart for beauty in language. I am also reading Julia Hartwig’s In Praise of the Unfinished.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

The best writing tip? Write. Watch and listen. Write. Meditate and travel. Write. Play cards, laugh and watch frogs, and you guessed it, write. Writing is an act of love, an honoring of life. Read!

Lisa Harris is a writer and educator.’Geechee Girls has just been released by Ravenna Press. Her next novel also with Ravenna Press is Allegheny Dream. Find out more about Lisa and how to purchase ’Geechee Girls from her website: http://lisaharriswriter.com/

Photo Credit: Jeff Spence


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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