Each year, I cobble together an educational program that serves as my DIYMFA. Usually, this means a residency, classes at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, and a weeklong summer workshop. I’ve been to three so far, studying with Anthony Doerr at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2014, Bhanu Kapil at A Room of Her Own (AROHO) in 2015, and Sayantani Dasgupta at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, which happened in mid-July in Port Townsend, WA.
Sometime mid-week, I noticed a writer-friend’s Facebook post—“Mary Ruefle called me one of her beloved idiots. I think I just won Tin House.”—which filled me with admiration and envy. Mary Ruefle was at Tin House the year I attended; I’ve since fallen hard for her poetry and lectures. Frankly, I would be scared of talking with her, given her brilliance. But to have Mary downright notice you… well, that IS winning Tin House, if such a thing can be won.
Jessica’s post got me to thinking that there is indeed competition at these workshops, though most writers would probably deny it. Whether at Ghost Ranch or Reed College or Fort Worden, the same thing happens: a simmering, unconscious contest that peaks at mealtimes. Picture a cafeteria packed with 150 emerging writers in search of acceptance, carrying trays of food like they were back in junior high. Some make a beeline to sit with friends; the shy ones sit start new tables and let others fill in around them. At first, there’s a lot of polite conversation by which we sort each other into genres—poetry, fiction, non-fiction. A day passes before someone asks the Big Question: “How’s your writing going?” On the surface, this is a polite way for writers who are forced to eat three meals a day with strangers to get to know each other. But it also contains the question under the question: Have you had an epiphany yet?
Writers attend workshops for lots of reasons. It may be the only time all year where we can leave behind work and family to immerse ourselves in writing. It may be our only opportunity to work with a published author, generate new material, get professional critique and build our network. But we really go for the breakthroughs. Epiphanies are the unsaid goal by which we measure our worth—our ability to quantum leap to a new level of mastery.
We attend workshops in search of magic prompts and sage craft tips that *POW!* blow our writing open. We hope that said epiphanies will lead to a novel/memoir/story/essay/lyric poem that garners us an agent and a three-book deal and movie rights and then we can retire from our day jobs and just write, write, write. We will be The Greatest Living Writer of All Time. (I’m looking at you, Sam Ligon.) Case in point: last week I attended a session taught by poet Susan Landgraf titled, “Looking for Epiphany.” It was so packed that she had to add extra chairs for the 30-some writers who crowded into her workshop searching for breakthroughs.
Confession: as a writer, I am always a little disappointed when my ideas become fixed into words; they go from the perfect ideal into a medium of inherent flaws. So, when someone at my lunch table asks, “How’s everyone’s writing going?” my ears prick to see if I’ll be the one one left behind, even though I know making art is not a contest. I cringe until someone says something self-deprecating like, “I just can’t get a feel for my main character,” or, “Nothing’s flowing this morning.” Then I sigh along with the rest of the table. Phew. We can all relax. No one has achieved epiphany yet. But by mid-week at a writer’s workshop, everyone’s a bit on edge, waiting for someone to cry, “BINGO!”
That Thursday at lunch, a guy at my table asked, “How’s everyone’s writing today?” and the woman next to me leaned forward with a gargantuan smile, like she had been waiting for this moment.
“I had the most ah-MAY-zing breakthrough,” she breathed in three syllables.
Conversations halted at the word breakthrough; we snapped to attention as if she had confessed discovering a vein of gold. “Really? What was it?!” the guy asked, touching her arm. Writers secretly believe that being near someone who has experienced epiphany will rub off, as if breakthroughs are like viruses.
As she told her story, I tried to feel happy for her, but the weekend was nearing, and I hadn’t yet had a breakthrough or even a mini-epiphany—not even in the epiphanies class. My so-called breakthroughs are closer to bulb flashes than lightening strikes, anyway. I’m more of an insight person. Things occur to me over time, little tricks that carve pathways into stories. In the quietest way, a sentence opens like a flower, and then the next and the next. This can be weeks or even months after a workshop. It’s so subtle that I go on writing and not notice that warm, easy sensation of being in flow.
When writers jump on the breakthrough train, it’s hard not to feel lacking in some way. What’s wrong with me that I don’t experience exploding moments of brilliance on command? My practice is quieter, even at the high moments. Yet, from time to time, the universe affords me inexplicable synchronicity, a phenomenon that Dan Chaon discussed at his craft talk, “Observation, Detail and the Uncanny.” Events happen and we overlay a sense of interconnectedness. Or, maybe the world really is cosmically linked. We don’t know exactly—that’s the uncanny. If you look for it, it’s everywhere.
That Thursday night, I was feeling blocked, so I took Annie Proulx’s advice and went for a walk. It was after eight. I followed a fox into the forest surrounding Fort Worden; eventually, I lost it and turned back for my dorm. On the way, my eyes fell upon a woman dressed in a quilted maroon coat whose messy up-do looked inexplicably familiar in the twilight. Two years ago at the AROHO retreat, our workshop leader, Bhanu Kapil, had sent us into the desert of Abiquiu, New Mexico, in search of the color red as a sign of communion and inspiration for our writing. I couldn’t believe my eyes; the woman wearing red resembled Bhanu, who I knew taught at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. What would she be doing in Port Townsend, Washington? “Bhanu…is that you?” I asked, nearing her.
“Is that you?” she asked me, speaking slowly as if in a trance. She wore the same expression of wonder that I felt on mine.
That we should meet at that moment. On that corner. In this small Washington town. Turns out, she had been teaching at Goddard College all week, but it was only that once, at night, standing near a cluster of yarrow that we met each other when we both needed a little pep talk. Someone to remind us that our efforts were not a waste. We hugged, we talked, we hugged again, we departed.
Our chance meeting didn’t solve everything but it did reinforce my belief in interconnected energy. For the next few days, I went on struggling with an essay that I’ve been trying to write for years, but the serendipity of seeing Bhanu made me reflect on what it really means to “win” at these workshops. It forced me to question how my writing life has changed since I started taking it seriously. Each year, I’ve doubled down on my commitment to education. I’ve put energy into bettering my craft and submitting work. Today, I take writing as seriously as I take my job.
That Sunday, I returned home to find a rejection from The Paris Review in my mailbox. It was the same flimsy slip of paper in a SASE as always, but it wasn’t the usual Thank you for submitting. For the first time, the slip encouraged me to send more work. I considered it a sign—not of cosmic connection but proof that my efforts are paying off in a higher quality of work that is being taken seriously by well-respected publications. My rejection may not be as good as being Mary Ruefle’s beloved idiot, but in my vernacular, it’s the sort of thing I’d call a breakthrough.