In Good Company

By Brian Volck

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company, that is the best.”

—Jane Austen, Persuasion

I nearly didn’t come to my first Glen Workshop eleven years ago, when it was held at the rustic and remote Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico. A week to work on my writing, however enticing, seemed impractical and self-indulgent. Why should I spend so much time—and money—away from home?

My wife, Jill, who has always been wiser, insisted I go, that she would attend to everything in my absence. When my flight was cancelled an hour before my scheduled departure, I nearly gave up. Jill insisted again, and once again I listened.

Arriving in the Albuquerque airport on a rebooked afternoon flight, I hurried to baggage claim, where the man who said he’d be driving latecomers to the workshop identified himself as the editor of Image. He led me and a few others to a van, and we introduced ourselves as we started the long drive north. That’s how I first met Greg Wolfe, Scott Cairns, Jeanine Hathaway, and Janet Peery. I soon realized I was on the faculty bus, in the company of accomplished writers, but they didn’t seem ready to kick me out.

I took their kindness as a good sign.

Despite my earlier reservations, the trip to Ghost Ranch felt like a homecoming, ending in familiar juniper/pine forests, sandstone landscapes and the dry rattle of ravens overhead, suddenly immersed in Georgia O’Keefe’s universe of erosion, longing, and beauty. There, I met writers and artists passionate about their work and who shared their hearts, talking about the very things I studiously kept hidden when among hospital colleagues.

On the second day of the Workshop I met up with Scott Cairns and his friend, Ed Knippers, as they walked the path to the main hall in the fluttering shade of the cottonwoods. Engrossed in conversation, they nonetheless beckoned me to join them. They were talking about the human body, its presence in their work, the difficulties in properly rendering it.

I hadn’t occurred to me that Cairns and Knippers—a poet and oil painter, respectively—confronted similar challenges in very different media. I hadn’t met people who spoke of such things. I hadn’t imagined they, and others, were struggling, as I was, to render the mysterious grace of bodies in a created world.

If I didn’t conclude then and there that I had, at last, found my people, I did so by the end of the week. Talking with and attending to so many drained me—an introvert, if you can believe it—to exhaustion, but it was conversation I desperately needed with new friends who had insightful, important things to say. I spoke with teachers and students before and after workshop sessions. We spoke along the pathways and under achingly blue skies while hiking the mesa. And we spoke long and often over meals and in small gatherings for food, wine and conviviality.

My new companions were as delighted as I to be there. They’d come freely, though that freedom entailed a sense of calling, less a choice than ongoing consent. Vocation, like community, challenges and holds one accountable even as it offers gifts and opens doors.

When I returned to the Midwest, I was desperate for sleep so I could get on with the urgent work of applying all I’d learned. It was months before I unpacked the week’s experiences, but I was never burdened. Quite the opposite, in fact, like a hiker astonished at his bounding gait once he’s shucked a heavy backpack.

Though re-immersion in the medical world was disorienting and lonely, I didn’t feel lost or abandoned. Community came with my renewed vocation, in those I kept in touch with by letter, email or phone, whose books I read, critiques I heeded and example I followed. Our conversations, so full of encouragement and challenge, hadn’t ended; they’d taken a different form. I’ve returned to the Glen eight times since for workshops, MFA classes and retreats, each time a re-membering of community that keeps my words from slipping their tethers to reality.

Writing in an electronic age can be terribly disembodied. Writers no longer need to put pen on paper but click our fingers on keyboards, altering insensible data on virtual pages. We write about things we find interesting or moving, uncertain if anyone else will find them so. We send words out into the world, hoping our babies will be loved but never sure.

Sometimes, as with Noah’s second dove, there’s no news at all. On occasion, though, we hear how others received words we wrote: liking or disliking, smiling or frowning. It still astonishes me. Approving responses are gratifying; better still to hear from someone wrestling with your text. To know there are such people makes me want to be a better writer, a better reader, a better person.

I leave this blog—for now, at least—to work on other writing, grateful for the gift of this forum, conscious of my debt to Image, its staff, readers and supporters. It remains the best of company, and I hope I turn out less a cad than Mr. Elliot (in the epigraph above) was.

I suppose it’s true of any art, but I’ve learned more about writing by writing than from all the classes I’ve taken. Not that it hasn’t been difficult, but what worthwhile practice comes without difficulty? I have much still to learn. Thank you for making the learning so joyful.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.