Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Gathering

© 2009 Elizabeth Milligan

The last line of the invitation read: This is the only mailing you will receive.

A glossy oversized postcard, the invitation arrived in the mail one day late in Spring. The event, a four-day symposium on writing and creativity, was scheduled in July near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Featured authors included: Gregory Maguire, Salman Rushdie, Loung Ung, Ibtisam Barakat, and Nancy Willard.

Intrigued, I registered at once.

On the appointed mid-summer day, I rose early and drove the five plus hours to La Plume, Pennsylvania. After four days of learning and communing with kindred spirits, I returned with a blank evaluation form. Yesterday was the first time I had a few hours to address questions on the form. Believe it or not, the following are just selections from my responses. It is as much as I can muster, for the moment!

The Gathering 2009: There and Back Again Conference Evaluation

Please share your comments about the following speakers and presentations:

1. Individual Sessions

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Invocation by Sujata Nair-Mulloth
I was fascinated with the idea of dance and story being so integrated. However, I could not see her from where I sat (towards the middle and on the right hand side). My view was very obstructed and then, only of her head and sometimes shoulders. I liked that the story behind her dance was related to us. I would have liked to hear more of how her performance set the stage for the symposium.

Backyard Babylon: Gregory Maguire
His wonderfully animated description of the imaginations teaming in the backyard more than compensated for what seemed to me to be an uncharacteristically plodding and academic beginning. It was the difference between rapt storytelling, in the case of the backyard Babylon, and a tedious university lecture. Mr. Maguire’s voice went from a monotone in the first part to the lyrical voices of children in the latter part. I believe one could physically feel the gear shift in audience engagement when he launched into the Backyard Babylon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Secret Life of Doors: Nancy Willard
I loved the story she wrote for this Gathering and that she read to us. It too was all about the power of imagination and storytelling – told differently. The wonderful ease with which one can be transported from the very realistic to a world of magic, the fine line between the two, and the unspoken invitation to all of us to open those secret doors. Also, liked hearing about the positive correlation of using one’s hands to create and good writing.

Interdisciplinary panel moderated by Erika Funke
Erika was a brilliant star! I loved her animated gestures, her articulate questions and observations, her timing, and her clarification of questions from the audience. Although all the panelists had cogent things to say, Gregory Maguire was the best panelist. I really liked his comment that writing is a terribly lonely profession and that gatherings like this one were very good in that they reminded us of our community – or something like that. Also, liked that he solicited questions from the audience for his upcoming conversation with Salman Rushdie to use in addition to his own prepared questions.

Core lecture: Joanna Rudge Long
It was so incredibly well though out and crafted to be both crystal clear and perfectly in tune with the theme of the conference. Loved the concept of a freefall down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. However, I wish there had been a more animated delivery.

Step Over This Line: Sir Salman Rushdie
Impressed with his gracious manner and funny delivery. Impressed with the civil and gracious way he handled some challenging questions. Interesting to hear that the Satanic Verses had been in bookstores a good six months before the Ayatollah noticed them and that but for that, the world would not have known Salman Rushdie. That less than 3% of books written outside of the USA are translated into English. That increasing that percentage was part of his mission as a member of the Booker Board. Wish he had said something more about at least one or two of his other books – well known or not.

Off the record, learned some very interesting things about him and his language. Although his name is Arabic, he says it is Farsi. The two languages share an alphabet but not meaning. Anyway, I enjoyed meeting him at the reception so that I could thank him for his beautiful language and tell him my daughter thinks he is a god. He told me to tell her that he said “Hi”! I did.

Conversation: Gregory Maguire and Sir Salman Rushdie
So impressed with Mr. Maguire’s articulate and pointed questions and timing. Interested to learn that Rushdie had written about Oz. Interested to hear Rushdie say that his favorite book of his own is Haroun and the Sea of Stories (mine, too – although I am really enjoying his Enchantress of Florence). That he wrote Haroun for his son and that a lot of famous and good books are books written for children, e.g., Alice and Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh (and Mr. Maguire added – Little House on the Prairie). That Rushdie’s
youngest son is waiting anxiously for a book of his own! Was interesting to hear that the drawing of Christopher Robin is really a drawing not of the real CR, but of a friend who was with him a day A.H. Milne met with CR’s family. Was interesting that Salman Rushdie talked about this and then, with a great deal of compassion for the real CR.

