I remember sitting in a Pizza Hut sometime between Christmas and New Year’s in Mt. Airy, Maryland with three writing friends, Mary Sue, Betty, and Shirley. It was 1997, and someone mentioned an interview they’d read with Maya Angelou, in which she said something to the effect that she’d die if she weren’t able to write.
All three of the others agreed, said that it was the main thing that made their lives worth living. I listened to them, and realized that I didn’t feel that way. Not that I didn’t love writing – I did. At that point I had rearranged my life so that writing could be the focus for me. I had parlayed severance pay, unemployment insurance, and part-time bookstore work into a reasonable living so that I could devote many hours each week to writing a novel.
Would I die if I couldn’t do it? No, no way. And I sat there wondering if I was a failure because I wouldn’t die without writing. Did I really believe that that meant I wasn’t really a writer? Truth be told, I didn’t know.
A few weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my friend David was visiting me from England. His marriage had just ended, and he needed to get away for a while. Since it was January, we did some unusual things like driving up to see Niagara Falls frozen. Not all of it was frozen, but enough of it was so that it was pretty impressive, to say the least.
We saw a few movies, too. David wanted to see Evita. I wasn’t particularly interested, since I wasn’t a big fan of Madonna, Antonio Banderas, or Eva Peron. I did figure Jonathan Pryce would be worth watching, and the music should be good, so I agreed.
It was a revelation. I was completely caught up in the film, and afterwards I told David Madonna was nothing like what I would have expected. I knew who she was, of course, but I’d only heard her music in passing, and I hadn’t seen her videos or films. All I remembered was how all of the female students in the theatre department at Pitt had tried to dress like her. I thought it looked weird, and it definitely didn’t impress me. But the woman I saw in Evita was a serious, committed actress.
It’s hard to say who intrigued me more – Madonna or Eva Peron. I began to study both of them, reading whatever I could find on Eva Peron, and listening to Madonna’s music and watching her videos and films. For someone who followed Madonna from her first hit song through the years to Evita, her growth as a performer may have seemed natural. For someone like me, who sat down and watch the years of growth, discipline, and commitment sandwiched into a month or two of research, it was astonishing. And humbling.
sure to stretch her in some way beyond what she’d done before. In the Immaculate Collection recording, she went from the youthful exuberance of “Holiday” to the haunting quality of “This Used to Be My Playground,” to the complex layers of “Like a Prayer,” and then to the stylized passion of “Vogue.”
The films showed the same kind of progression. Desperately Seeking Susan showed a character similar to the persona Madonna often seemed to portray for the media. Then she played slightly more complex characters in Dick Tracy and the one with Willem Dafoe. Finally, in Evita she took on an enormously complex character based on a real person, and brought her to life. At one point I remember reading a biography of Eva Peron, and there was a description of her as the President’s wife, in an encounter with a very poor child. As I read it, I wept. It felt oddly as if I’d seen it in the film. Oddly, because I hadn’t – the scene was not in the film, but the sense of the character was. Madonna had created such a powerful sense of Eva Peron that when I read the scene in the book, I recognized it from her portrayal.
During this time of intense study of Madonna and Eva Peron, it occurred to me that Madonna’s commitment to her work was exactly what Maya Angelou was talking about when she said she’d die without writing. As I saw the discipline and intensity of Madonna’s growth as singer, dancer, and actor, I recognized that I had never made that kind of total commitment to anything in my life up to that point. Not to writing, not to any of the other interests I’d had.
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?
Early in the series there was an episode which dealt with having a President who had never served in the armed forces acting as commander-in-chief and giving orders to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was easy to understand the misgivings on both sides, and the lack of trust. Then, as the series moved on through the years, the relationships and the trust developed, one of many storylines that carried through season after season.
One of the best aspects of the series was that it used real time. It followed each year of the Presidency beginning with part way through the first year. After 9/11 there was a special episode that addressed terrorism via a lockdown at the White House with a group of school kids. Every major character came through and interacted with them, and though it didn’t move the ongoing story arcs along, it fit in seamlessly with the rest of the series.
