Archive for August 14th, 2007

The summer of 2004 I was on a sabbatical from my work. That summer I wrote every day. I also created with three fellow writers a workshop-style group. At the beginning of each week, we emailed to one another new sections from our manuscripts. At the end of the week, we met in person to give feedback on the work each writer had sent. It was a good group. We laid ground rules about what was and wasn’t allowed during critique. All the writers were strong, and we all made good headway on our projects. I managed to complete two short stories that summer.

One of the writers in the group was a young woman named Amanda. She must have been about 22 or 23, only a year out of college. She was an assistant at an elementary school and had the summer off, so in addition to our writing workshop, Amanda and I also met weekly to do writing practice. We often did long sessions; sometimes we’d do two one-hour practices back to back. She wrote fast and pressed down so hard with her pen that she often had to shake out her hand.

Amanda’s parents were only about five years older than me, and I think Amanda saw me as a sort of mother figure. She moved to Albuquerque for the job, and I could tell by how much she talked about her parents that she was terribly homesick. Her writing was brilliant. It was fresh and alive. She often wrote in the voice of a young girl, but the things she wrote about were mature. Loneliness. Being lost. Loving the wrong person.

It was Amanda who one day threw out the topic “sleepaway camp.” “What is ‘sleepaway camp’,” I asked. She explained: a summer camp where you go overnight for a week or so with other kids. I agreed to write on the topic but only for ten minutes. I didn’t think it would hold my interest for any longer than that.

I remembered that particular practice when I did a post on my daughters’ recent return from summer camp. I found it in one of my old notebooks and decided to reproduce it here. What struck me was this: I started that practice with no memory of ever having gone to a camp. Yet, by the end of the practice, it came back — I had once attended a Girl Scout camp. It had been lost, temporarily buried underneath a bunch of other stuff. Once I started to unpack the other stuff, the memory came into view.

Amanda moved away at the end of that summer. I called the school where she worked but they didn’t have a forwarding address. My emails to her bounced. I’ve thought of her often. I figure some day she’ll turn up again, probably on the spine of a best-selling work of fiction. I didn’t know her for very long, but she gave me the gift of discovering that my memories will return if I keep doing writing practice. 

PRACTICE: Sleepaway Camp

I never went to sleepaway camp when I was a kid. One time, in fifth grade, my mom put me to bed at 7 pm, washed and dried like a poodle, so my dad could wake me up at 4 am and get me to the Alvarado Elementary parking lot by 5 am. We were heading in buses to Carlsbad Caverns.

We wore jackets because it was still cool in the mornings, even though it was almost summer break. Steve McIlheney’s family owned McIlheney’s Dairy, so they supplied the milk, whole and unpasturized. It tasted thick and raw to me, like eggs were mixed in. I didn’t touch mine.

I don’t know if sleepaway camp existed when I was young or if my family was just an anomaly, one of those sleepaway-camp-unaware types of family. I think both. I think some kids went away to camp, but I would wager most of those places were big and not cozy, with chores like shoveling and digging posts. I imagine the rooms to be dirty with rat droppings under the old bunks, which had army mattresses and thick blankets that smelled like dust. I imagine the only kids who were shipped off to these sleepaway camps were on LSD by the age of 12 or sleeping with their mom’s boyfriends.

But I also would wager that there were nice sleepaway camps, camps with tennis courts and horseback riding and swimming in heated pools, camps for kids whose parents thought about such things as developing independence and having their kids have a richer experience than, say, sitting in front of the TV all day and watching Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island and eating entire bags of potato chips, the Safeway brand kind.

And suddenly it dawns on me that I was scared on that bus, driving five hours, three in darkness, my stomach empty but for a too-sweet donut. Coconut, burnt coconut, the kind my mom bought when she bought donuts. And how I would have preferred white powdered sugar or chocolate dipped, but how they gave us burnt coconut instead, plus the milk, and how I wanted to sit up near the front of the bus behind the driver, near the teachers but how they only let the feeble kids sit up there, the ones prone to carsickness and how I sat in the back instead.

And now, a distant memory, Girl Scout camp, my God, I did do sleepover camp, I just forgot.

-Ten-minute practice from August 2004

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Small hand, charcoal sketch by Em, August 2007This year at my daughters’ summer camp, the art instructor used sketchbooks. She said sketching was in keeping with the theme for the camp, Look To This Day. I think what she meant was that sketching was quick. You capture what’s in front of you — a hand, a tree, maybe a thing floating in your imagination. You don’t labor over anything or tighten it up. Just sketch, then move on.

These are some of the images from Em’s sketchbook. Em is eight. The first time we took her to camp, last year, she was the youngest kid there. Usually they don’t let kids attend camp unless they’re eight or over, but Em got to go at age seven since her older sister was also attending. Em loved it. She didn’t get sad or need to call home. Not that I thought she would. One thing I know about this youngest daughter of mine: she’s easy-going and independent.

Eye to eye, charcoal drawing by Em, August 2007This past Sunday Em and I flipped through her notebook to pick out sketches to post on red Ravine. She stopped at one done in colored pens. “This is my favorite,” she said. “It’s my teacher’s favorite, too.” 

She told me the art instructor liked it so much that she made a photocopy to take home with her. Em’s whole face was smiling when she said it. Em has big teeth and a big mouth; her smile really does stretch from ear to ear. “Is it a dog,” I asked her. “Hmm,” she said. Apparently she hadn’t given it much thought until that moment. “It’s maybe a dog,” she finally said.

Maybe a dog. I like that. And I love the art instructor for making a fuss over Em’s art. We get our cues early on whether we are good or not. 

                     Maybe A Dog, sketch with colored pens by Em, August 2007
                     Maybe A Dog, all sketches © 2007 by Em. All rights reserved.

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Another month has rolled by, so our May guests have rotated off the Guest Writers & Featured Artists widget on the sidebar. You can still locate their pieces, however, by typing their individual names into our Search bar. Or by clicking on Guestwriter or Guestartist under Contributors on the sidebar.

We’d like to take a moment to thank all of our Guests who have written with us on red Ravine. Each one of them has supported and expanded our efforts to create a dynamic writing and art community blog.

And, just to remind you how brilliant, exciting, and provocative our guests are, here are links to our May sojourners:

We are still working on our new submission guidelines so we can continue to solicit and publish writing and art from friends and strangers alike — kindred spirits of all stripes. We hope to publish our guidelines in the coming weeks.

If you just can’t wait until then, drop us a line at info@redravine.com anytime to find out how you can become a guest on red Ravine. And thanks for reading!

 -related to July post, Where To Find Our Guests

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

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