Thursday, November 30, 2006

Teaching Creative Writing, Part One

Bloglily said she would like to hear more about my creative writing workshops. They have played an important part in my life. As in most of my life, serendipity played a crucial part. A graduate student was going to teach a non-credit workshop, found that she couldn’t, and asked me to fill in. I had never attended one, never mind teach one, but I thought I would give it a shot. After that I taught many, from non-credit to undergraduate credit and once a graduate course.

The college I attended had a two stream English department. We concentrated either on writing or on literature. Because the professors wanted to make sure the writing concentration wasn’t a Mickey Mouse choice, we had a literary criticism course that was alleged to be the hardest in the arts faculty. Of course we took literature courses too. The writing courses were not like those of today – they were not focused on creative writing, but on writing in general. There was only one that was like a creative writing course, short story, and it focused more on reading short stories and writing about them than on writing one. So I had no model to base my course on.

My husband has taught creative writing too, and we agree that the main business of teaching is to keep the students writing. Getting feedback from the teacher and the other students gives the student a sense of an audience: what works, what doesn’t work. Once I taught a ten week course, half poetry, half fiction. A participant in the class, a teacher in elementary school, took the course because she was interested in writing fiction, but she cheerfully wrote a poem, her first, for the first class. It was a stunning poem. In her case, my only task was to provide an informed audience and keep her writing, with some technical advice, such as about enjambment, thrown in. Heather later went on to write a lot of poetry, to have her poems published in magazines and in two slim volumes, and to take an MFA in poetry.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Family History Part Three

I have become acquainted with a whole set of relatives that I barely knew existed. Very heady stuff. And now, going over it all again, sorting out the documents, I am reliving those great eleven years of being introduced to a missing grandmother. What I had known about her before was that she died of TB and that every year on Candlemass day my grandfather would say to my father, “Well boy. This is the day our luck ran out.” I knew that she was a sweet and beautiful woman. I didn’t know anything about her sisters, even though one of them lived just a few miles from us. It is a mystery to me why I didn’t know anything about that side of the family. That mystery will never be solved.

The hunt has become less productive, but it still goes on. Just this morning, coming across a note I had made about an obscure book on the sanatorium where my grandmother stayed for a few months, I thought, I wonder if I can find anything on the internet about it. And lo and behold, there was the book for sale – and for only $10!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Family History Part Two

I wanted to know who all the people were in the diary, not just the relatives, and after a few years I began to piece together the place and the neighbors. Bill and I spent many a happy hour in the Belfast Library reading old copies of the Republican Journal, in the Penobscot Museum going through family folders, and in tramping around the area where my grandmother had grown up. I joined some family genealogy associations,meeting people there who helped me. I met a man at the Penobscot Museum who was doing research on part of my family – and it wasn’t even his family. He was a pilot, had been in the Vietnam War, had retired to the coast of Maine after having several heart attacks; the history of the area had become his passion. Through censuses, cemetery lists, vital records, I figured out who all the people were and found out quite a bit about them in newspaper accounts.

Later my cousin gave me my grandmother’s trunk, filled with letters, another diary, and other treasures. I typed up the 100 or so letters to add to the diaries and annotated both the letters and the diaries. I gathered family photos and eventually compiled a family history of about 250 pages. I wrote to my cousins to ask who would like a copy, and finally I printed out 35 copies.

Now I am organizing what I have accumulated into two categories: important documents that shouldn’t be thrown away, and papers and notes important only to me that can be chucked when I bite the dust.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Doing Family History

One part of my tracing my way from birth that I haven’t mentioned is my researching my family history. It began eleven years ago. My aunt Tempy, my father’s youngest sister, had given me my grandmother’s diary perhaps 20 years ago. I had looked into it, but it was like many diaries of the time, filled with the day to day, mentioning names and places I had no knowledge of, so not too interesting. Someone has said that reading a diary is like walking into a room full of strangers.

Eleven years ago, Bill and I went on an Elderhostel in Belfast Maine, and part of the course was a trip to the Penobscot Museum, near where my grandmother grew up. I became interested in the area and in my unknown family.

My grandmother died when my father was three. All that he remembered about her was once being brought into her darkened bedroom. She was dying of TB. I never heard any stories about her or her family, and that is odd because my father and my aunt were great storytellers. The sad irony of my search is that if I had begun it when his three older sisters were still alive, I would have been spared some of the work.

I went back to the diary, read it, and decided to type it so that my cousins could have a copy. Bill typed it while I read the cramped small writing on the brittle paper. As we progressed, we got intrigued by the characters – who were they? Where was this place? It is astonishing how much of the puzzle of family history you can figure out. The hunt is what grabs people, what makes genealogy such a captivating activity.

