For Judi Hill
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
The thrill of the city is that it is always moving: you will never run out of things to do. Houston holds out her hand, and you take, take, take: The Alley Theater, The Houston Symphony, The Menil Collection. I could never leave and still feel like I was touring the globe. We don’t have to try to be diverse, multicultural, international, endlessly interesting. We already are. Many days, I spiral the city on Beltway 8, driving to my university in the southwest part of the city. There is a lot of concrete, brick, and mortar around me. Nature has been tamed for so much for our progress. Nature punctuates the city, not the other way around.
In May, I teach a writing course. It is intense–two weeks, no kidding around. Well, some kidding around. I love these students. I tell them: “You are Stepford students! I have dreamed of this for years! You do everything I say! Now I can die!” They really are not “Stepford students,” but they can appreciate a little comic relief: we are working so hard. We read about that delusional Jay Gatsby, that histrionic Hamlet, lots of poems. Dickinson, Plath, Stevens. None of them are English majors. At the end, one of the students tells me that we are all English majors, whether we know it or not.
One day they take a test, but I don’t like to phrase it that way. I say we are writing essays, like Montaigne. We are just giving it a go, figuring things out. What else is there in this world but figuring it out? Before, we had talked about the controversy over “trigger warnings” in literature classes. When they are writing, I write my own essay on “Trigger Warnings in Hamlet.” I like to write with them, even if it does not come out perfectly. That is how it goes with writing. You have to give it a try. We are all excited when my essay is run by The Federalist. The class is happy for me: we are a team, and we cheer each other on. We are not adversaries: it is us against the blank page. We want to conquer, claim victory, win. It’s more fun when you realize that there is a lot of room for great writing in the world: there is no downside if we all get better at it, even if it is difficult.
There are funny moments. One student tells me, “I always hated writing, and now I kind of like it, but I am starting to hate YOU because you are completely messing up my identity as a non-writer.” I know: I have a good gig, making people read, getting them addicted, providing the gateway drug to writing, ruining their lives. After he tells me this, I say, “Can you tell this to my Dean?” We laugh. He is going to be a doctor. He is going to save lives. He is so bright, he does not even know how much.
At the end of the course, we ask each other what we are doing for the rest of the summer, the rest of our lives. I tell them I am taking a class, just like them. My pre-med student says, “It never ends, does it?” Well, not if you are lucky.
I want to tell them that I love the city, and I really do.
But sometimes you have to light out for the territory, ship out of New Bedford, leave Nebraska behind. In Houston, we are at sea level. Sometimes, you have to reach a higher elevation. Sometimes, you have to leave the big city, at least for a little while. You need more nature, more freedom, the wilderness. You need to get out of Dodge.
I am going to the mountains. I have to fly to South Carolina first, rent a car, drive to North Carolina, drive up a mountain. Sometimes, you have to travel a long way to get to where you need to be.
I fly Southwest Airlines to Greenville without incident. I am excited but a little nervous–not about the flight, but about the destination. I am going to Wildacres, in North Carolina, where I will take my class. Lots of well-known writers will be there. Lots of writers go back year after year–I feel lucky even to be accepted to take a class.
I land, but my luggage does not. I have a long discussion with the good people of Southwest Airlines. Apparently, this has happened before. I always wanted to use the word “nonplussed” in a sentence, and now I can. They are nonplussed. I realize that “plussed” is not technically a word in English, but maybe it should be, as that is what I am. The young woman “helping” me tells me this is just one of those things she can’t do anything about. I love that Pam Tillis song, but I am having trouble listening to her talk.
I ask her what she suggests I do while I am at the mercy of all the things that she cannot control. She says I should wait for the next flight from Houston, hope for the best. And that is exactly what I do.
My luggage does not arrive, but I have to leave. My trip to the mountains is starting to turn into an overnight at an airport. They are expecting me at Wildacres, it is getting later, I have already missed dinner, and storm clouds are starting to form. I have a purse with no makeup in it and a backpack with a lot of stuff I don’t need. It is not lost on me that everyone has baggage, and I want mine back. I call Judi, the director of the program. I already like her because even though we have never met, she is ready to go to battle with me against Southwest Airlines: I need my lip gloss in order to write. She absolutely gets me even though we have never met. She does not patronize: none of this “bless your heart” business. She says, “Come on anyway. Don’t worry, they will get your luggage here.” Annie, the night clerk at Wildacres, tells me she will stay up, will be looking for me. I want to hug her through the phone. I know no one there.
