Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Of Lost Notebooks and Kansas Conferences

Like Dorothy and Toto, I’m not in Kansas anymore, but I was this past weekend. Here’s how I came to be at a writer’s conference in McPherson, Kansas.

A year ago I got an email from Jim, someone I’d known casually in college forty or so years ago. He had found, among his own college papers, a notebook with my name on it from a semester I had spent in Germany, and he wanted to return it if, indeed, I was that same Phyllis Root from Valparaiso University and if I wanted the notebook back. I was and I did, so he sent it, although it took me months to look inside at what I knew would be a lot of bad poetry scattered among notes about German verbs. There’s something profoundly scary about meeting your younger self in writing.

Jim also told me that McPherson College sponsored a writing conference each year and would I be interested in coming to speak? I was. I went. And I learned more of the story of how he came into possession of that notebook, rescuing it from the trash where someone else (who knows why he had the notebook?) had tossed it when he graduated. Jim, a writer himself, had too much respect for the written word to see any writing so casually and publicly discarded, and his acts of rescue and return are how I came to see two documentaries by Haydn Reiss shown at the conference, both about William Stafford, Kansas poet and World War II conscientious objector. I had known of Stafford, but now, having seen him on film reading from his work, talking with Robert Bly, taking a stand against war, I have immense new admiration for him, and I want to read everything of his I can get my hands on including WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL. I’m hopeful I can learn from him both about writing and also about how to live a thoughtful and courageous life.

Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home, but from a college notebook in Germany to a conference in Kansas to falling in love with William Stafford, you just never know where your writing might lead you.


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  2. What a terrific story, Phyllis. And you're in for a treat with AUSTRALIAN CRAWL--it's a very good book on writing and being a writer.

    And just how bad/good were the old poems? Anything there to noodle with?

  3. My god, what a great yarn, especially from your notebooks p.o.v I'm sure it's been done (at least from a violin p.o.v) but I still adore the story of your notebook being lovingly held in your arms so many years earlier until it comes back to you...I think there's a certain story about a stuffed bunny that is much along this line. It's just so satisfying. In the letting unexpected things come to back.