More anon of what I found.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

God's in His Heaven

I had a backache when I came up to my aerie this morning, got immersed in my new novel, then in my new arts column, and after three hours, I realized my backache was gone. At the moment, the members of my extended family all seem to be relatively happy, content, healthy (knock on wood). Sunday is usually a peaceful day; God’s in his heaven, all’s right with my world if not the world in general.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Short Term Memory

Since I’ve never been athletic or strong, the physical deterioration of strength or agility is not what I find troubling about growing old. What is bad is the loss of short term memory – having a thought and two seconds later being unable to recapture it. Where have I put something? The explanation is that what you learned well gets disseminated throughout your brain so that you can retrieve long-term memories from various parts, through many pathways. But short term memory must go “through the narrow funnel of the hippocampus” and that part of the brain deteriorates faster as you grow old.

I tried an experiment. A friendly young woman, new in our church, knew my name but I couldn’t remember hers. I was embarrassed that I kept forgetting so that when I went to introduce her, I would have to ask her again. After the last time I asked her, as soon as I got into the car, I wrote it down and for several days I practiced it. Now I know it. This is time-consuming for unimportant details.

In February I saw a daily book being sold for peanuts, and I thought, if I wrote everything important down, I would have a record. I went home without buying it, but a few hours later, thinking how useful it would be and a cheap experiment at $2, I went back and bought it. Now I wonder how I have done without it. I write down important details such as financial transactions, but unimportant details as well, such as when I watered the plants.

Not only do I forget real people’s names, but I forget the names of some of the characters in my novels. I think that is because I changed their names at the last moment because they were too close to the names of real people in my life.

Last winter I conducted a writers’ workshop, the first one I had done in a number of years. I was alarmed that the method I had always used wasn’t available to me. In the past I would have a general outline of the course, but rely on my memory to bring forth helpful examples from writers I have read. I couldn’t do that. I vowed never to teach another workshop because this was so painful, but now I have gone and said I would again. I will have to find another modus operandi.

I don’t worry that I have an incipient dementia because I have read about the symptoms and know that I don’t have any. Although I may have forgotten where I put my reading glasses, when I find them I don’t mistake them for an elephant.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Kathe Kollwitz is one of my favorite artists. I had a reproduction of her “Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground” on the bulletin board in my office. It was her last print, a lithograph, done in 1942 when she was 75, in defiance of Hitler. I cut a photo from the newspaper of an Iraqi mother in a ditch, sheltering her children in just the same way, her expression and those of her children so like those in “Seed Corn.” She had been warned by the German authorities about her activities but was never imprisoned. The title is a line from Goethe. Someone who saw her a few months before her death in 1945 “had the feeling that she was living in a bright and serene inner world, more and more withdrawn even from her own art.” Her husband had died in 1940 and a son and a grandson had been killed in the two wars.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

When Will I Be Old Enough?

Women, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the world. Isak Dineson

I am not sure when a woman is “old enough to have done with the business of being a woman.” A neighbour of mine, a well-known weaver, died of cancer at home at about 80. Nel determined that she and I would knit sweaters for our grandchildren. I protested that I did not know how to knit. She would teach me. I protested that the instructions were in Dutch. She would translate. We worked away on the sweaters. Finally she said, “You aren’t going to be able to finish.” I promised her that I would finish mine. After her death, when her daughter took up her mother’s sweater to finish it, she found many uncharacteristic mistakes, due, she was sure, to the morphine. Nel had lived through the war, had once stood up to a German officer, had been in the underground. When she first came to Canada, she had joyfully lived in a wood shed. At her end, she had become a most powerful creature.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Am I Old Enough?

Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force. (Dorothy Sayers) Having been, by fits and starts, in no discernable order, tracing my way from birth, I will start on my being old, inspired by two quotations I have unearthed from my newly dismantled office and by the novel I am now about 15,000 words into.

What are these controlling earthly forces? Responsibility for family is the main one, I suppose. Gradually, I am feeling less responsible for saving my children and grandchildren. It occurred to me a while ago that, unfortunately for them, they are probably going to have to save me in the not too distant future.

What are other things that control a woman? I no longer feel it is my duty to save the world. I can even look upon global warning as something not in my power to correct. This provides me with an immense amount of freedom. Looking respectable, even attractive is a control, but I can see that when you are old, the harder you try to look attractive, the more ridiculous you look. As my daughter said, “Botoxed lips make you look like you’ve been punched in the mouth.”