Time, Place, and Music: Dr. Stephen Thomas
So interested to learn the progression of sound pulses from the outside world to our brain. So interested to mull over the implications of how those pulses are synthesized in our brains. I was also wondering how pulses of 4,000 beats per whatever could travel unimpeded to our brain, but then, guess that was too esoteric to get into at that time! Anyway, I enjoyed listening to music from 2000 BC through 2003 or so. I fear this very solid presentation suffered from the lack of good framing, especially at the beginning. For example, how does all this relate to the theme of the conference? What doors does it open? (for me, one was to mull over implications as I said earlier) You could tell that Dr. Thomas was very into his subject – it was almost as if he was speaking from another world, a private reverie, while music played. We want to be there, too! Note: when the music wasn’t playing, his delivery was much flatter, as if he was strictly imparting info – just like an academic lecture. Of course, that would be entirely expected given that he IS a professor – but when the symposium pivots on storytelling, the audience expects to learn via stories and magic – methinks!

Memoirs of the Human Heart: Loung Ung
A bit long but entirely worthwhile and riveting. At times, it seems that she went off in tangents important to her and not particularly relevant to the conference’s theme, but then, maybe she had free reign to do so! In any event, she always reeled us back to her personal story. I heard some in the audience remark that she was talking about her book, which they found redundant because they had already read it – it was on the Gathering’s reading list – but since I had not, I was totally engaged! I was also impressed with the parallels of Loung’s story from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to my suitemate Ibtisam’s story from Ramallah in the West Bank.

A strand of Ibtisam’s story: As a journalism student working on her Masters at university, she was one of the students invited to speak with some visiting US journalists (the Nation Magazine). Before her turn came to speak, Israeli forces had entered town and there was much gunfire. They had to evacuate the building. Before evacuation, however, Ibtisam wrote her question down on a piece of paper and handed it to one of the Nation’s editors. He was so impressed and told her that no one else had thought to do that. Per Ibtisam, the Nation, working from its NYC base, got her out of the West Bank. She says that the Nation is largely Jewish-owned.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Miller’s Tale: Film and talk by Rebecca Marshall Ferris
Appreciated the work (five years) that went into this and Rebecca’s strong feelings for Jason and for Tim. Also appreciated that she asked for comments at this Worldwide Premiere. Hope to catch it when it airs on PBS.

Farewell at Hull’s Spring Hills Farm
The event was stunningly perfect. Bucolic setting, lovely people, beautiful program, and lunch.
Margaret Hull’s welcome was brilliant. It said so much about our relationship to each other and the earth and their importance.

Karen Blomain’s synthesis was such a good idea. I wish the comments she elicited were recorded for all of us, a sort of memory book. The only thing I did not like was her request for snippets of conversations overheard. Seems wrong to me. However, it reminded me that I have such a snippet. The difference being I will only share it with a select few of my friends.

On Ibtisam’s “benediction” - I know benediction is generic, but …in my mind, it negates the kind of inclusion that this conference was all about. I think other terms, like farewell song or closing or something totally nonsecular, would have been better. That said, Ibtisam’s very lyrical singing was the showstopper! Enchanting and magical, it transported us through one of those secret doors Ms. Willard spoke of.


Friday workshop - Ibtisam Barakat – Memoir
Well, I really wanted this one and was thrilled to find out that I was scheduled for it. However, on the day of the workshop, I was a pretty unengaged attendee. I was tired and hot. I felt as if I were in an encounter group and that I was being asked questions about feelings. I could not see their relevance to memoir. Nonetheless, I really tried to respond to Ibtisam’s requests. Sometimes, it took some minutes before I could think of what to write. Later, I realized that a large reason I was so slow was because she was asking us to do very unconventional and brilliant work that would prepare us to write memoir. They were questions that asked us to open doors within ourselves so that our feelings could be released and articulated. I will try later to articulate better and more completely what I mean, but for now, suffice it to say that it was an incredibly meaningful workshop. Everyone I have described it to is totally in awe. I was impressed that she never asked anyone to articulate their thoughts out loud. She trusted us to write.

One of the questions was about things we were most proud of. Ibtisam said that she was most proud when she became an American citizen. (Ibtisam grew up in poverty in Ramallah, the West Bank. She is free now and not afraid of expressing or celebrating anything.)

Me – I am not so free and easy. In fact, based on my lackluster response in her workshop, I am downright repressed. However, I am working on it!

