Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop
That was almost twenty-five years ago, and Gail is still one of my closest friends. Gary, unfortunately, died of a heart attack only four years after we met. His influence on me, both as a writer and as a human being, will never die.
At that first workshop, I found Gary to be funny, generous, and more than anything, compassionate. After dinner the first night we met as a group, and in the course of that first session I discovered I had a victim to whom things happened, but not a real main character with a plot. It is a measure of Gary’s skill as a teacher that this devastating news (I had already written 75 pages that pretty much had to be thrown out) felt like an opportunity, not a death knell.
Thanks to Gary’s patience and willingness to work with me, those ten days taught me more about writing than anything else in my entire life up to that point. By the end of the workshop I had found out how to write from the heart of a character, how to make the character active instead of reactive, and how to organize my ideas into a novel.
Gary had developed a 14-point plan for writing a novel, and I followed it faithfully. Not only did I complete the novel, but I found an agent at a later workshop who took me on as a client. I had some wonderful rejection letters, and started my next book. That my first novel was never published was not Gary’s fault, nor my agent’s. I had made some choices that made it tough to market, and the quality of my writing, while good, wasn’t good enough to transcend the problems.
Eventually I dropped several half-baked ideas I’d been working on when I found one that was powerful enough to make me almost sick to my stomach when I first thought of it. I didn’t try to write it yet, just thought about it, made notes, did some research, and then went to another workshop. I started writing the book there, and flew through the pages. Gary read, commented, suggested, and encouraged me.
It was my fourth workshop, my third with the full curriculum (I’d been to one of the advanced workshops as well). Although the curriculum was basically the same, I learned more and more all the time. And at this workshop Gary and I became friends. It’s not that we weren’t before. But somehow at this workshop I realized that Gary was the warmest, most generous man I’d known, and part of his generosity was how he taught. He never picked on anyone, nor did he use sarcasm or any unkind comments. He was always aware of people’s feelings, and how vulnerable they were with their writing.
We also shared a love of sports, particularly horse racing and football. One year both the Steelers (my team) and the Patriots (his team) were in the playoffs. When the Steelers were knocked out of the playoffs, Gary was on the phone before the credits had rolled on the TV, not to gloat, but to commiserate. And when the Patriots were knocked out the next week, I called him.
In May of 1995, he was in Pittsburgh for a writing conference, and I went out to the hotel to meet him. It was the day of the Kentucky Derby, and once he finished his talks, we went up to his room to watch the race and order room service. Gail was in Kentucky seeing one of her sons, and he called her, then we watched the race and talked.
It was the only time in the few years I knew him when we had time together with no one else around, and no time limits on our conversation. We talked about writing, movies, life, relationships, and more writing. One of the things he said to me was that he thought I should think about doing a workshop with Natalie Goldberg. He thought her books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind were great, and that I might be able to dig deeper emotionally in my writing if I worked with her.
It was amazing. He made his living from writing and teaching writing, yet here he was telling me I could learn something he thought I needed from someone else. Incredible generosity.
I’ve never forgotten that Kentucky Derby. Gary’s choice was Afternoon Delight, because it reminded him of Gail. My early choice had been the filly, Serena’s Song, but when I watched her in the paddock I didn’t think she’d win. I did like the look of another of her trainer’s entries, Thunder Gulch. He won, and
I’ve never forgotten that Derby or that day. It was as if a lifetime of friendship was packed into one afternoon. Three days later, Gary died of a heart attack, just as he and Gail walked into the house from the airport.
Gail let me teach, and although I continued to write, I found the teaching far more enjoyable. Somehow, with Gary’s death, the fun had gone out of my writing. I finally studied with Natalie Goldberg, the year she was the keynote speaker and a teacher at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was close to Pittsburgh, and less expensive than her workshops in New Mexico.
Nat gave me my first meditation instruction during one of her classes. I’d tried meditation before at the suggestion of my doctor, but found counting my breaths boring and stupid. What Nat told us to do was just to sit and watch the activity of our mind. It was unlike any experience I’d had before. By the end of the week, I knew my life had changed. I had a chance to talk with Nat on the last day, and I told her I’d had lots of questions, but they were about sitting, not writing. She smiled and said to come and study with her in Taos.
I did that, and while at Yellow Springs I also asked her if it would be all right to use writing practice at the Writers Retreat Workshop. At that point, I’d taught at the workshop for two years, and knew that writing practice would be tremendously helpful to everyone, not just me. Nat just looked at me, seeming to be a little puzzled that I was asking, and said, “Of course. Writing practice doesn’t belong to me. It’s been around for hundreds of years!”
I ended up studying with Nat at her workshop in Taos several times, and it was my time with her that led me onto the path of Zen Buddhism. For the first seven years I was at San Francisco Zen Center the only writing I did was writing practice. When I went to Naropa University for a master of divinity program, I used writing practice to write my papers and my thesis. And when I went back to writing fiction, writing practice was the foundation of every scene. It was what kept me from writer’s block, and when I combined it with exercises from Don Maass or Lisa Cron, it became a focused practice.
Nat’s generosity and lack of possessiveness about what she was teaching, writing as a practice, reminded me of Gary’s generosity. I marveled at how these two teachers had taught me so much, and yet were incredibly generous in what they offered. They weren’t simply teaching methods or ideas or a curriculum – they were teaching the deeper truth of what it means to be a human being. Their generosity, both Gary’s and Nat’s, was the secret to their successful teaching and writing. By working with open, loving hearts, they reached the hearts of others, and helped them to open to their own gifts and abilities.
Who has influenced your life and work? What teachers have taught you the most?