Views from the Trias House: Looking Back on the First Two Months

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(At the Trias reception, talking to the provost, Dr. Titilayo Ufomata (l) and Dr. Meghan Brown (r), a HWS biologist.)

I must admit to being forever grateful to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in general and Provost Titilayo Ufomata and Professor Melanie Hamilton in particular for offering me the Trias Residency for 2016-2017. It has already been a life-changing experience and a major catalyst for energizing both my fiction and nonfiction. Ann and I have only been here eight weeks, but we already feel very connected to the Finger Lakes District and the college. Everyone we have met on faculty has been wonderful, and we’ve had great, substantive conversations about any number of topics from the literary to the scientific.

We’ve also enjoyed the comforts of the residency house, which include some great wildlife and bird viewing. One night, just for example, I walked outside to see a possum, then a raccoon, some deer, an and skunk! We’ve also had any number of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other birds visit the front and backyard and had some fun observing always entertaining marmots. Clearly parties are going on outside of the Trias House that we’re not being invited to!

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(Dexter Palmer’s class visit.)

In these two months, we’ve also done a lot! What, specifically? The following is just a partial list. As ever, much of this is a team effort. Ann and I work together and consult on a daily basis, and so anything I am able to accomplish while here is in fact due in part to Ann’s help and her counsel.

  • Taught the first half of a class taking the principles set out in Wonderbook about organic and mechanical ways to teach creative writing, including “mimicry” and “secrets” modules. This also included having the students rewrite the same Nabokov story from their unique point of view and provide an in-depth critique of the results, in preparation for the in-class critique sessions of their original stories in November-December.
  • Brought in Dexter Palmer to talk to my students and give a reading, while prepping for later visits by Amelia Gray, and Ottessa Moshfegh for the Trias Reading Series.
  • Gave a reading myself as part of the Trias series.
  • Hosted photographer Kyle Cassidy, who provided students with visual ideas for writing exercises and their fiction.
  • Brought biologist Gwynne Lim into class to talk about my novel Annihilation and Ursula K. Le Guin’s eco-story “Vaster Than Empires…”
  • Skyped with Julia Elliott about her fiction and the Southern Gothic.
  • Attended a fascinating faculty lecture on the impact of removing a dam outside of Seattle.
  • Gave a faculty lecture on Global Warming & Storytelling, based on my book in progress.
  • Talked to students at HWS via a class visit to an English class studying Annihilation and another to an environmental sciences class (with Ann)
  • Participated in saw whet owl banding near Ithaca.
  • Went out on the HWS research vessel to observe HWS faculty and students studying freshwater shrimp.
  • Gave blood as part of the HWS blood drive.

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In the spirit of Peter Trias’ generous funding of the Trias residency, our little contribution to that vision has been to donate a projector and screen to the Trias classroom and put a portion of my salary aside to buy books for my students that aren’t on the syllabus but of potential interest, ranging from my career guide Booklife to the great graphic novel Safari Holiday and works by Tove Jansson.

In terms of the writing that the residency is there to support, I’ve had a very fertile period of being creative in these two months. I’ve written the following:

  • A 30,000 novella entitled “The Journals of Doctor Mormeck” (about half of it finished here at the residency house).
  • A short-short titled “Marmot Mountain” for an anthology.
  • 20,000 words on a new novel about an alt-history world where A. Crowley rules a Franco-Germanic empire with the reanimated head of Napoleon as his sidekick.
  • Four nonfiction articles for various publications including LitHub and the Atlantic’s web site.
  • A chapter of my nonfiction book on global warming and storytelling.

Coming up, there’s a lot on the agenda for the last seven weeks of the semester.

  • The second half of my class, including guest visits, a month of freedom, and turning in their portfolios.
  • Continued work on my new novel.
  • Amelia Gray’s visit to HWS for a class visit and public reading.
  • Class and college visits by special guest Nancy Hightower, an expert on the grotesque in literature and art.
  • A trip with some of my students to the Toronto International Book Festival, where I’ll be participating on programming and the students will have unique opportunities to sit down with agents, editors, and authors like Emma Donoghue.
  • Observation of songbird banding on the shores of Lake Ontario.
  • At least two days of helping out with raptor surveying at the Montezuma state park.
  • Visits with additional environmental science classes.
  • Participating on a panel about ecology and global warming.
  • Working with the environmental sciences department to create, for the spring semester, an interdisciplinary series of creative writing and nonfiction exercises related to developing a deep understanding of landscape and place.
  • Prep-work for mentoring three or four students in the spring and coming back on a couple of trips to host Moshfegh’s reading and some other activities.

In addition, we’ve had the opportunity to hike at about a dozen state and national parks in the area and visited many, many fascinating towns to familiarize ourselves with the area. We even had the opportunity to experience a grape festival. Here are a few photographs from the experience thus far.

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The grape festival in Naples was a particular highlight of our visits to towns across the Finger Lakes District. Not to mention munching on grapes while taking it all in. One of the great features of the area are robust downtowns, eccentric shops, scenic views of various lakes, and a lovely confluence of wilderness and rural farming areas. From many places around here you can see many more stars in the sky than where we live in Florida.

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Watkin’s Glen State Park might be considered touristy due to its popularity, but as pictured we found it relaxing and incredibly beautiful. I hope to post about our hiking adventures in depth soon, including our recommendations as newcomers to the area. But for now, I can just say that we’ve had marvelous adventures the past two months at the Sterling Nature Center, Chimney Bluffs State Park, Howland Island, Taughannock Falls State Park, Finger Lakes National Forest, Robert H. Treman State Park, and the High Tor Wildlife Management Area, among others.

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It’s hard not to mention again some of the truly extraordinary adventures we’ve had thus far. Including owl banding, which you can read about here, and joining an expedition out on the lake with the HWS research vessel, which you can read about here.

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We’ve had the good fortune of encountering a lot of great bookstores, but perhaps the book event of most note was having a quick chance to browse at the Ithaca library book sale a couple of weeks ago. We could have picked up much more, but I settled on these wonderful old ornithology titles–very eccentric, with all kinds of interesting asides.

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We’ve also enjoyed visiting many crafts stores and collectives throughout the region. We acquired this original piece from Stomping Grounds here in Geneva, but have encountered wonderful arts and crafts in many places, such as Skaneateles, Ithaca’s Commons, and Seneca Falls. The crafts collective in Skaneateles is highly recommended in particular.

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The Corning Museum of Glass has been the highlight of our museum experience thus far. Almost overwhelming, but always stunning.

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The Trias House’s proximity to campus has meant our walks at dusk have been delightfully mingled with chance encounters–as when we stumbled upon a concert by PWR BTTM last week. A great power-pop-rock band we had not heard of before. On the more planned side, we also enjoyed a student production of the D&D play She Kills Monsters.

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Us, by the shores of Lake Ontario, in September.