An Interview with Deirdre Callanan

Deirdre is an amazing cook

Deirdre is an amazing cook!

This past July saw the third summer retreat at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich on Cape Cod. (The photos below are all from Deirdre and Jack’s amazing yard, taken by Don Chiapinelli, Sheila Felberbaum and me.) Deirdre has taught many of us in New Directions across the years, as a Saturday group leader, a Sunday group leader, the leader of the Alumni Group and the leader of 2-pager groups. For the many of you who have had the great pleasure of working with Deirdre Callanan in one venue or another, I am happy to present as the latest New Directions blog this interview with Deirdre.


Deirdre's Cape Cod home

Deirdre’s Cape Cod home

Gail: How long have you been with ND and in what capacities?  How did you get involved?

Deirdre: I’ve been involved with New Directions since February 2007. My friend Tom Goldman chaired that weekend on Memory. He’d asked my input with the short paper prompts then invited me to co-facilitate a small discussion group with Rick Waugaman. I said, “Are you kidding me?” Not only had I never been to any sort of therapist, I’d never even taken a psychology course. How could I possibly say anything useful? Tom reminded me I am a writer and a writing teacher. He also assured me that Rick was the ideal co-facilitator for me. He was right. Rick was the first of many gifts I’ve received from New Directions. That initial weekend, I was so nervous. I wore suits, sat up straight, took notes in the talks, mostly so later back at the Goldmans I could ask Tom what the heck the speakers were talking about. My favorite speaker was Dan Schacter whose topic was The Seven Sins of Memory. I’ve been working on a poem based on his presentation for seven years now. The only thing remaining from my first drafts is the title.

The beautiful back patio

The beautiful backyard

I co-led my first Sunday group with Shelly Rockwell that fall. Shelly was another remarkable leader. What a listener! Anne Adelman was in that group. We were in the hotel downtown then, just east of Foggy Bottom. I searched M Street for the perfect ND journal. I bought a Travel Notebook whose cover depicts a hot air balloon gliding above a forested mountain. In its woven basket is a turtle with a telescope, a rabbit with an open book, and an elephant consulting a map. Now, if that isn’t a metaphor for the ND program, what is? I’ve been using that book to record ND sessions ever since. When Anne introduced herself that November 4 of 2007, she told us, “My parents owned a typewriter store in New York. At age 6, I got my first Remington. I sat on the porch and wrote fairy tales.”

During the blizzard in 2010, when we were either trapped in Pentagon City or never made it there, I covered the Saturday morning poetry workshop, and it occurred to me I might be able to offer something for Saturday mornings, so I’ve done three different workshops, each of which I’ve loved. Bob Winer’s organizational patterns are just like his shirts: so wild they seem air-lifted from a Hendrix riff, but then if you wander around in the experience long enough, you have a revelation, like an acid trip without the drug. Think about it: there are nearly as many segments to the program as there are combinations in a Rubric’s cube, but snapped together, it’s beautiful magic.

The marsh

The marsh

In 2008 & 2009, I facilitated small groups at the Stowe summer retreat. And lo, another fantastic teacher, Tessa Conlin, who led our full-group sessions on the Stowehof Inn’s patio with such verve and humor. Joanie Lieberman, another exceptional listener and respondent, and I have been co-leading an alumni group since October, 2010. That December, I also had the pleasure of working at the winter retreat at the Tabard Inn: once more, an intense experience in a gorgeous setting. Finally, my husband Jack and I have hosted the summer retreat on Cape Cod for the past three Julys. Getting to exchange five emails a day for three months of planning with Don Chiappinelli would be reward enough. The writers and fellow instructors are a supreme bonus.

Also, in April 2012, I chaired the weekend on Writing: Our Heroines & Heroes.

Late afternoon sun

Late afternoon sun

Gail: What do you like about working with New Directions writers?  What is similar to and different from other writers with whom you have worked?

Deirdre: Frankly, at first I used to write down comments from the writing response sessions to share with my long-term writing group at home. Frequently, the comments made at ND I had never heard in all my decades of workshop participation. Ever. Not once. Part of this relates to the ND focus. As the brochure states, it’s “writing and critical thinking from a psychoanalytic perspective.”



“In a way, this is a story about an enactment– you’re drawn into another’s pathology.”

“A wonderful example of rupture and repair.”

“An attempt to represent the enigmatic.”

“That possible meaning would have transference meaning. It had the quality of her entering an ID-Ego state.”

Marsh grass

Speaking of states, eventually I was able to confess at New Directions that my journey there had introduced the term transference as something other than taking a bus from Boston to Chicago then transferring to the Omaha-bound bus.

What I like about working with ND writers is their range of topics and their ability to listen deeply to others. There is nothing superficial about this group. There is also nothing simplistic. Overall, the writers here seem more sensitive to responses. Therapists tend to receive, absorb; their job is to help others, yes? Here, they’re exposing themselves.

In other words: they’re similar in that they write in many genres and with varying levels of ability. Unlike others, they’re more sensitive and seasoned listeners.

Gail: Tell me about your writing. 

After a swim

After a swim

Deirdre: I’ve been writing since I was six. On days I don’t write, I feel disassociated and dreary. Many poems as well as some essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal and Poet Lore. I’ve three poems in an anthology, World of Water, World of Sand. Chapters from my non-fiction manuscript, Beer, Bait, & Raggedy Hearts– A People’s History of the North Jetty Fish Camp, were serialized in a newspaper, The Venice Gondolier, over the past three years. A book I wrote as a result of my year as Christa McAuliffe fellow from Massachusetts, Windows & Mirrors: Writing’s Power for Illumination & Reflection, is housed at Fitchburg State’s library.

