Does the world really need another
Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, Julie Parent, and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto make the case and share the impetus for developing a new publication in the introduction to Volume One and to Clockhouse as a whole.
A New Community
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Dare. Risk. Dream. Share. Ruminate.
How do we understand our place in the world, our responsibility to it, and our responsibility to each other? Clockhouse is an eclectic conversation about the work-in-progress of life—a soul arousal, a testing ground, a new community, a call for change. Join in.
—Clockhouse mission statement
Jill Newton Moore’s photograph, “The Martin Family’s Garden House”—the cover image of this inaugural issue of Clockhouse—speaks of the juxtapositions and transformations that we at Clockhouse Writers’ Conference and Goddard College embrace every day. There’s the open door, demarcating a clear separation between interiority and the outside world, while inviting an easy crossing between the two, and perhaps suggesting there’s no true separation after all. We also note the oppositions: a time-worn but still solid wood frame, embracing the fragility and transparency of glass. There’s the wall of peeling and disintegrating plaster, too: layers carefully applied by many hands, now come undone by weather and time—and in its deteriorating state, laying bare the history of human effort and chemical bonds that went into its construction. And then, a seat. A bench dressed with a shawl, so not empty; a seat without an occupant, so waiting.
The history of the building itself provides an answer, given by Willard and Maude Martin, owners of Greatwood Estate and Gardens before it became the campus of Goddard College. The Martins’ relative, Susannah Martin, was imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to death as a witch during the Salem Witchcraft Trials in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When the courthouse of Susannah’s trial was later torn down, Mr. Martin bought its timbers and had them transported to Plainfield, Vermont to become the supporting beams of this garden house roof. They’re not hidden, but exposed: a piece of very hard history, made openly and differently beautiful. The persecution Susannah Martin endured by order of her government has been transformed within this space for contemplation by the Goddard College and Clockhouse Writers’ Conference communities.
It’s in that spirit of looking carefully at our world and expressing fully what we see in it and in each other—and trying to create something differently beautiful in the process—that we invite you to enter Clockhouse.
The new community we are waiting for is a society, culture, government, and discourse based in truth rather than lies, in authenticity rather than fabrication, more in worth than in price. In it, everyone is seen for who they are, and each person is standing tall and taking her place, shaping his life in keeping with what his heart and soul says is right. In these last few decades, it has become harder to achieve this kind of community, as the world has become more synthetic, and we have increasingly lost trust in our inner compasses to successfully navigate it. In such times, artists have traditionally come forth to offer a more honest vision and clearer direction: she puts herself out there, to be seen, so that we may all be seen; he points out that which must be questioned, examined, and transformed.
When we think about the origins of story and storytelling, we remember Joseph Campbell’s idea that storytelling was rooted initially in our need to teach our children how to function in the world. Today’s non-stop propaganda, a media controlled by special interest groups, press releases published as news, tell us: what we need from storytelling has changed. In a world where sound bites and headlines replace our thoughts, the role of the creative writer is to shock the reader who’s already numb—who’s being rendered helpless by all the yelling on television and opinion offered as fact—into meeting and experiencing the world from a stronger and more vital personal vantage point. The creative writer empowers people to recognize what they think society and culture should be, and to take action.
We’re hoping to remind each other that what’s loudest around us isn’t necessarily reality, and it isn’t always truth. We can—and at this point must—create a different society. The prepackaged culture has for too long proclaimed “this is all it is, so find your place here.” It’s time for individuals to shape the world they want to create and live in, and for the artist, the writer, to lead the way.
The writer has led the way before. In the latter half of the 19th century, playwrights embraced a new realism in drama and began telling the truth—about adultery, alcoholism, homosexuality, marital unhappiness, and the discontent of women—so that people might actually see themselves in the stories playing out before them. At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, for example, which opened in 1879, the dutiful wife Nora Helmer, leaves her husband. The plot was shocking, and groundbreaking: for the first time, women and men saw, en masse, the very real possibility of a woman leaving a stifling marriage and taking her life into her own hands. Art was inviting a new consideration of the conventions that shape our lives.
Today’s challenge is precisely the opposite: we have become so fixated on “realism” that reality itself has become distorted. This hyper-realism is our society’s sideshow, which in many cases is, ironically but not surprisingly, a very staged creation. Whereas before, truth-telling through stories emboldened personal recognition and validation of the self, our countless “reality” television programs like “The Real Housewives of (fill-in-the-blank American city),” vanity shows about the lives of semi-celebrities, contest shows like “Survivor” or “American Idol,” have flipped truth on its head: our new menu of pre-vetted “real” situations function as a quasi-instruction for the viewers about who and what they’re supposed to be. Further, these shows are designed to have the audience heap scorn on the participants they’re ostensibly supporting. Those showing themselves or seeing themselves reflected there are seeing the personal devolved and devalued, made into so many heaps of “dirty laundry.”
