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Pam Houston, Dailys to read in Carbondale

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pam Houston spends a lot of time teaching writing. For a decade she has run the creative writing program at the University of California, Davis, where she also teaches two quarters each year.

The award-winning author of the short story collection “Cowboys Are My Weakness” has taught in Taos, Provincetown and Oregon, Majorca and Italy. She has been on the faculty of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s summer writing conference some 10 times.

She has taught writing enough to know that oftentimes, it is a fruitless pursuit.

“I don’t necessarily believe that writing can be taught,” Houston said. “There are some people, no matter how much you [put] in front of them, they’re not going to be able to write something that reaches the level where you can publish it. It’s not like someone can be taught like an auto mechanic can be taught.”

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Which doesn’t mean Houston, who lives on a ranch in Creede, will stop trying. She will spend Thursday giving a fiction workshop at Aspen High School. And she follows that by appearing with one of the success stories of her teaching career: At 7 p.m. this evening, Houston appears for a reading with Allison and Art Daily, the Aspen authors she coached during their writing of the recent nonfiction book, “Out of the Canyon.”

The reading, a benefit for the Carbondale Council for the Arts and Humanities, will take place at the Church of Carbondale, with the Dailys reading from “Out of the Canyon” and Houston reading from a novel in-progress. Houston will also teach a writing workshop for adults this summer for the Council on Arts and Humanities, with dates to be determined.

Houston finds good reason to give herself to teaching writing, even if the outcome is uncertain. The only child of alcoholic parents, she found that putting her reactions, observations and emotions into story form was an ideal way of dealing with her situation.

“It’s calm in here. Here’s a place where I can write this stuff down, and nothing awful happens,” she said of her own early writing experience. “It was a place I could go and have such control over it.”

Houston believes that studying writing can do no harm to an aspiring writer. And there are numerous upsides: A student might discover a book that inspires her, might find the teacher who makes things click, might begin seeing her work through more objective eyes.

“And for some of them, it’s going to explode. Their talent will find expression,” she said. “For one kid, it will be, ‘Wow, I have all this bad shit going on – and here’s a way to think about it where I don’t get hurt.'” Even for those whose lives aren’t traumatic, writing can be enriching. “There are stories around us all the time, and it’s fun, cathartic, pain-relieving to put them down. It’s important for them to notice this stuff that affects them, the physical sensation and sensory detail of these things.”

And in one case so far, Houston’s efforts have helped bring a book into the world. Several years ago, she received an e-mail from a stranger, Aspenite Allison Daily. Daily was looking for help in getting her and her husband Art’s story into publishable form. The material was compelling: Art’s wife and two young sons died when a boulder landed on their car as they were driving on I-70; Art walked away physically untouched. Allison was struggling with her own sorrows – the suicide of her brother, and a divorce – when she heard about Art’s experience. Under mystical conditions, the two came together and built a new family, and a new happiness.

But the Daily didn’t possess the skill to put their experiences into a story – which Allison’s sprawling, 10-page message made clear. “I get a lot of e-mails from crazy people,” Houston said. “But I like crazy people. So I wrote back to her, told her this was an amazing story and I’d love to give them some help.”

Over several years, Houston met with the Dailys in hotel rooms and homes, and one night in Aspen’s Matsuhisa restaurant. “Out of the Canyon,” with a foreword by Houston, was published last May. And Houston found perhaps the best reason to teach writing.

Coaching the Dailys, said Houston, “was a profound experience. You answer an e-mail, and it improves your life.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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