I get in my rental car, drive away from the greenness of Greenville, hope my directions are accurate. After a few miles, it starts to rain.
3. Spruce Pine
I drive though lots of small towns. It is Sunday, nothing is open. I keep hoping I will find a Wal-Mart, a K-Mart, anything. I have never been through this part of South Carolina. Suddenly, I see a Family Dollar. I think that is what it is. I don’t think we have those in Texas. I am so grateful to see the fluorescent lights. The sky is threatening–the rain has stopped, but it is so gray. I jump out of my car, go in. Everything is in disarray, like there has been a run on Family Dollar. I am in a small South Carolina town, but I don’t know what it is called–was there even a sign? I know I am going to be at Wildacres–a non-profit retreat for education and art–for two whole weeks where I will write and attend class. I think about just getting the minimum–soap, toothbrush, toothpaste–a few things. But then I think my luggage might be in Anchorage, and I buy forty dollars worth of stuff, just in case. I buy a Clemson shirt with a deer and hunting logo on the back. I have never been to Clemson and never hunted in my life, but I am so happy to find a shirt that might fit that I am perfectly willing to be part of someone else’s marketing strategy. Maybe that will get me through.
At this point my head is starting to pound, and I buy a real Coke out of one of those little refrigerators that sells drinks. When I was growing up, if you hit a glitch, you didn’t necessarily call the authorities, stage a protest, or seek therapy. You just got some crushed ice, poured Coca-Cola over it, drank it down, and went on with your life. I am not saying you shouldn’t do these other things–I am just saying it was a simpler time. I tell the check-out girl I am sorry but I have already opened the Coke because Southwest Airlines lost my luggage and that is why I am buying all this stuff. She says, “No problem. I am so sorry. But you got some good stuff.” She doesn’t give me that look that people give me that asks why I am not drinking Diet Coke. I hate that look. So judgmental. She doesn’t do that. She folds my Clemson shirt as if it were for Cleopatra. She puts all of my cosmetics in double bags and tells me to drive carefully. I tell her I am going to Little Switzerland in North Carolina, and I can tell she has no idea where I am going, and let’s get real: neither do I.
I get in my rental car. It starts to pour. I think if I can just get through South Carolina to the sign for Spruce Pine, I will be okay. It is so rural in parts, I could disappear if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. I want to be found, in Little Switzerland, on the top of the mountain, by Annie, who is waiting up for me.
4. Little Switzerland
Somehow, I get to the place where you turn off to go up the mountain to Little Switzerland. I was there once in the nineties, at a short retreat for writing teachers, but I wasn’t driving, and I was coming from a completely different direction. A miraculous thing had already happened to me there. I was going into the dining hall and met a friend of mine from high school. Missy was teaching theater in Charlotte, I was teaching English at Chapel Hill and Elon University. When I saw her, our eyes got as big as dinner plates: she looked exactly the same. How amazing to meet in such a remote place, after so many years, so far from Texas! We ended up having children the same age. We keep up to this day. I am lucky that way: I have adventures, and they tend not to end.
This time, I was driving up the mountain in the driving rain. It was dark, foggy, pouring, and then not, and then pouring again. At the base of the mountain, I had to call my parents. If I don’t make it up the mountain, they will have to tell the search party where to look. I had to tell them there were emergency workers fishing out a car that had gone off the shoulder into high water. I didn’t think there could be high water in the mountains, but there was. I start the ascent, and the fog makes me understand why people think they see figments of their imagination, like Sasquatch. I don’t believe in those things, but I have to admit that going up the mountain in the pitch dark with fog and hard rain, one tenuous curve after another, does carry a sufficient creep quotient. I am not this really new-agey person at all, but I have a flickering moment when I hydroplane on a curve and think that maybe the universe is trying to tell me that I shouldn’t even be going to Wildacres at all: I should have stayed in the city, taken some course online, played it safe. Now, that sounds ridiculous–what kind of adventure would that be? When I see the sign Judi tells me to look for, I feel hopeful, and keep driving. It’s not like you can back down a mountain anyway, you just have to keep going.