Oh - Can the college provide a floor fan or two?

Saturday workshop – Jane Honchell – Playwriting
It was a blast! I am sure it helped that one of the members of my small group was the facillatator of the reading of a play that took place immediately before this workshop. In any event, it was great to learn about the Elevator play format and to brainstorm about a play in same form. I liked that the workshop leader had a seemingly arbitrary yet totally organized way for groups to be formed, characters to be assigned, including personality traits and secrets, etc… This structure moved the workshop along so that we could create and not waste time assigning groups and characters. Now, this was like a class but certainly not like a lecture. Ms. Honchell provided a structure, gave us full reign to create, and encouraged us to collaborate online after the symposium to finish our plays. In ordinary circumstances, I would do so in a second, but this summer is definitely not ordinary for me – actually, more like the Mad hatter’s tea party, every minute is new and challenging. Nonetheless, I certainly appreciate the open door. Maybe someday I can walk through!

III. Overall Evaluation

Program of activities/agenda
I liked that there was something to do during free time for those who did not want unscheduled time, i.e., in my case, reading aloud the play that Norwood Long brought along. I have heard other people suggest Yoga in the morning and classes outdoors and that all sounds nice but you know – for me personally, as much as I like Yoga – if I had to choose between it and breakfast, I would go for the latter. I would not like to see something else taken out of the program to make room for Yoga. And about outside workshops – let’s get real here. Not all of us like the bugs and humidity that go with the great outdoors and sitting still. Walking the trails independent of workshops is fine by me. But that’s just me.

Did the Gathering introduce you to new genres?
Strongly agree, sort of – the genres were familiar but introduced in novel ways. Kind of like the prisms of an illuminated and animated disco ball or a snowball paperweight scene that is shaken.

How has the Gathering personally impacted you?
Because we were all asked to submit poems and I did, not because I consider myself a poet but because I wanted to be connected to this Gathering I had signed up for and was anticipating eagerly, I submitted a couple of things that I thought might be considered poems. I was pleased that I would have the opportunity to read because it said to me that someone appreciated my words and thought others might as well. So, I came with my words. During the smoothie social, it struck me that there would be an audience deserving of a decent reading and that I really ought to practice reading, at least once. So I asked a fellow attendee to listen and we moved to a nearby tree for some privacy. I asked her to recite her poem and was totally impressed. She had not planned to read anything, but I encouraged her to do so and later that evening, another suitemate did the same and she did and it was well received. But back to me – all my suite mates listened to me and gave me good ideas of how to deliver. On the day I read my poems, I realized that they came to life. I was awed by the intensity with which the audience listened. To me, the Gathering let me bring my words to life and go off into the world on their own, into the arms and imaginations of everyone who heard them.

What did you like best about the Gathering?
• The relaxed and unpretentious gathering of very intelligent and talented people from many different places.
• The international perspective.
• The superb organization that allowed all those participants to joyfully and effortlessly ride magic carpets from one wonderful event to the next.

What did you like least about the Gathering?
Hmm … That’s a tough one, but when push comes to shove, I’ll say the chewy baked salmon on the last day. Seemed like such a shame. But I nit pick only because you asked!

Ideas for the future and overall comments:
Whatever you think!

I liked that a presenter was assigned to one of the four rooms in each suite that we lived in. Ibtisam was a great audience and critic of my reading and a wonderful storyteller and poet.

Why haven’t you asked about the morning poetry readings? To me, the fact that everyone was asked to submit was integral to the very democratic nature of the conference.

My favorites were Ibtisam’s Poverty Line and Palestinians and Constance’s Eat Dirt. Ibtisam had just returned from Venezuela where she had read her poetry. She said she was glad she could read it in Arabic, Spanish, and English. I enjoyed hearing Poverty Line in both English and Arabic.

The Gathering is an offspring of Children’s Literature New England, which was founded in 1987 by Gregory Maguire and friends. For twenty years, CLNE hosted a five day conference in venues that alternated every year between Boston, MA and Cambridge, England. Three years ago, Mr. Maguire announced that he could not continue CLNE. Suzanne Fisher Staples, a colleague, wanted to keep some of its spirit alive so she partnered with Keystone College in a town near her home. In 2007, they launched the first Gathering.

The theme of next year’s Gathering is Chaos and Creativity: Where the Strange Crossroads Lie and a featured writer is Billy Collins.

©2009 Elizabeth Milligan

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