research, writing

A writing retreat

Matt said he was trying to help me jumpstart my summer writing when he packed me off for a few days to our cabin in WV for a 3-day writing retreat. I think he was really just sick of being surrounded by all my books and needed a break from them—and from  me wanting to talk about them. Out here on my own, I can make as big a mess as I want, stay up writing as late as I want, and eat as badly and as erratically as necessary.

The scene inside: stacks of Stephen Crane and trusty Scrivener on-screen.

I’m devoting a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs to Stephen Crane. What? Did Stephen Crane ever laugh? you may be asking. The author of the grimly symbolic Red Badge of Courage (1895), the hopelessly deterministic Maggie: Girl of the Streets (1893)? The writer who described winter in Nebraska as follows:

Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea. (“The Blue Hotel’—my favorite Crane story)

I don’t know whether Crane laughed much himself, but some of his sentences make me laugh. In “The Open Boat,” he has his four characters, stranded on a 10-foot dinghy in the middle of the ocean, repeat the same existential question to themselves as they row, and row, and keep trying to row to shore: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

I can’t help it. This passage cracks me up. My students are afraid to laugh at Stephen Crane, but I think they should let themselves go. It might do them some good.

In my book chapter, I’m exploring the grotesque humor that marks Crane’s work from the very beginning of his career. Some of his earliest published—and unpublished—work feature exploding babies, pet dogs thrown out of windows (I admit that this story, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is simply horrifying and not comic at all), lots of incoherent drunkards, and people who generally stumble, directionless, through life.

But there is something essentially comic about Crane. And that’s what I’m writing about right now. I’m planning to discuss some of the sketches I’ve just described, as well as “The Men in the Storm,” “The Five Blind Mice,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Monster,” and “The Price of the Harness.” I might throw “The Blue Hotel” in, too.

I took lots of notes and did a lot of freewriting, and returned home to Baltimore all set to do some proper writing.

While I was out in WV, I was able to get a few hours of gardening in, separating the mountain laurel shrubs I’d planted too close together in April, planting some lilies of the valley a neighbor let me dig up from her yard, and weeding. Lots of weeding. (Weeding helped me feel virtuous about taking a break from reading/writing.)

Everything is looking good right now. Each year things look a little less stark, a little more natural. It’s tough when you can only tend things every few weeks or so.

Can’t wait until the monarda start blooming! By then, I hope to have this chapter on Crane drafted.


6 thoughts on “A writing retreat

  1. Must admit I don’t quite get Crane’s humor, may be an acquired taste. 🙂 But I love you having a mountain cabin and flowers. Remember Winnie’s story about “never having any flowers, hardly”? And I wonder if you miss Texas wildflowers – rememeber the lovely book you gave me about them?


    1. TX wildflowers are so fleeting, one misses them even when living there! I certainly don’t miss the 9-month-long summers, though.

      I had a lot of fun working on that book– and had forgotten that I’d given you a copy. Have you seen California poppies in the wild? (Surely you have.) do they really turn all those fantastic colors and bloom for weeks on end, like they’re doing for me? I absolutely love them and am so thrilled that they’re growing in the WV hills just for me.


      1. Oh, yes, I’ve seen a good many California poppies in my time! They’re quite a sight turning hillsides golden in spring. As for how hardy they are – well, one year I brought my Kent friends a little packet of California poppy seeds for their garden. A few years later and that whole part of Kent had California poppies drifting wild along the roadsides. I told this story to a botanist, who cringed and could hardly find invective strong enough to inform me that I was an example of how native environments got despoiled! 🙂 Most of the poppies here are just the golden ones, though. What colors are you getting there?


      2. The photo in the post shows some: cream, fuchsia, gold, orange. It’s wild. But I am skulking around here, horrified that I might be introducing something invasive. California poppies in Kent! Egads!!


      3. Nine months of summer sounds heavenly, but ask me again in August. Or maybe, since I don’t plan to run much this summer, the heavy heat won’t get to me at all. I’m envious of your California poppies! And I’m intrigued by your comments about Crane’s delicious humor. The connection may be tenuous, but I recently discovered H. P. Lovecraft and was similarly delighted. Cheers! And it was great to see you, recently, Jean!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I can see the Lovecraft connection for sure. Also earlier & later … Poe, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, even Richard Pryor.


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