Then I get there, check in, make it to my room. I don’t have any luggage to schlep around–just a few double bags from Family Dollar. I dump out my purse on the bed. I have a small thing of make-up, and two tubes of lip gloss. I have some Tylenol and an extra toothbrush–I forgot I packed that stuff. I guess I was thinking ahead, just in case.
Later, the next day, Southwest Airlines delivers my luggage. The college kid delivering it takes it up several flights of stairs, and I give him a big tip because he had to drive up the mountain in the rain, just like I did. He tells me he works in the summers, just like I did. I tell him how grateful I am that he brought my luggage–I can’t survive two weeks without it. He smiles and says, “No problem,” and I wonder how many deliveries he has to make from Greenville. He says it isn’t too bad–that he listens to music, likes to drive. I give him a book, but tell him not to read and drive. He laughs, says “Yes Ma’am,” and walks down the wooden stairs. Sometimes, you cannot help but like people, no matter what, no matter what reason brings them into your life.
I start to meet people. Some of them are famous, but they don’t act like it. I start to calm down. I meet Judi in person, and tell her about my big adventure. She tells me that I am a tough cookie, and I love that, and I am happy that I didn’t retreat and go back down that mountain when the going got rough. That’s how it goes sometimes: hard start, then, if you are open to it, surprises.
The town nearby is Little Switzerland, but the place where I am writing and studying is called Wildacres. All the mail goes to Little Switzerland. You can sit on a porch and look out onto the mountains–the weather changes, kaleidoscopically, and so you never feel like you are in the same place. Warm and calm, blustery and rainy, cool like fall, it is everything, even in July.
Judi has a few rules: you have to wear a name tag at all times. You think this might sound funny: everyone is over 21, and many attendees know each other already. But she knows what she is doing. By the end, not only do I know everyone’s name, I care who they are, and I make a note to myself to have my students wear name tags at the beginning of the semester. When you know someone’s name, you can’t be so careless about everything, and if you are going to write, you have to care. There are no indifferent writers. They may care about different things, but you have to care about someone, or something. Otherwise, there is no reason to put it into words. Neutrality and indifference are the enemies of art.
You also have to write every day. This is not really a rule: everyone does it. I write and I write and I write. I am on the top of a mountain in July, even over July 4th, and I am free. No one is making me do anything. I write for the sheer love of it. I am around nature–I hike in the mountains, see the flowers, the trees. I go on hikes with people I have just met and I feel like I know them. I have gone up the mountain, into the woods. I don’t have a map. But it still feels like I am going somewhere, around every bend, up to Crabtree Falls, down the trails of Wildacres. I think of all the rules I had to follow when I had a really dictatorial chair once. It was insufferable. I think of all the creativity he killed–not just with me, but my whole department. I think it was a sort of crime.
Here, I see the sheer genius of freedom: it allows people to do better than any rules would ever allow. You are not coming up with the words you think someone wants to hear. You are figuring out what is important, and then how you would translate that into language worth hearing. Freedom has not made you run wild. It has made you want to find the best form for what you have to say. The wilderness does not make you fear repercussions: it makes you want to create.
I write poems–I never do that. I write short fiction–I seldom do that. I write notes for this essay–I do that all the time, but it feels exhilarating and new. Maybe it is all the nature surrounding me–I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of traffic in my head–not from cars, not from the internet, not from my gmail. I work a lot on a longer project I am working on. I was stalling, but now it seems like there is hope for it. In nature, we are reminded of creation, and it cannot help itself–it inspires. Nature is the muse. How can the wilderness lead us into discipline? I don’t know how it works, but it does. Lots of writers have made this point: Emerson, Wordsworth, Keats, Thoreau, Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson, Oliver, Dillard. The difference is now I believe them.
Another thing is you have to read each night–you have to read your work, to an audience, from a podium. You aren’t forced, but almost everyone does. At first, it is in a small room. Everyone is working on something different, everyone is taking risks. It is not competitive–you are happy because everything is interesting in its own way. At first, I was scared. I did not know anyone. Why would they want to listen to what I wrote? Judi points at you when it is time for you to read. Like irresistible grace, there is no refusal. You get up, read, see what happens.
This is what happens: you learn. And, you get better. Sure, you go to class, and that is great. My teacher, Marjorie Hudson, spends so much time writing comments on our manuscripts, it takes my breath away. Her first prompt for our class is to imagine not having a lot of money in a Family Dollar. I cannot script this stuff–things connect without me even asking for it. Not everyone in my class is crazy about what I have to say about their work, but I hit the workshop lottery because I am crazy about what they have to say about my work. I am lucky that way: I meet authentic people who tend to give it to me straight.