Gail: What is your professional background?

Deirdre at work

Deirdre at work

Deirdre: My BA in journalism is from Marquette University, my MA in Fiction is from Colorado State University. I’ve taken dozens of week-long poetry workshops from, among others, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Lux, Nancy Willard, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Nick Flynn, and Mark Doty. Journalism was my first passion, including photojournalism, and I still freelance. I became a high school English teacher quite by accident with no credentials or aspirations to teach. I loved teaching and taught several subjects at various levels for 30 years. The most memorable of my jobs, however, was the year I was a construction worker in Colorado. I still try to write and read a few hours each day, still attend workshops by writers I admire. I’m in two writing groups, one meets weekly, the other monthly. My sole teaching now occurs at New Directions, but that’s as rich and rewarding as anything

Summer 2014 Writing Retreat

Summer 2014 Retreat Participants

Summer 2014 Retreat Participants

The Summer 2014 New Directions writing retreat included features that are familiar and much loved — six days of writing workshops held in Deirdre and Jack’s beautiful home in West Harwich on Cape Cod, shared meals, and a day off for fun – as well as something new and exciting – the addition of Sara Taber as a writing instructor. Many New Directions participants know Sara from her eight years (so far) running a Sunday group and a Saturday workshop during the weekend retreats.  Because in the past I’ve described what happens at the summer retreat (Summer 2012 and Summer 2013), for this entry, I decided to focus on our two writing instructors, Sara and Deirdre.  As will be obvious in these portraits of Sara (here) and Deirdre (in an entry to follow), the heart of the New Directions program is the incredible quality of the writers with whom we have the privilege to work.

Sara hard at work

Sara hard at work

Sara brings unique qualifications to her work with us at New Directions.  As a former practicing therapist, she has insight into the kinds of concerns many participants bring to their writing.  As a cultural anthropologist and an accomplished writer, Sara has a keen ability to observe and describe the details of a given setting and the nuances of what is taking place and of the motivation of the characters.

Assumed Name

As detailed in her latest book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter , Sara grew up in Asia, Europe and the U.S.  She earned an M.S.W. from The University of Washington and worked at the Stanford Child Psychology Clinic as well as spending six years in private practice. Sara then did her Ph.D. at Harvard, where she studied cross-cultural human development and psychological anthropology.  In a thrilling moment of recognition for me, I learned that Sara’s Ph.D. advisor was Bob LeVine, who is best known for his pioneering work in psychoanalytic anthropology, doing cross-cultural studies in child rearing Dusk Campo 2practices.  The thrilling piece — for me —  is that Bob LeVine was also the advisor of my Ph.D. advisor, Joe Tobin, which makes Sara and I close academic relatives. Sara’s 1992 book, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia, came out of her dissertation research; it provides a beautiful example of her lyrical weaving together of portraits of a place, the daily lives and personalities of the inhabitants, and the kind of sociological detail that is needed to make sense of the larger picture.

Sara teaching the morning workshop

Morning workshop

After her graduation, Sara taught at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work for four years and then left academia to begin her career in creative non-fiction, where she has had considerable success and recognition. She was a fellow at the famous Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and has been a writer in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Sara has been teaching at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda for twenty years. She has taught writing at Johns Hopkins and the Vermont College of Fine Arts; she teaches workshops at her home and does coaching and private editing. In addition to her books, Sara has published in national magazines and the Washington Post and has had work produced for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Bread of Three Rivers 2

Sara’s 2001 Bread of Three Rivers describes her year in pursuit of understanding the heart of French bread-making. Sara described to me that both this and Dusk on the Campo combine her love of other cultures with her very personal quest to understand issues of self in relation to others.  Pouring through Sara’s many publications, it is easy to see that whether she is writing creative non-fiction, memoir, travel, commentary, personal essay, or literary journalism, Sara pursues questions that are fundamental to thinking about the qualities of human lives and relationships.

Cape Cod 2014-1020851

Elise at work

During her week of teaching us in daily morning workshops this summer, Sara asked us to consider “What is the wisdom you are writing about?” Looking at examples of both traditional and non-formal structures for writing, we worked with Sara to deliver to our reader a particular moment, to evoke an emotion or capture a fleeting feeling. Sara spent time working with us on three key components of narrative writing: scene, summary, and musing. Sara helped us to think about summary as the long shot or establishing shot in a film, the shot that grounds us in a time and place. We then considered scene as the shot that moves into the particular things that are happening, the medium and close shots that establish, track and move the story but lose much of the larger detail.  Finally we considered musings, the occasional moments to pause and reflect on what is going on.

Sally reads an example text

Staying with the film metaphor, Sara suggested that moving among these elements is a matter of pacing, the shifting rhythms and speed of different shots that are so critical to keeping the audience immersed in the story.  Sara suggested that most people are more inclined to stay with one of these kinds of writings, and that we need to attend to all three.

Sara working with her small group

Sara working with her small group

When I later interviewed Sara, she suggested that as clinicians, many New Directions writers may be used to summarizing and formulating explanations in their writing but have less practice at depicting the close-up details of pivotal moments.  Sara described that New Directions’ writers are amazing to work with because they tend to go straight to the emotion in their writing.  Sara noted that she works to help New Directions writers to free themselves from the judgments of their families, peers, profession or abstract ideals in order to find and use their authentic voices.

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