Doug Rice at CSU Chico

Twelve years ago I was an Anthropology major and needed an elective to graduate. So I took a film class with Professor Doug Rice. I figured that, like most film classes, it would be a no-brainer. We’d watch a few movies and write about them. Thankfully it was anything but that.

Professor Rice’s class changed the direction of my life. It’s one of the few classes I actually remember from college. Somewhere along the way, he identified me as a writer which helped me identify myself as a writer. And though it took me eleven years to finally dive into an MFA, Professor Rice’s influence and inspiration remained constant. I’ve followed his career as a writer and photographer with great admiration.

Today I watched Doug Rice do a reading recorded last week at CSU Chico. If you opt to watch it yourself, and I hope you do, you’ll get a sense of his energy and wisdom. But more importantly, you’ll leave with the understanding that it’s passion that drives him. A passion that naturally becomes amazing art. And no matter what your bag is, this applies to you, too.

One of Rice’s comments is, “You should all do everything you can to slow down.” So, I suppose it’s kind of funny that I’m summing up the presentation for you here. I’m reinforcing your inability to watch a kick-ass, hour-long video. But whatever, I’d rather you have this info than not.

Rice’s first words to the CSU Chico crowd were, “Is everybody intimate enough?” Maybe he should have stopped here and let everyone chew on that for the evening? That would have been cool. But instead he told us that a few years back he decided to stop publishing. He assured us it didn’t mean he was done writing, but publishing as a goal fell off his radar. He said that once Proust and Joyce were in a cab together. Proust asked Joyce what he did. Joyce said, “I write writing.” Rice told us he writes writing too.

But Rice got back into publishing after an ex-student offered to work with his words and photographs. Similar to the typesetters working on Ulysses’ 714 pages, this student hand built every letter and space, purposely making his book a visual and kinetic experience. The result was Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist (2011), a piece designed to come apart. A book that he said, “forces you to slow down.”

Rice went on to read from Between Appear and Disappear (2013), stopping occasionally to tell a story or recommend works by other artists. He told us to read anything by Kathy Acker because she’ll give us goosebumps. And, according to Rice, “Goosebumps are like little angels waking up on your skin.” Um, yes please.

After Rice told us all to buy his newest book, When Love Was (2015 release), he read an excerpt from Here Lies Memory, a novel he just finished revising. The main character, a Vietnam Veteran named Elgin, wills himself blind because he’s tired of seeing what’s happening in the world. “It took a war for me to the stars,” Elgin says. Rice’s characters link language and voice to the degeneration of memory. Elgin’s Vietnamese wife, Thuy, refuses to say “I love you” in English. She believes that speaking Elgin’s tongue physically damages her mouth.

Rice took a few questions at the end. His answered offered both practical and opinionated advice for writers in the room. But his words transcended craft.

Someone asked about his photos. Do they alter how he sees things? Rice said that photos are something that just happen. This is how writing should work, too. We must forget the name of the thing we are trying to talk about – forget love or trauma or relationships and just look at them. We need to stop thinking. If we have writer’s block we are thinking too much. If we just open our eyes and slow down and it goes away. Rice said that writer’s block is also called “being lazy.”

My favorite part came when Rice likened writing to praying. He asked, “What if we thought of writing as a prayer? [We’d] write to be with it, not to be done with it.” He joked that if the purpose of our prayer is to be done praying, then we’re going to hell. The Jesuits said so, anyhow.

I also loved when Rice asked, “What are [our] habits that prevent [us] from seeing?” How much time are we on the internet? How much instant gratification do we give ourselves? What’s wrong with being bored? From boredom comes good art. Distraction sabotages boredom. We must make it a point to organize our seeing and allow for boredom to take us inside ourselves.

Rice said our memories are stored in our muscles and bones. The stories we’ve been telling ourselves for years may be untrue – but the ones within our bodies are not. When we sit down to write about something, we give these internal things the kinetic means to escape. This is a gift. As writers we need to be ready for what might come out of us once we stop thinking and start doing.

And just like always, Professor Rice’s words inspire me to do. I’m off to go wring some memories from my blood.

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