I audit a few classes. The fiction writer John Dufresne, who came all the way from Florida, told this story about one of his students who was going through a terrible divorce. He told him, “I know this is a really hard time, BUT TAKE NOTES.” I just loved that. Terrible things happen every day, but if you write about them, maybe you can help someone. You never know.
I also audit Luke Whisnant’s class. He teaches at East Carolina. So, the first day he teaches this story I have never read before. I kind of like to think I have been around the block a few times in terms of reading short fiction: I’m no rookie. Well, forget that because I had never read a story like this in my life. It was written in second person. It was the best kind of fiction because it was so believable you thought it might be real. I remember thinking: this story could be about me, or anyone you have ever met, if she were from a little town in Mississippi, and moved to Los Angeles, and then was completely devoured by that city. You know how excited you are when you read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and it is all about gorgeous dead Michael Fury, and you realize that everyone in that story, well in that entire BOOK, Dubliners, is dead, except for Michael Fury, who is the only one alive, alive in everyone’s heads, and ruining it for everyone, in their dead, dead-end lives? Well that is how I felt after I read that story that Luke taught this class I just happened to audit. I kid you not.
At night, after the writing, after the work, after the readings, musicians play, actors act, but this is not amateur hour. These are professionals. I make fast friends with some of them. Some of them are so good that I cannot believe they are on top of this mountain performing for free. I am so glad they are “trapped” on the mountain. None of them know me, but they get that I wish I could be them, wish I could play, wish I could sing, wish I could act. There is nothing wrong with a good dose of admiration for something that you cannot do. I love to hear Freddy play and I cannot believe how prolific he is with his songwriting. He acts like it is no big deal. I can’t play like him, so I write a piece about him instead. Sometimes you do what you can with what you have. As long as you are trying, you feel like you are progressing, moving upward, breathing air that you can’t always find in the city.
So the last week you have to really come up with the goods, because you read in a huge auditorium in front of all the teachers and your classmates and everyone, so you better know how to pick out your best work. And even if you are nervous, you are grateful that you have the freedom and chance to read your work to these people. So I steal like an artist, and write this short story in second person about this girl from Texas and, love it or hate it, there is no way I would have ever had the guts to write that story unless I had audited Luke’s class and read that story he taught. It would never have even gotten on my radar. Sometimes, you have to learn new things before you can try new things.
Sometimes, even if you are already a professor, you need to go back to class.
Sometimes it is a class on something that you have never studied before. Sometimes, nature is your teacher, and you look at it, think about it, decide that you, too, will try to create something. It might not be the perfect flower, or as massive as a mountain, but you can try.
At Wildacres, many people are from North and South Carolina, but not everyone. Alaine comes from California, Carly from New York, Nicole from Toronto, John from Chicago. Naomi comes all the way from Hawaii. Sometimes, you have to travel a long way to get where you need to be.
What forces of nature are at work when we greet the day, navigate the week, pencil in maybe the most important two weeks of your year? This is the gift of Wildacres: you don’t leave with all the answers, but you have met people you would have never met if left to your own devices, and you are so happy that you are not in control of how everything happens. If you were, you would never lose your luggage, never drive up rain-soaked mountains, never feel the joy of the sun-drenched day that follows the fog-covered night. You would be your own worst enemy. Instead, you realize all of God’s creation around you has a beauty that you can only hope to imitate, but you hope anyway. You look at the blank page, fill it up with your own landscape of words. You learn how to try. If things don’t go perfectly, you don’t fold. Instead, you have to Scarlett O’Hara it: tomorrow is another day.
How can we explain what happens when we get out of the city, reach a higher destination, a higher elevation, spend a little time in the wilderness? Sometimes, we cannot. It is too overwhelming, too good, too good for words. Sometimes, it is like falling in love, and words fail.
But sometimes, the words come falling fast, like pouring rain on the side of a mountain, and you are so lucky if you have had someone teach you how you might catch them, save them from oblivion, figure out how to preserve them. I say that because I think that often, that is what words are for. I say this so that maybe, someday, someone who is dying of thirst can drink them down, be quenched, move forward.