Maybe the most important thing I learned came during the second season, when a young, blonde, Republican lawyer named Ainsley Hayes was hired as White House counsel. Her intention was to turn down the position, but during the course of the episode she witnessed the President and his staff dealing with an international crisis. As she said to her friends, they may hold positions with which she strongly disagrees, but they are committed, serious patriots.
Throughout the series, people from both sides of the aisle were honorable and dishonorable. Like human beings everywhere, West Wing showed the best and the worst of us. It was impossible not to feel paranoid in the episode in which Charlie and Debbie are exposed to plague virus, the West Wing is in lockdown, and the Secret Service and the President assure them it was just a drill. The President and Ron, the head of the Secret Service, agree that they don’t need to know.
At the same time, it was equally impossible not to feel moved in the episode in which everything is going wrong for the White House staffers, because they are constantly trying to play it safe. At the end, when Leo and the President decide to take risks and tackle the tough issues, Leo asks the senior staff how they feel about it. One by one they respond with “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” It sent chills down my back. (See YouTube clip)
West Wing was never afraid to show mistakes on both sides of the aisle, too, and that added to its credibility. It also made me realize that no matter what my beliefs around party, in the end, what matters most is the integrity and the intention of those who serve. Political life in Washington, particularly in the White House, means putting your personal life second. How many times were senior staff still working at the White House till late at night, then back again early the next morning? Granted, this was a television series, but it is clear that the writers did their homework.
During that campaign, I sat down and watched coverage of the primaries. I watched each candidate, Republican or Democrat, because I’d learned from West Wing not to limit my views according to party. One weekend I was able to watch the 7 or 8 major candidates speaking at various rallies. Most of what I heard was simple political rhetoric, which was unimpressive to me. No substance. Two people had something to say that had substance – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
I have to admit that I didn’t like what Mitt Romney stood for, but I thought he made some good points when he spoke. What I realized, watching him over the next few weeks, was that I liked his ability to think, and to be able to articulate what he was thinking. His positions weren’t mine, but I respected his intelligence. Barack Obama had both the ability to think, and beliefs I could support. I did have some doubts about his lack of experience, but he was campaigning with humor, intelligence, and compassion.
The decider for me was how Obama handled the Rev. Wright situation. I listened to his speech on race in Philadelphia, and was moved to tears. He never tried to distance himself from his pastor, and at the same time, refused to support what he had said. He said even his white grandmother said things that made him cringe, and don’t we all have people in our lives like that? He would not say he didn’t love them, even if he didn’t agree with them. And he was able to see more, see a wider field of understanding and humanity. By the end of that speech, I knew I would vote for him for President.
Knowing that, I still watched both conventions, Democratic and Republican. It felt important to see and understand both parties. West Wing helped me to see how essential it is to not close any doors, but to stay open to people as people. As I watched the Republican convention, I realized that we were being offered a choice. McCain was appealing to our fears. He was letting us know he would protect us. As a war hero, and a returned prisoner of war, that was a powerful message. Obama was appealing to our faith. Not our religious faith, but our faith in ourselves as human beings who could work with him to stand up and heal our country.
Protection doesn’t come from outside. It comes from inside. It comes from an open heart, not from a closed mind. West Wing taught me that the deepest foundations of our country were built on the belief in humanity.
To this day, I try to watch both conventions in their entirety, so that I can have a real understanding of what is going on in each party, and with each candidate. I set myself a deadline to have my first draft for my work-in-progress done by July 18th, so that I can watch the two weeks of convention coverage that start that night.
To this day, I am moved to tears by President Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia during the campaign of 2008. He was able to address a difficult personal issue with grace, compassion, and love. More than that, he was able to look beyond himself and see the bigger picture, and address that as well.
To this day, The West Wing continues to teach me every time I watch, as a writer, and as a human being. I hope that one day my own writing can have a fraction of that effect on others.
