Rogers: Aspen Words brings it home
I’m brand new working in town, true, but walking into last week’s Aspen Words’ event was greeting an old friend.
The people there could have no idea how great that felt.
It wasn’t just seeing familiar faces Elizabeth Nix and Caroline Tory, flashing on when I first met Caroline, the managing director, on the steps of Paepcke Auditorium just before an author’s talk six or seven years ago. She seemed maybe a little shy then, like many writerly types, like me.
Hah! Not the first time a first read was wildly off, I realized while feeling this weird outsized joy at the library on Thursday, about to reconnect to basics in this fine art and no doubt pick up fresh tips, too, from current writer in residence Tochukwu Okafor.
I had left Colorado in 2016 but never quite shed Aspen Words. In the northern Sierra, I made new friends with the family that runs a similar organization with similar conferences, workshops and events — with some of the same authors. Aspen Words, needle pulling thread, inspired me to reach out, which indeed soon stitched me closer to a new community.
I came back to Aspen for the 2019 conference, thrilled to get in and swaggering until reading manuscripts from my workshop group. Whoa. Then the inevitable humbling through the critiques, the teacher’s kind but thorough takedowns, the agents’ “meh.” But one did flash rainbow-like toward my clumsy work, interested in one protagonist. Months later, she asked for chapters when I finished-finished. Should that happy day ever arrive. I keep biting on my own bright lures, like The Aspen Times.
Aspen Words led me eventually to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a literary holy grail. Just the summer session, but still. Another thrill, more swaggering, more humbling. About a third of us went on to the full MFA program, and a couple to other programs. But we continued meeting via Zoom for two more years after the class ended, earning a shoutout in Poets & Writers.
We had the director of the program, Sam Chang, who led a fiction group at this year’s Aspen Words. I didn’t miss her by that much, arriving here for my new job at the end of July.
Call it serendipity’s thread pulling tight. Fate maybe. I’m thankful.
Once, I was sane and happy in my dream job: editor of the Vail Daily. I thought of all the supposed greatest jobs in my biz. Would I trade? Nope. Nope. Nope.
This was before the financial meltdown, during a golden era when we still believed in five-year plans, all the relevant trends pointing up, up. When I drew laughter bringing up Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan.” When I hadn’t yet seriously entertained the notion of telling lies to land on greater truths — otherwise known as novels.
I’d say I was even smug that warm Sunday morning at home on our deck overlooking the biggest beaver pond in Eby Creek, on my second cup and chatting with my wife.
That’s when the muse struck. Not some unseen Greek sprite playing a flute and whispering sweet inspiration. No, this was more raptor diving claws out for my shoulder. She’s still there, grip deep, message piercing.
I laughed at first as I told my wife. She laughed and helped me frame what turned out to be the enduring arc of this story right out of the blue. What if, and what if and what then? Untether the factual lines from dock. The wide sea of fiction is awesome, as in occasionally terrifying, an abyss.
I wrote a couple of shitty chapters for fun, and that was that for half a decade, then a sketch of a chapter here, the next year another. I changed jobs, endured crisis, changed jobs again. But the story stuck, a germ. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I probably was writing all along.
Just as inexplicably, after too many years had passed, I began getting up an hour earlier. Another year, two, and I had something.
My first writing group in Glenwood Springs, a cornerstone, paired well with Aspen Words in helping me begin to lift the work out of what Ernest Hemingway and Anne Lamott call first drafts, all first drafts.
One day I realized I had discovered my meditative art, as essential as career calling, family, friendship, fitness, faith. Can raptors smile?
The pandemic has rippled higher and harder than we’ve realized, I think. More of us have lost loved ones. The shocks in my business fly off the Richter almost routinely. I never dreamed just last fall attending the Book Ball, at the invite of a workshop friend, that any of what followed could even happen.
Friends got tired, some retiring or yearning for that — just done, they said. Events seem to have ground everyone down. The politics, the enormity of the problems, a paralysis that’s set in. That or despair. The whole country feels infected. As it is, still.
I guess I should be tired, too, or at least full of dread, my own world upended, life suddenly tricky. So why do I feel so energized?
My weird overjoy at the Aspen Words event might offer a clue. Not only seeing familiar faces or reconnecting with a world I never really left. More a gut-level reminder about the true value of a meditative art — or passion project, as my daughter calls it — as counter to the rest. That is, our spark is on us.
My muse quickened. Hey, her prey had woken up a little, maybe was paying attention. Get up. Get going. Your story’s not done. These folks will help. As they have all along.