One morning, when she was about 95, my grandmother came downstairs in the morning to find that a thief had come in the night, stolen her old age pension money, and cut the phone wire, so that even if she had heard the thief she couldn’t have used the phone beside her bed. She didn’t seem frightened by this. About the same time, she was putting out the trash, and a swarm of bees covered her arms. She had something like 100 stings. This also didn’t seem to bother her as much as it would have most people. Pain and fear, all controls, were lessening. In a few years she began to long for death. Dread of death, the last control.

I have always wondered if I would be brave enough to risk my life for another. Now, I am pretty sure I would, especially if the other was younger than I. A liberating feeling.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Creating a Cosmogony

In my office I would tack up quotations that were pertinent to what I was writing at the time, and yesterday, going through all the paper I’ve carted home, I unearthed some of them. This, by Eliade, is one of my favorites: A house is not an object, a “machine to live in”; it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony. Every inauguration of a new dwelling is equivalent to a new beginning, a new life.

When you live in a house for forty years, as I have, you have no way of making this new beginning. I used to rearrange the furniture every once in a while, but that takes a lot of physical strength. To envision again the possibilities of a house I have become so accustomed to seems impossible. How can I imitate the cosmogony? Evolution, part of creating a cosmogony, is one way: Changing one bedroom into the library for Bill’s growing Maine collection, bringing the washer and dryer upstairs (an unspectacular but immensely satisfying change), constructing a screened in porch and now, making this study into a writing office.

Poor Mad Peter over in The Pilgrim is in the process of creating a cosmogony. Creating cosmogonies from scratch is rather a difficult task.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Poor Mad Peter responds, “Religion is the mother. Next question….” He is suggesting, I suppose, that there must be a father of the arts. Is the father of the arts history, some necessity to say that here, in this place, a certain person experienced the world as a whole creation with a palpable order? Hocking calls this the prophetic consciousness. He suggests that whenever an individual deals with reality with assurance, with skill, there is art.

A pileated woodpecker just attacked a tree in our backyard. If I could skillfully connect that act to my world in a poem, or a painting, or perhaps use the rat-a-tat-tat in music, would that be art? On a certain day, November 19, 2006, at 8 AM, a woodpecker was in the backyard of Nancy Ruth, and she, observing, was connected to him (I assume it was a him, because he was brightly coloured), and they were connected to the world at that moment.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Mother of the Arts?

My original intention for this blog was to explore various quotations that had in the past grabbed me, but the form was so new to me that I didn’t realize the dailiness of a blog, how quotations, except for the one on the title description, disappeared. Does anyone read earlier posts of another’s blog? Probably not. Yesterday an editor of a local newspaper phoned to ask me to write a weekly column on the arts. I have always wanted to have my own column (this blog partially fulfills that desire), but now I am hesitant. Would I have the stamina for 52 columns? Ten years ago I had a weekly spot in the paper, but that was of profiles of artists and craftspeople. No shortage of those around here. Is it true as my new title description says that religion is the mother of the arts, and if so, does it go the other way, that the arts have a religious function? Does this religious function strive to give form to the dailiness of life, to the weekliness of life, to the bits and pieces, some that seem important (birth of a child) and some that seem unimportant (dusting the living room furniture)? My favorite contemporary artist does painting after painting of the view out his studio window – an ordinary backyard. He does huge paintings of a banana, of a lemon, of a teapot. You never look at a lemon the same way after you have seen his lemons.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Surprise

Bringing books home from my office, I unearthed the one from which the above quotation was taken. The quote but not the title was on my bulletin board. Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove was published in 1971. It is obviously a used book because someone else’s handwriting is in it, a textbook by the look of the notes. The back cover says that the author was an associate professor, and I wondered what had become of him, so I googled him.

My goodness. He has metamorphosed from a professor of philosophy and religious studies into a research fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. I know about this organization because an old Air Force acquaintance of ours is a member. It’s a conservative think tank. Novak has become such a partisan Republican that he could write just before the recent election that Donald Rumsfeld was the best Secretary of Defense that the USA has ever had. Even most staunch Republicans don’t think that. He has his own very elaborate web site. I remember now getting another book by him from the library and not being interested in it, but I can’t remember which of his many books it was or why I found it uninteresting.

I have been looking for the quotation to make sure I have it right and to see the context, but I haven’t found it yet. If I had tried to trace his life forward, to predict it from this one book, would I have got to the AEI?