P.S. It's almost 8:30 pm the night before this gets posted, and I've just finished watching the last episode of season three, Posse Comitatus, as I work my way through the series for the umpteenth time. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it already, but the last 10 minutes of that episode are quite possibly the best 10 minutes ever offered on a television drama series. Without giving anything away, the orchestration of actors, script and storyline, visuals, and music is both astonishing and devastating on many different levels.
What books, films, TV shows, have had a profound effect on you - politically or otherwise?
This is my first post on my first blog. Where have I been to only be joining this aspect of social media now? Well, since 2000 much of my time has been spent in a Zen Buddhist community - some in San Francisco, some in Carmel Valley - and in both places, with limited access to the internet and time.
At City Center in San Francisco we got up late – the wake-up bell didn’t ring until 4:50 am, and you had to be in the zendo in less than 30 minutes. That was leisurely. At Tassajara, the monastery in Carmel Valley, during the fall and winter practice periods the wake-up bell was at 3:40 am, and zazen started at 4:20, though you had to be in your seat about 10 minutes earlier than that.
I spent most of the years 2000-2015 on that schedule, with a 3-year side trip to Naropa University in Boulder, CO for a master’s program, and two years in Pittsburgh, PA with my dad while my mother was dying from Alzheimer’s. So I spent 10 of 15 years in what you might call Buddhist boot camp, with not a lot of time for writing, internet, or technology.
I missed the whole unveiling of Facebook – 2004 was the year I went to Tassajara, which is in the Ventana Wilderness. It’s at the end of a 14-mile dirt road that goes from 1500 feet above sea level up to about 5000 on the ridge and back down to about 1500 again. The part from the ridge down into Tassajara drops 3500 feet in 4 miles – no guardrails, mostly one lane, with turnouts to pass. Over the years I drove that dirt road hundreds of times, and that final drop into the valley that is Tassajara literally drops out of one world and into a whole other world, one without social media.
In the 10 years at San Francisco Zen Center I worked at City Center and Tassajara in the kitchen, various offices, cabin crew, the women’s bathhouse, the shop, the library, drove the “stage” for guest season, and lived and worked at Jamesburg (the support/staging area for Tassajara). Although I did, at times, use a computer for my work, I never accessed any kind of social media, though I heard other people talk about it. The other 5 years at Naropa and with my dad, I had too much occupying my time and my mind to focus on anything else.
I’ve been out in the world again for a year and five months, and now that I’m starting this writing workshop, it’s time. I’m taking the plunge, and joining the blogging world in this way. I would imagine I’ll make some mistakes, and I expect I’ll learn a great deal in the process.
What I’ve discovered already is that neither I nor this workshop will have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media, unless someone else writes about us. There was a less than 24-hour period during which I created a Facebook account, set up a page for the workshop, and friended some people. After a brief break for dinner, I logged back on to discover dozens of posts on my personal page, which I’d intended never to use, and that no one had found my workshop page, which was the point of the whole exercise.
That was fixable and I knew it. What wasn’t fixable was how I felt. It literally made me feel sick to the results of my efforts – I didn’t see any way that I could manage Facebook plus other social media, continue with my full time job, and continue to write. It felt invasive, overwhelming, and it didn’t feel as if that had anything to do with what I was trying to share through the workshop.
Not wanting to overreact, I logged off and did some dishes. Then I sat and listened to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. Suddenly I was sitting in front of the fireplace thirty years ago in my old Shadyside apartment, a glass of Cabernet in my hand and deep in conversation with a friend. No one I knew even owned a computer at that time.
Do I wish I could go back in time to those days? No way. I learned a great deal in the years since then for which I am grateful, including the wonder of computers and the internet. What came up as I listened to the music was the importance of connection. I want to connect with people through the workshop. I want to share what I’ve learned from Gary Provost and Natalie Goldberg and many of the other amazing writers and teachers I’ve known over the years.
There’s no denying the reach of Facebook and the other social media, and many people use it to great effect. Perhaps if I were trying to get hundreds or thousands to my workshops, that would make it more compelling. I’m not. I have space for 25 people at the November workshop, assuming everyone gets her or his own room. And I can make it work with fewer than 25, but that’s my max.
Carol (Doc) Dougherty
An avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop