Scribbling a River

No Telling

Table at the Cox Creative Center

The Great Bear Writing Project made its yearly trek to Little Rock yesterday. An all-day writing marathon, a gaggle of teachers, and damn near perfect weather – it doesn’t get much better than this.

We met at the River Market, then then headed out with notebooks on the ready to wander and scribble. I’ve written about these marathons here before – the County Line Barn Sale marathon and the Harmony Grove/El Dorado marathon are two on-the-road examples. Last year’s Little Rock marathon was a little bittersweet, as our local Micheal Jackson street mime found himself a little lost. Sadly, he wasn’t there this year.

During the Great Bear Writing Project summer institute, we always head to the River Market District in Little Rock. On one small stretch of road, writers can walk and scribble from the Bill Clinton Library to the Capitol (if they’re ambitious). In between there are art galleries, museums, shops, food, crazy southern people, and a river runs through it. Literally.

I spent my time scribbling on the edge of the Arkansas River and in the Cox Creative Center – the water because I’ve always suffered from River Rapture, and the CCC because because they have thousands of cheap books in the basement. And because John Malkovich sat there. Once. I’ll post some of these pieces as soon as I can make out my handwriting.

The day ended in the basement at the Flying Saucer, a local joint known for interesting beer and waitresses who need to cover themselves. I love it in that basement. It’s dank and dark, full of couches and pool tables. Why there’s even an honest-to-God functioning cigarette machine down there. Ah, memories…

The basement is where we meet back up and take turns reading the day’s scribbling out loud. With their backs to the pool tables, these school teachers threw down some serious writing. Earlier in the day, my compadre Stephanie said marathon writing works because we’ve given ourselves permission to do it. She’s right about that. A little permission and these Arkansas teachers wrote fearlessly.

This is why I live for our writing marathons. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll give myself permission to throw one of these every single day of my life.

(Update: Debra Hale-Shelton at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote a lovely piece on our writing marathon. The Great Bear Writing Project enjoyed having her along for the ride.)

Art for Art’s Sake

No Telling

A regular stop on our yearly Little Rock Writing Marathon is The River Market’s ArtSpace on President Clinton Avenue. Aside from being an excellent place to write, it’s also one of those galleries where I could easily mortgage my house and fill it with every single piece I see.

These paintings, for example. The artist is Megan Chapman, a blog acquaintance of mine who lives and paints in Fayetteville. These sorry cellphone shots don’t do her work justice, so you’ll need to visit her site to get a better look. She also has an Etsy shop where she sells smaller works on paper.

Imagine my surprise when, four days later, the River Market ArtSpace announced a sudden and permanent close. Something about a failure to renegotiate a lease. After twelve years, it’s going to be a food joint or a – hell, I don’t know – a souvenir shop for cheap presidential trinkets. What it won’t be is a gallery featuring the finest local artists Arkansas offers.

Artists like Marc Hatfield. I went to kindergarten with Marc and scads of other professor’s kids. His father taught art and is still creating – the walls of the building where I teach every day are covered with his work. His mother, one of the loveliest women I ever met, attempted to teach me French in college. The story of their lives is the stuff of novels.

Why does any of this history matter? Because a couple of years ago I wandered into the River Market ArtSpace and came face-to-wall with the visible attainment of Marc’s kindergarten hopes. He wanted to be an artist when he grew up and there he was, canvas after canvas.

I spent the next hour in the basement of the Flying Saucer weeping into bar napkins and scribbling in my notebook. I was half tempted to barter my car for one of his paintings. If I hadn’t given all those teachers from Yell county a ride, I might have done it.

So there’s more to a gallery closing than hanging a sign and turning it into some burger joint. It’s a personal loss for me and for all the writers I take to the River Market. Next year, we may get our passports in order and set sail for Hot Springs instead.

Miming the Dead

No Telling

I saw a lot of things Friday during our Great Bear Writing Project scribbling marathon. This Michael Jackson mime was just one of them. He’s been a fixture on President Clinton Avenue for some time, actually, and I remember seeing him dancing there last year. The point is, he wasn’t making a fast dollar off of someone else’s tragedy. He was going to work in the Little Rock River Market just as he has for at least a year now, maybe longer.

I wish I’d taken a picture of him before, because he’s changed his appearance drastically. Not that my cheap-ass cell phone photo does him much justice anyway. A year ago this MJ mime was leaner, wore a black leather jacket, black pants, a white t-shirt, and one of those studded leather belts. The music on his boom box belted out “Billie Jean” and he danced silently in half white, half black face paint. He drew a crowd. He was good. I put a dollar in the bucket by his feet and he tipped his black fedora.

Like any good mime, he said nothing. His eyes were unsettling, though. He had a way of catching me looking at him, making me look at him, a playful, almost hyper-awareness something between mind-reading and telekinesis. There were moments as I stood there on the sidewalk watching him lock and lean that it seemed possible he was truly channeling Michael Jackson and Mr. Jackson was enjoying pulling off the hoax.

So he stuck with me. There are people like that who linger. I’m sure it happens to all of us.

Friday, there he was again. This time the mime had spray painted all his clothing silver. His face was also silver, except for the dark black circles around his eyes. It was almost 100 degrees on Friday at noon and the sun was a demon, but there he stood layered and painted without breaking a sweat.