When I was trying to figure out a theme for a blog, I thought of writing a kind of autobiography in which I could get a grip on what my life has been as a whole. I figured that the quotation was right for the project. When I was trying to get a name, Blogspot kept telling me that this or that title was taken, and when I hit upon the one that it became, Blogspot suggested hyphens. This has proven to be a very awkward title, but it is too late to change it now. I decided to use the name Nancy Ruth because I googled the writer of the poems that gave me that name and got so much information about her. I was especially tickled to find out that she was the rival of the much ridiculed Edgar Guest. Edgar Guest and Michael Novak. How strange life is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Kindred Spirits

I daily read the blogs on my list. Recently I made the list alphabetical. Later I will reverse the list. Some of these blogs have short, anecdotal posts, some long, dense essays. If I am in a hurry, I give short shrift (or is this shift?) to the long ones at the end of the list, saying to myself that I will go back later and ponder. Some of them reveal the writer behind the blog quickly; some take longer to figure out. I can’t remember how this list was formed, and I wish I had kept track of that. Too late now. I am about to take Chopsticks, who hasn’t posted for three months, off the list and add a couple more. There are millions of blogs, and I fantasize that out there is at least one blog that would be completely my blog’s “kindred spirit”, to quote Anne of Green Gables. But how to find that blog? In my life I have met a couple of “kindred spirits”, but alas, they moved on and disappeared from my life. Does everyone long for such a rapport? When these kindred spirits change, as they must, they can become less attuned. Very sad.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maritime Writers Workshop

A graduate student, Mary Lund, came to our writers’ group. She was what you might call a creative writing workshop junky, having been to many, and she got the idea for us to have one. She enlisted my help. Because I wasn’t working, only having three children, I was eligible for all sorts of volunteer activities. We had a trial run, giving a creative writing class together one summer. Neither of us had ever published anything, and I had never had a creative writing course or been to a workshop, so a bit of hubris was involved. In the winter of 1975, through the UNB extension services, we planned and organized the Maritime Writers Workshop for that summer. It was the only such workshop east of Toronto. The teachers came from our writers group, but we decided we would have one “star” from away. He was John Metcalf, who had been writer in residence at UNB. Mary was a dynamo. She even had us cooking and serving a buffet supper for the first Sunday night. When I think about the energy I had in those days, I could weep. The workshop was a great success and is still going strong, although it now has quite a bit of competition.

Monday, November 13, 2006

New Brunswick Chapbook

The drawing of Bill was done by Marjory Donaldson.

New Brunswick Chapbook

Here is Kent Thompson's chapbook. The drawing of him was done by Bruno Bobak.


One of the rewards of coming to New Brunswick for me personally was that I was thrown into a minor renaissance of art. Two years after we arrived from the US, Kent Thompson came from the US with his family. As he put it, he could do immediately what he had only dreamed he would ever be able to do, that is, teach creative writing, edit a literary magazine, organize a writers’ group, and publish. His enthusiasm was embraced by some, satirized by others, but for me, it was catching and exciting. In his first year the Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay was writer in residence, and she began to have students come to her apartment to read their work. Soon Kent was going too, and when Dorothy (one of those larger than life individuals – how she got up out of our basement is a story for another post) left, Kent carried on. I had been writing after the kids were put to bed, and Bill told Kent. Kent invited me to come to the writers’ group. I was having so much fun there that Bill decided he would write too so he could come along. Bob Gibbs, then a graduate student/teacher, also a poet, began to attend. A succession of students, townspeople, professors attended from 1967 until 1983.

At that time, chapbook publishers were springing up all over Canada. Here in Fredericton, Professor Fred Cogswell was publishing the Fiddlehead books, but he wasn’t publishing New Brunswickers, so Kent and Bob decided there should be a chapbook series entirely devoted to the poets of the province. They asked me to be the editor. Without any experience in publishing or editing poetry, I took on the job. I consulted Marjory Donaldson, an artist at the UNB art centre, and she got Bruno Bobak, artist in residence and a major Canadian artist, to design a cover. It was simple but strong – at the top a band of colour in which the title would be embedded and at the bottom a drawing by one of the province’s artists. Marjorie silk-screened the colour band. Someone would type the manuscripts, and they were printed offset at the Provincial Artisans, 250 copies. We would have a collating and stapling party at our house. We didn’t need government money. We sold them for sixty cents. Ah, those were good times.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the Way Back from Chaos

Chaos has been created, but there are steps being taken to subdue it. All the books, manuscripts, and furniture are out of my office and sitting in the living room. It looks as if we are getting ready to move. My knees are protesting all that carrying down the two flights of stairs, two long flights too, since the ceilings are high in Gallery 78. The knees will get over it.

The rusted bathroom sink has been replaced with a new countertop to accommodate it. When I told the plumber’s salesman that the old one was 40 years old, he said, “This one won’t last forty years. I can guarantee that. All these sinks are made out of recycled metal.” At 72 and 74, we really don’t require it to last 40 years. I will post a photo of it to accompany Poor Mad Peter’s photo of his renovated bathroom.

