“Hey Kris, do I have to write a story about grave yards and the Salem Witch Trials?”
I stand at the front of a classroom on the campus at a local Land Grant University and I have just read out loud: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “A Haunted Mind.” We discuss the power of narrative voice and how second person can influence the way in which a story is delivered, and ultimately received by our readers.
I only have ninety minutes a week with these women and men, most of whom came of age in the mid to late nineteen sixties. Some of them are retired teachers; two of them attended Harvard Divinity School and preached the Word of God in various flavors around the world.
There are former poets, and a woman who helped the young boys of France immediately following the end of World War II at a summer camp in Switzerland. She will soon celebrate her ninetieth year.
I have an engineer whose wife sent him to class, so he could “learn to get the stories rattling around in his head out onto paper.” At least two thirds of them were present at Woodstock and are thrilled that an iconic hero from their youth has just recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I have two Vietnam veterans who write about being able to forgive an omnipresent entity for exposing their bodies to chemical warfare through Agent Orange. I have a woman who practices Wicca and earns extra cash by digging holes into the soil of a reserved plot of land where her neighbors bury their dead. She is somewhat of an expert when it comes to communicating about the end of our lives, and her fiction is full of gut-splitting humor as she infuses everyday occurrences and adventures into her thinly disguised autobiographical short stories.
“No Samson, I just read Hawthorne’s work to present an example of the second person voice in short fiction. You are welcome to write any story that you wish to create.”
We listen to our collective stories. Annie still fills her poetry with images of naked eighteen, nineteen and twenty year old bodies blending on hills while rolling through mud, listening to Baez as the storm is split by the simplicity of sound. Beth makes us all cry as she describes how the little girl’s body broke when she hit the grill of the rented Mercedes her first husband drives in Caracas while they are supposed to be working on restoring their marriage.
Neal asks us all to forgive him for his broken sentence structure and poor grammar. He announces that what he is about to read is the first story ever that he has written down onto pages of paper. His words come rapidly without customary pauses where stories rest, and people often breathe between thoughts. There is no rise or fall in pitch as he continues to read. But, he finishes.
“There. It’s out. I got it out of my head,” He says.
“How do we know, Kris?” Carmen asks. “How do we know if we are writers? I have spent most of my life working in the prison system as a counselor, and I just never made the time to write. How do I know if it’s even worth trying to write?”
“Yes. I agree,” Victoria, says. “I even have my MFA. I used to write poetry but had to stop back in the eighties, when my son was born. I’m here mostly to see if I can get back into it, and I am genuinely petrified that I’ve lost any ability that I had in my youth.”
Ideas, fears and insecurities flood into my conscious thought, like a waiting room at a dentist’s office where everyone stands in line for fillings and diazepam.
What would happen if I just ran away? Should I tell them that I have no idea how to answer such loaded questions? I never claimed to be an expert at anything, and they all have at least fifteen years on me when it comes to the wisdoms of this world. I have confessed to them that I am still and will always be a “work-in-progress” particularly when it comes to my writing!
And then, a singular thought pushes through, as though somewhere out there in the great ethos, some benevolent spirit or entity channels an answer.
“Trust the process,” I say.
“What?” They respond in unison.
“At Goddard, we have this saying. Trust the process. We hear it when we enter the MFA in Creative Writing program. Sometimes it comes from the infinitely wise and experienced students who are set to graduate. They offer it as kind advice when we beginners are overwhelmed and panicked about being able to create all of the writing that will be required of us in order to graduate. Sometimes you can virtually hear it as though it travels on some ethereal current following you as you pass between workshops and seminars on campus.”
“Yah, I think I remember that,” Someone says from the back of the class.
I am aware that several of my students are Goddard Alumni. Most weeks a sizable group of us stay beyond the scheduled ending. They want to tell me their stories of when they were young and Goddard had job shares where everyone pitched in and did the cooking, and cleaning and growing vegetables. And they want to talk about how Goddard was so cool in their approach to learning. I hear statements like:
“They truly honored the individual and what was important for that person to learn.” And, “Nobody else gave students the respect and responsibility of being in charge of their own learning.” Some of them even remember the phrase “Trust the Process.”
“I still call on that phrase when I am stressed, or can’t figure out what I am supposed to do next. It brought me comfort when I left my husband in my thirties, with all of the kids and no job yet. Goddard made a big difference in my life,” Marybeth, a visual artist, says.
I pack my books and extra handouts up, as it is nearly 9:00 and the security guard paces outside in the hall. We were supposed to be out by 7:15. Everyone says their good-byes and depart in groups of twos and threes, still discussing fond memories of their days at Goddard, while others listen longingly hoping to discover more about this extraordinary learning environment.
It is a good feeling, knowing that Goddard has many friends out there in our wider communities. I must remember to tell Elena and others of these people whose lives have been impacted by Goddard and the pedagogy and philosophies that have supported generations of freethinking learners.
Sampson has a couple more questions as I settle into my Subaru.
“Hey Kris, so who started the saying, “Trust the process, and what exactly does it mean?”
“You know Sampson, I am not sure but I will look into that and get back to you.”
Kris Johannesson, MFA (Plainfield, VT)
Kris has been teaching in alternative educational settings for over twenty years. She writes from her small organic and sustainable farm in Northern Vermont, where she raises heritage waterfowl, peafowl and lives with her seven dogs and a couple of humans. Kris engages in research surrounding the writers as well as the literature of The Harlem Renaissance, and plans to continue her education in this direction. She has recently graduated from Goddard’s (Vermont) MFA in Creative Writing Program and is working on her latest novel, a dark and unusual comedy.