This time there was no music coming from the boom box, and his movements were angular and brief. No dancing, really. When I came near, he offered penny candy and smiled when I refused. There were several of us on our way to find lunch so there was a moment of discussion while I dug in my purse for a dollar to leave in the bucket at his feet. There was a small clutch of onlookers watching the mime and he was mindful to keep moving, continue the show.

Each time I looked up, though, he was staring through me. His eyes were pained in that way quiet students agonize when they know the answers but can never summon the courage to make a voice. Not smiling against the pain, but beside it. He was so blindingly silver all over that it hurt to look back.

All through lunch I wondered what it felt like to hang your ambition on a suicide. Last year we didn’t know about the intravenous drips and astronomical pill-popping, although we weren’t surprised to find out. How did this kid find out when his mime-channel died? Was he on the street popping and locking to “The Way You Make Me Feel”? What did he do in that very afternoon, right there on the sidewalk in full persona? When someone told him, did he finally break character and speak?

Maybe he’s just a regular guy who walks off at the end of the day, buys a pack of smokes out of the bucket-money, and picks up Taco Bell for dinner. Maybe he’s a cad who beats his girlfriend or an identity-thieving con man. Maybe a frustrated actor trying to make it big in the wrong city. Who knows.

I just know there’s a story there and he’s not going to tell it, at least not to me, not in the street, not when he’s Michael.

‘Aux Arc’ Road Trip, or How to Write a Sale Barn

No Telling

I’m the luckiest woman alive, freshly returned from a fabulous jaunt to western Arkansas, and I won’t even talk about the price of gas. I promise. I want to talk instead about what was possibly one of the best Writing Project workshops I’ve ever attended.

Steph and I left for Ozark last Sunday and spent the whole week with a group of teachers from the Western Arkansas Education Cooperative at the County Line school. We slung out writing and teaching workshops every day for a week and couldn’t be more pleased with the people, the place, and the unequaled hospitality. You know, for a long time now I’ve threatened to live out my retirement in Eureka Springs as a sidewalk typewriter poet, but I believe I’ve changed my mind. I’m moving to Ozark, Arkansas where I can join the Red Hat Society and meet with TOPS in the basement of the Methodist Church on Thursday nights. If I play my cards right, they might even let me have a column in The Ozark Spectator (be patient with the link, like all other things ‘Internet‘ there right now, the site is temporarily unhappy).

We had bad weather the first night there, knocking out the wireless at our Day’s Inn for the entirely of the week. Since I didn’t know what to do with myself, I picked a fight with the manager – the only charmless person we met the entire trip. It’s difficult to un-tech yourself like that, even for a gal who’s partial to manual typewriters. We finally had access the night before we left due to the diligence and technological wizardry of the night janitor lady, who curiously had a much better laptop than I will ever own. I’m going to send her a thank you note today.

After a full day of scribbling with our delightful hosts, Steph and I made little road trips here and there because the antiques/flea market businesses around those parts are plentiful. A few miles away in Paris we found more shops than we could visit, as well as evidence of the Sunday night storm.

Each day we drove from Ozark proper to the County Line School about twenty minutes away in Branch. Stunning drive over the swollen river and through the hills. On Wednesday we hit the jackpot – the County Line Sale Barn parking lot filled up with all manner of sellers-with-tables and livestock in the barn. It was so enticing that we convened the entire workshop there for a Write-a-thon. It was hot as hell and threatening rain, but we threw ourselves and our notebooks into the fray and wandered around talking, interviewing (I use that term loosely), taking pictures, and buying tidbits.

Those tables covered in goods told some stories. Large collections of tattered western novels, a wedding dress in a plastic bag displayed from the sideview mirror of a truck, saddles and tack, old chiffarobes and dressers, hand-labeled honey, fresh vegetables, cigar boxes full of old costume jewelry – I honestly could have made an entire day of it.

While we all shopped and talked and wrote, the animals in the sale barn mooed and snorted and whinnied behind us. A gaggle of little girls gathered at a side pen petting baby goats while old men in starched jeans and straw hats sat behind a table of shotguns and guitars.

Clearly, this wasn’t just a place to exchange money and goods – it was the weekly social event. And they liked to talk. Once they asked us who we were and decided we meant no journalistic harm, the stories flowed. One of our teachers spent the morning on the tailgate of a pick-up talking to a WWII vet. Another met a man who knew her grandfather as a moonshiner years ago, which was news to her and facilitated a phone call to her mother to verify such a thing. Apparently it was true.

Despite my vow to live in the moment instead of constantly recording it, I did take pictures. I wish I’d taken more, actually, but that just gives me another reason to go back. The Write-a-thon turned out some some incredible scribbling from our teachers, and we gathered it all together in a hasty anthology to give them on the final day. I can’t thank our flittering education angel Claire enough. She is a marvel of efficiency and caring and can never, ever retire. No one else could be as ‘Claire’ as Claire.

So I’d like to thank Claire, the Western Arkansas Educational Cooperative, the County Line school, the cities of Ozark, Branch, Paris, Branch, and Altus, the incredibly fearless teacher/writers who attended the workshop, the night janitor at the Day’s Inn, the columnists of the Ozark Spectator, and every single person at the County Line Sale Barn for giving me the best week I’ve had in a very long time.

I will be back.