If Ibsen’s A Doll’s House shocked the audience of its day by liberating the individual, today’s entertainment dispenses people into particular groups, be they ethnic, socio-economic, or cultural (a kind of us vs. them, and them, and them). Our default self-identification vis-à-vis that group is what is handed to us, which we all too often accept without thought or consideration.
This same dynamic exists in our political system. Our two parties, Democrats and Republicans, cannot truly represent who we are individually, what we think, or what we believe to be important. Each politician’s primary occupation is to identify with his own group and fight with the other group. We are living in a “community” in which our elected government officials point to each other, blatantly lie, and show no shame when caught. Like never before in our lifetimes, the artist is needed to call out the lies and hypocrisy, the falseness and fear and formulaic doublespeak that we deal with daily from our government (because our media, largely, will not), and to uncover and hold up our universal truths—to reclaim our right to a true community.
So, how does an artist go forward from here?
The writer is the master of language, but language is simply a code for communication, and words carry different meanings across different cultures. As writers, we want the reader to look past the veil of the word itself and any assumptions made from it, and see it as a direct portal to the real thing it represents.
In his play, An Otherwise Empty Room, David Dannenfelser strips language down to its essentials by laying out the action without one word of dialogue. Nate Pritts, Cristina García and Selah Saterstrom each utilize spacing on the page to communicate with the reader. Rather than leaning on abstract proxies and codes, these writers are creating new and distinct experiences for their readers to enter into with less preconception and more delight.
Artists are always on the watch, ready to question assumptions with healthy skepticism. They speak out against debilitating social structures and ask: have we built something that enriches us, that’s sustainable, that is taking us forward in a new and meaningful direction? In his essay, “Space Dog,” Paul Lisicky questions the way in which a museum has displayed a painting of Laika, the first dog in space, asking, “Are we being played with again?” In “The Hobbyist,” Dave Kim addresses the wide gulf between his title character’s life of staged creation, and the very real lives of real people.
One of the things that all humans want most is to be seen, recognized, and valued for who they are. At times, we long for it, even crave it, and the writer seems naturally beset with an even more intense craving than others. Acting on this unique hunger, the writer is society’s catalyst for a true community. In this issue’s interview, “Telling Our Stories,” Susan Kim describes her need to work with people outside of her everyday world and wonders of them, “What is your life? It’s completely different from my life. What are your realities?” She also reminds us that “imagination is not rocket ships and space aliens” but, rather “a form of empathy.” Empathy—stepping into someone else’s shoes and seeing them for who they are—is what enables us to create complex, well-rounded characters and situations, to be able to value not just what we all agree is good or is right, but to put forth a person as a whole, warts and all. A writer can also distill this truth from a person’s existence and create a whole with only a few chosen details. Joan Larkin’s poem, “The Boot,” shows us a young girl already hollowed out by work in a boot factory:
What does she dream, nothing
on two legs, machine
stamping her mouth, eye, ovary,
pushing out boot after boot.
But if writers are our sentinels and catalysts for true community and meaningful change, we’ll need to understand what it’s like for them to be at their post, questioning their own experience and commitment to the task. It is easiest with memoirists, who write about what we’ve faced or felt what we’ve felt. Mary Johnson’s essay, “Red Dress,” recounts the moment when the author embraced a whole new side of herself; Susan Straight talks about the writer’s dreams of grandeur and acceptance of the mundane in “Writing in the Van.” But on a very personal, even primal, level every artist wants to be fully comprehended. In her poem, “It Used to Be that Poems Were Easy for Me,” Prageeta Sharma speaks of feeling lost, “Had I become the poet whose writing / about insular emotions lauded her / no future of moon-fueled feelings?”
There is union, communion, between the writer and the reader. When the artist is out there, is seen, the reader is also seen. Whether the communion takes place at a public reading or privately within the pages of a book, one story prompts another, from writer to reader, and community takes shape. And those who’ve felt themselves apart, those who’ve isolated themselves out of shame or fear, might be empowered—once they’ve felt themselves seen—to rejoin the community outside their door.
So, here we are again, where Clockhouse begins: on the threshold of an open door, in the minds and hands of its cross-country staff, and in the words of its wonderful contributors, all of which we’re honored to publish in the pages that follow. This inaugural issue of Clockhouse rests solidly with them.
The door is open, and there’s the seat. Join in.