This One Time At Writers Camp

Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
—WH Auden

During a recent Pacific Northwest heat wave, two hundred writers gathered nightly in a woodsy outdoor auditorium at Reed College to hear readings by some of the nation’s most prominent authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. After full days of craft lectures, panel discussions and workshops, we shifted uncomfortably on the wooden benches, buzzing with excitement until writers like Jo Ann Beard, Joy Williams, Nick Flynn, Ann Hood, Mat Johnson and Anthony Doerr took the stage. The night that Tony read, my short fiction workshop sat close to the podium to cheer him on. I glanced over their faces as we hooted and hollered like carefree children, thinking, We’re at summer camp and I’m actually having fun.

Last week, when co-workers asked about my so-called vacation, I struggled to describe my time at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland. We began each day at eight am in the cafeteria, followed by a lecture at nine, workshop at ten, lunch at 12:30 then craft talks at two and three. Participant readings began each afternoon at four followed by dinner at six, faculty readings from eight to nine-thirty and cocktail receptions interspersed between. We worked our literary asses off, and it was my most transformative experience as a writer yet, but the question hung: Was it really a vacation?

Typical vacations do not involve taking notes, nor do they involve quotes by T.S. Eliot and Joan Didion. Vacations generally do not revolve around topics such as plot or narrative voice. Phrases like point of view, rising action and objective correlative are rarely uttered on vacation and, when employed as it is here, people usually don’t feel shame at using passive voice while they’re on holiday. However, if one’s time away involves a couple hundred nerdy writers (is the modifier nerdy even necessary?), all of this is not only possible but quite certain.

(For some of us, like my short fiction workshop clan, it’s also heaven.)

Led by Tony Doerr, as we came to know him, my ten-person cohort became as close as bunkmates. Hailing from Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Oregon, Texas, Arizona and Idaho, we began as strangers but established trust quickly. I found myself sharing every meal with them which, as someone who needs time for quiet reflection, surprised me. Though we varied in age, education, careers, sexual orientation, ethnic background, family situation and lifestyle, we kept returning to each other again and again, learning each other’s personal stories in addition to the ones we critiqued each morning on the page.

Editor Rob Spillman opened the conference by welcoming us to the Tin House family where, soon after, I came to think of my fiction workshop as my literary family. Bonding experiences like these don’t occur often in adult life, so I marked each gathering with quiet thanks for what I knew was a rare opportunity. My so-called vacation began to reveal what is missing in my writerly life in Seattle, namely a connection with peers on a craft level.

From the start of Tin House, I felt a particular kinship with Jen, who hailed from Vermont. She is practical and straightforward in all the wonderful ways that New Englanders are known for, and equally as generous, insightful and kind. She’s the type of person you could rely on for an extra cup of sugar as easily as a tire iron, if you needed one or the other — and she would have both.

We sat next to each other often, sharing news of the men in our lives and plunging into the conundrum of the work-a-day world outside of the conference—the one we knew was waiting for us, the one we hoped to greet forever altered after this experience. Fueled with inspiration from the faculty readings one night, we parted in front of her dorm, two campers heading back to their cabins to write until lights out, and I thought with both joy and ennui, Why does my new friend have to live all the way in Vermont?

The spark of adult friendship is a lot like a crush. You wonder if the other person thinks you are as cool as you think she is. You don’t want to appear overeager. You reveal personal things that you wouldn’t normally share, at least not without a cocktail. Then, without having to ask, she does the same. On parting, you trade notes that detail the attributes you found lovely about each other, and the flower of friendship blooms. As you hug goodbye, you wonder when and if you’ll get to laugh with each other in person again.

I ask: was it just a vacation?

During my one-on-one consultation with Tony Doerr, we ostensibly met to discuss my short story, but our conversation turned instead to my two lives: my work life, which funded my Tin House experience, and my writerly life, just beginning to bud. The stress and demands of the former leave little time and energy for the latter, something many writers struggle with. When I described how I squeeze in a precious few hours of writing each week between the many hours of non-creative work, Tony shook his head. “I just don’t know how you do it. I could never do that.”

At that moment, something fractured in me for decades broke open. Ten sharp and funny new friends, a deep awe of the gifted artists around me, the shock of truly being seen by someone I admire… Tin House was becoming bigger than I had imagined.

By the end of the week, the temperature cooled and my heart felt more open than ever. I decided to sit out on the second-floor porch of my rented apartment to write Tony a letter, thanking him for his wise counsel and spot-on feedback on my story. Our mini-MFA workshop was coming to a close, and I vowed to change my artistic practice upon returning to Seattle. As I stepped onto the porch, I pulled the door closed —just a smidge— to keep flies from infiltrating the apartment. When I heard the lock click home, my pupils shrank to the size of pin holes before widening into saucers.