Yesterday, the technician came and repaired this computer. A C-Mos battery is what was needed, but the man ran a battery of tests to make sure everything else was good. I also have a new up-to-date BIOS. I looked up what BIOS stands for: Basic Input/Output System. The technician was obviously highly intelligent, competent, and knowledgeable. A great relief.

My scheme of getting up at 5:30 to write is working, although by 8 PM I am ready for bed.

The sun is coming up, and I can see the crows flying through the gray sky and the black trees. The backyard looks like a black and white movie. The study, an addition to the original house, is a story and half up with big windows on all four sides, an ivory tower.

New Sink

Monday, November 06, 2006

It Takes a Village Etc.

The most terrible decision I ever had to make was whether to come to New Brunswick. I knew that my mother would be distressed if I decided to come here, so far away from her. My husband left the decision up to me, but I knew he wanted to come here. The schools around my Massachusetts home that had offered him a job weren't really suitable for him, I knew, although he would have made the best of it, as he always does. There was something about NB that called to both of us.Finally, I said we'd come here, and to soften the blow for my mother, said that maybe it would be just for a year or two, for a lark, to see what living in a a foreign country was like. "Two roads diverged in a woods."

We had been through a difficult two years in North Carolina -- I've chronicled it earlier on the blog -- and coming here would seem like a new start. While Bill was being interviewed at UNB, I took the two kids for a walk down Queen Street. It was just before Christmas, cold and dark. A "little old lady" stopped me, looked in the stroller, and said, "That child isn't dressed warmly enough." When I was agonizing over the decision of where to go after graduate school, I kept coming back to that incident. I longed for this place where little old ladies would help bring up my children, would look out for them. I had been an over the top responsible child, and then adult, and that trait weighed heavily on me and continues to do so. On the surface it is of course a good trait, but there are downsides, I know, extreme meddling in other people's affairs being one of them. Not letting things take their course. Many others.

My instincts about NB were right. Not long ago I compiled a list of people who had helped bring up my three children, and it was a long one, including people who had helped them right into their twenties. The people of this neighborhood were prominent on the list.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bringing Home the Books

Yesterday afternoon Bill and I carried more books down from my office. In two more days they will all be home. A lot of steps. Bill kept saying, "I've never seen this book before." He was pleasantly surprised, even though we now have to find space for them.

I was surprised too. There were books I had forgotten were there: Priestesses, by Norma Goodrich, a book I used in writing The Irrational Doorways. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, by Charles Taylor. Carlos Fuentes' essays, Myself With Others. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Poems by the Persian poet Firdausis. There were books I can't remember having read: The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias. Genoa: A Telling of Wonder by Paul Metcalf. There were my talisman books: The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. My childhood favorite, Houses. The Pilgrim's Inn by Elizabeth Goudge (how I was led to the blog of ukbookworm.) There were two talisman books that came to me by serendipity: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi by Henry Corbin. My oldest son brought this back from a trip, twenty years ago, thinking I might like it, and I have pored over it every since. Bill bought me The Meaning of God in Human Experience by William Hocking at a UNB book sale. It is now held together with packing tape. There is my "religious" reference library. Fifteen years ago I found a mail order business that sold wonderful religious classics at bargain prices. There is my extensive Dead Sea Scroll library, from back when I was fascinated with the subject. Or rather, fascinated by why other people were fascinated.

My scheme of writing as soon as I get up, this morning at 5:45, is working so far. Knock on wood. I get the coffee ready to go the night before, so there is hardly anything to do but sit and write. I have been checking the e-mail while the coffee brews, but I think I will change that and not check until my writing stint is over. I am feeling happy about my decision to give up my office.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A New Way

Wednesday I began a new way, writing early in the morning at 5 AM. No distractions then. So far, knock on wood, it is working out. This summer I had written what I thought was a short story, but now I have an inkling that it is probably a novel. I have no guilt about starting something new before the other novel is revised because it is on the new computer, in Microsoft Word, rather than on this old computer in Lotus Word Pro. Also, today Bill and I made two trips up to my third floor office, bringing down armloads of books. Bill says he is happy to have my two volume Pseudepigrapha home. I think he is joking.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


My 8 month old computer crashed yesterday, and I am trying to post on my reliable 8 year old one that has never given any trouble at all. Dear thing. It appears that the C-Moss (?) battery has gone bad on the new one. The company is mailing me a replacement battery and will send someone to install it. Fortunately, I paid extra for an on-site warranty. Here goes.