Writing in the Garden of the Gods

Friday I head out for Bainbridge Island, specifically for the Kiana Lodge and the one day conference organized by Field’s End. The lodge is owned by the Suquamish tribe; the word kiana means “garden of the gods.” I tell you this so there’s no confusion. No gods will be in attendance, writing or otherwise.

The conference runs all day Saturday. I’m scheduled to give two talks:

10:45 – 11:45 / Literary Fiction.
The idea of a literary fiction is relatively new, but it is so widely accepted that it feels almost carved in stone. A closer look at what literary fiction claims to be, and how the litcriterati have bamboozled everyone — including themselves.

2:45 – 3:45 / Historical fiction: Authenticity and its limitations
Historical linguists strive for authenticity in setting, language, and mindset, but to what degree is that possible — or even desirable?

I asked them if they wanted straight lectures or interactive talks — I can do either, but the second is more lively. Because hey, these folks are paying money to come listen to published writers, and I take some pride in giving them value for money. I try to be entertaining, short of juggling, which I can’t, or bursting into song. You laugh, but I co-taught once with a guy who did just that quite regularly. He had a great voice, but let’s just say that undergraduates aren’t all that crazy about Rogers and Hammerstein.

And I have to admit: I did have a reputation as a lecturer ywhen I taught big introductory classes at the University of Michigan.

Which reminds me of a story, and what the hell, I’ll tell it.

I have a good friend who started as a new faculty member at UM the same time I did. We went to grad school together, too, and so we knew each other pretty well. She’s a very polite person, soft spoken. Extremely intelligent, very witty, but a big lecture hall is not her first choice. Big lecture halls never bothered me. Fifty kids or four hundred, my goals are pretty consistent: keep them awake, keep them interested, keep them on their toes, give them stuff to think about so that maybe, just maybe, they’ll crack a book. The most common comment I got was ‘tough but fair’ and I was very satisfied with that.

At any rate, this friend and I are talking, about six weeks into the semester, and she tells me she doesn’t know what to do about a student who comes to her lecture class. He sits in the first row, center, puts on sunglasses and earphones, turns on his walkman (this is way back in the 80s, remember), opens the newspaper, and settles in for the duration. She was in a quandry. How to handle it? What to do?

Which amazed me. I said: very simple, listen and follow this game plan step by step.

Wait until the kid is hunkered down. Come down off the stage, walk over to him. He probably won’t notice, that’s fine. The other kids will get out of the way. Walk right up to him, lift the headphone away from one ear and shout:


She looked at me with her mouth hanging open. No, she said. You wouldn’t.

Oh, I said. But I have.

These were first year undergraduates for the most part, clueless. I’ve never run into this kind of behavior when I’m giving a talk at a conference, and I don’t think I ever will. But getting notes together for these two lectures has made me nostalgic.

By which I mean to say: if by some chance you are going to be at the garden of the gods on Saturday, don’t hesitate to stop by my talks. I promise not to bite. Or even bark.