I knew instantly what I had done.

oh jesus oh god what do i do i mean what do i do they arent home oh my god my phones inside inside my phones inside holy shit im stuck out here can i jump down no i cant jump down jump down are you crazy who jumps down off of a second floor balcony maybe i can hit the door hit the door hit the door hit the door what else break the window with what besides if i break the window how much will it cost

My heart galloping like a stallion, the door handle grew immense in my vision, that damned silver knob blocking out everything else. What do I do? What do I do? I realized that I was repeating this phrase aloud like a mantra with breathless refrains of Should I break the window? The only response was cheerful birdsong. There was no one on the street, not that they could have helped me, as the front door was locked. I always lock the front door when I come home.

I broke off the silver clip from my pen and attempted unsuccessfully to pick the lock with it. Then I threw myself at the door over and over and over, a series of dull thuds that rattled the frame and bruised my wrist. If I was the protagonist of my short story, I would have kicked the door in. (She’s kind of a bad ass.) Suddenly, I remembered that there was WiFi. My phone was locked inside, but I had my laptop, so I emailed my airbnb host, who was on a vacation of own. Thankfully, unlike me, he was checking messages. His neighbor let me in with a spare key shortly thereafter.

On top of all that had transpired that week, I was panicked from being trapped and relieved from being freed. The more I considered how I felt—deductively paralyzed with fear—I began to wonder how long I was actually trapped on that balcony. In a way, I had been cornered there since high school when my parents urged me to study science rather than writing because writers never made any money. Or maybe it was after college; I had changed majors from molecular and cellular biology to English lit, but there were no jobs for lit majors in Tucson that paid enough to cover my student loans. After I began my career, there was always a reason that writing wasn’t a full-time priority—money, relationships, time, energy. These were excuses. Reasonable excuses, perhaps, but one by one, I exchanged my dream for cars, possessions, a house and a retirement fund.

As I concluded the gushy thank you note to Tony, this time tucked safely inside the apartment, it occurred to me that Tin House was a second opportunity to make the right choices.

Our week closed fittingly with Tony’s lecture about creating a sense of two-placedness in our work. He talked about the way in which great stories unite a dream place and a physical place, the sense of a unique and distinct here contrasted with the world we know outside. The stories that we hold dear bear this feeling of sehnsucht, as the Germans call it—a yearning for that which overwhelms, a longed-for place.

I’m not sure that Tony actually said this, but upon rereading my notes, I found a line that I keep returning to: We’re forever happy when caught between places we cannot reach. During Tin House I realized that this middle space is my opportunity; the foundation for what will happen with my writerly life is in my hands right now, here, in this yet-to-be defined middle place. I have choices.

I can keep doing what I’m doing, attending classes occasionally and submitting work.

I can decide that the writing life is too much to manage and simply revert to being a reader and occasional blogger.

Or, I can wade into a new realm between worlds. Rather than charging ahead with task lists, I can explore this unfamiliar territory deeply and intentionally, step by step with a flashlight. I can throw away the rules, fall and even fail, without resisting or accepting failure or fear as ends. This is a foreign road.

George Saunders once advised, “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.” On my first day at Tin House, I tittered at the endless quotes bandied about by my fellow writers, but by the end I realized that this is how one hones a philosophy. Wise words help us codify what we believe, and from them, we clarify the questions we want to explore.

On the last day, after the craft lessons, readings and cocktails were over, I finally understood the deeper question driving the core of my own writing practice. In my notebook I wrote, How can we bear to go on investing in this life and each other, knowing that we’re all terminal patients? A lifetime in the making, this question underlies all that I do — something I couldn’t see until I found a way to step out of the comfortable obscurity of darkness and into a hopeful yet daunting new light.

During a panel discussion, Joy Williams urged us to savagely dismantle what we believe. This is just what happened for me, though I didn’t go into Tin House with that intent; essentially, I thought I’d come out with a stronger network and an edge for fiction writing. Instead, in the space of seven days, I razed my unwitting architecture of belief to the ground. Now that I’ve returned, forever changed, my task is to rebuild on this newly cured foundation.

I heard recently that the mark of a good vacation is forgetting your passwords when you log in at home. There’s something to that in the very word vacation. A vacation is an extended period of recreation spent away from home or while traveling, but it is also defined as the action of leaving a place or state that one previously had occupied. We place ourselves in the path of transformation when we go on holiday, knowing that leaving the bounds of the familiar opens us up emotionally, spiritually and creatively.

We must let go–leave behind our cathetic objects and empty the vessels of our minds before new ideas can take the place of old ones.
 Perhaps the mark of a good vacation isn’t so much an emptying as it is a catharsis, a release and relief from the used-up thoughts and beliefs that held us down in the past.

I suppose when you put it that way, I would say that my vacation was great. Thanks for asking.

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)

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2 thoughts on “This One Time At Writers Camp

  1. George Saunders once advised, “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused.

    Yes! I think to remain confused keeps a writer curious and motivated. And that’s what drives us to keep investing out life time in something so difficult. The difficulty is part of the reward.

    Thanks for sharing. Sounds like an amazing experience, and your account of it is inspiring.

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