By Paul Dyczkowski, Creative Writing, English, and Philosophy major
It forever and forever strikes me, ignites my curiosity and wonder and appreciation: Ashland University is such a wonderful place, much larger in its containing of hope and wisdom and opportunities than we, we who are here and have grown a little blind to just how good it is, much larger than we remember. I, too, have a tendency to forget, though. I just recently had to not forget. I like when life works like that.
Recently, I found a whole lot of beauty, and by “I found,” I mean to say that it existed independently of me finding it in the first place, when all these wonderful artists and students and writers and humans gathered for what is known as the residency part of our low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for an intensive two weeks of lectures, panels, readings, meetings, revisings, writings, drinking, eating, drinking, writing, not a lot of sleeping or resting, but yet a whole hell of a lot of fun. To see all these people from all these walks of life and literature, gathered with the main premise of giving and taking, working together, sharing, when they gathered like that, it couldn’t help but create a wonderful, contagious, dream-making, dream-chasing sort of environment that does nothing but good for the writer’s pen and the inkwell heart.
I mean the environment of the residency itself was contagious, the nearness of a dream: a roomful of people loving and listening, working and writing. It occurred to me at the time that maybe the last time I had simply listened to a reading with so many other people around me, I was perhaps on the multi-colored thin scratchy carpet of kindergarten. Realizing that made me a little angry, a little sad, just because we as humans shouldn’t forget to listen to live readings, live artists, the artists that are not just living but are alive, alive, alive with words and wounds and worlds. There are many great writers alive today with deep connections to Ashland. It baffles me. You need to see it for yourself. Check out River Teeth, Mackall and Lehman’s creative nonfiction journal, established right here in Ashland, semi-annually, that frequently lands essays right into this giant of an anthology that’s published each year, Best American Essays, whose editor Bob Atwan spoke and listened alike here in Ashland back in 2012 for the inaugural River Teeth nonfiction conference.
The environment of the residency itself was electric, charged, charging, still hurtling along all of our lives who were there (I’m sure of it) like a great thunderhead, a great rain on and into the topography of our pained hearts. Really, reader, I’d love for you to imagine the intentness, the focus, the love these people had for literature. I’d love for you to have sat in Ronk every night with us, the lights cool and soft and hear all the live readings of today’s literature, some of the very best of it written anywhere in the globe right now, too. I’d love for you to feel that quivering humming silent sound of love and beauty like invisible flying buttresses between the reader and the audience, Ronk filled up with people, filled up with quiet and the strain of I don’t want to miss that word or this piece because maybe it could contain, if nothing else, a piece of a piece of the piece missing from my heart.
I’d love for you to have heard Tom Larson’s wild piece about falling in love in snowy Chicago and falling more in love with literature and falling in love with jazz and writing and falling in love. I’d love for you, without having the slightest clue that this would happen, to have seen the look in Mr. Larson’s face as he stepped away from the podium during his piece, softly turning with sad eyes and starting up a Keith Jeret improvisational jazz piece, since Larson was working on tying together writing and literature and jazz and love and how improvisatory it all is. I’d love for you to have heard Nick Flynn clap his hands once, sharp and wise and aware in his own love of singing and music, to gauge the tone or pitch of Ronk before he crooned out some old, old folkish jazz ballads. I’d love for you to have heard out of Joe Mackall’s new memoir, our own Joe Mackall, thank god he is writing another book, by the way (I know I can’t wait.) I’d love to have the time and space and memory and the heart to conjure up all these other wonderful images of the residency.
James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
So it may as well have been, too, that Sarah Wells and the rest of the people at Ashland handed me some secret star charts to guide my writing craft along these deep dark troubled waters of today, when there are fewer readers and writers and those pursuing empathy, kindness, consciousness, if I permit myself the liberty of interpreting Baldwin’s quote a smidge, as well as a little dipping of my toes into the soft sea of sorrow. Sometimes as a young writer you can just feel so lost. Sometimes, no matter what you are doing, you can feel so lost.
Yet, I not only think Baldwin is on to something, but also I feel as though I had the opportunity to truly feel the essence of his idea during the residency here at Ashland University: art, and we, as works of art, exist to connect to and with one another. I, a shy small strange man, I who so often does not want to be open enough to connect and listen and learn, I truly got to feel the power of that connection from from art to heart, from heart to art, the pulsing and bobbing of a piece of twine in between two tarnished tin cans strung by our true and almost child-like impulse to truly converse, when, it may as well have been that the lovely and kind Sarah Wells (as well as all the other good people at Ashland that let me work alongside them—Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman and Deborah Fleming and Steven Haven especially) let down to me a rope, a thing to grab on and try to pull myself in a new direction (as that is learning, to find a new and better direction, yes?), an opportunity to help out with the poets and creative non-fiction writers who gather as students and faculty to all better their craft, I who am shy and strange and trapped in the little well of my little heart, who could always use more bettering.
All I am trying to say, though, is that I am wanting to say a whole lot of things like thank you and my goodness here it all is, here it all is, look at all these graduate students these faculty members these people these best-selling authors like Brian Doyle and Cheryl Strayed and the gems of our graduate AU faculty like Angie Estes and Carmen Gimenez-Smith and Mark Irwin and Bob Cowser and all these people, forgive me, there are really too many to name, yet let me name some, because that wouldn’t be much of a thank you either, that wouldn’t be fair to you, reader. Faced with the immensity of names and experiences, I am only orbiting around the center of this piece, wanting to talk about some of the beauty, on so grand a scale during the residency, that I got to see right before me for two weeks: a group of human beings trying to make meaning (art) and share it with others (the art of love, of communication, of community.) I’m just thankful I got to be so close to such wonder, such essaying, such people.