The View from Tin House

It’s 7 a.m. on Sunday, the day I return home from my week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.  This is the transition day, though of course the transition from a week at a writer’s workshop back to my regular life will take much longer.

It’s been an amazing week.  The aesthetic of the workshop can best be exemplified in two of the concurrent lectures that took place on the first day.  In the main hall they had a panel called “The Agent Game” featuring a discussion of the publishing side of things from the 3 agents here with us at the beginning of the week.  Across the circular drive in the chapel, Matthew Dickman, one of the poetry faculty, led a talk called “We Don’t Need No Stinking Agents,” about other non-agenty ways to get your work out into the world.  As the Summer Workshop director Lance Cleland said, “we take our writing seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”  Throughout the week there was a lot of laughter and a lot of hard-working writers sharing their ideas with one another.  Each day concluded with faculty readings in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater at the edge of Reed Lake, where ducks landed and took off mid-reading, punctuating the writers’ sentences as they skimmed across the water.

The critique workshop itself was great, especially the supportive and intelligent group of writers who assembled every morning in Vollum Hall, Room 134 to give opinions on how to make our work better.  I’m glad to be able to add some new writer friends to my wonderfully supportive writing community. 

I think I learned the most, though, or at least got the most inspired, by the craft talks held in the afternoons.  Standouts for me were Luis Alberto Urrea’s talk about Place, Steve Almond’s talk about opening paragraphs, Anthony Doerr’s talk about failure, and my very favorite, Jess Walter’s talk about time.  These seem like such basic concepts, things I should have mastered by now.  But they are, of course, quite complicated, and having a fresh approach to each aspect was a very helpful re-framing for me.  I won’t attempt to sum them up here (all are going to be available on the Tin House blog, for those interested).  One thing I will say that emerged as a theme is this: be clear and direct.  don’t be coy with your readers.  Don’t say “he drove a 1952 Studebaker that was 10 years old.”  Don’t use the opening of your story as an opportunity to plant seeds of mystery in hopes that the reader will want to read on.  Orient the reader, in time, in place, to the story you are about to tell them.

The week ended on a wonderful note with great readings from Anthony Doerr, Dorianne Laux, and Dana Spiotta.  At the after-party, I had a great talk with Rebecca Stead, the wife of my brother’s college roommate.  We’d never met before this week, but our time together here has already created a friendship.  We spoke last night about transitioning home, about the challenges of integrating writing into our lives.  It’s a conversation I have with writers often, but this time it felt different.  Rebecca talked about how she’s trying to think of her writing as a practice, similar to meditation or yoga.  You assume a pose, so to speak.  You can begin with a ritual.  It is a sacred time, rather than a time that you are trying to sandwich in between other things.  It is a time to be engaged with the words, rather than thinking of the stopwatch ticking until the school bus comes or the deadline you’ve set for yourself.  In other words, it’s a time when you don’t think about the time.

I claim to make efforts to protect my writing time, but the truth is that I’m terrible about it.  No more.  I’m re-organizing my day, so that I will actually write at my best writing time.  And I won’t beat myself up for how much I do or don’t accomplish in that time, how great or terrible the writing on a given day, how long it takes me to complete a project.

“It’s about self-respect,” Rebecca said, and she is right.  I saw a lot of examples of humility this week, successful authors sharing their stories of failure, of stumbling, of asking themselves on a regular basis if maybe dentistry is a better profession for them.  But they also have a lot of self-respect. Sometimes the chapter comes out brilliantly.  Sometimes they spend hours on a shitty paragraph.  But they make time to write.

“The time it takes to write something is the time it takes,” Jess Walter said.  “Give your writing as much time as you need.”  I will.

P.S. Another thing I’m doing to respect myself as a writer is to enlist the help of fellow Whidbey Writer’s Workshop alum Sharon Mentyka to transform this paper-bag drop back of a blog into a website that, you know, looks nice.  Kick-ass website coming soon-ish.  But don’t rush me :).

2 thoughts on “The View from Tin House

  1. Pingback: Back to School | Janet Buttenwieser

  2. Hi Janet,

    Really enjoyed your article and recap of your time spent journeying with inspirational mentors.

    I’m also a writer in the Portland area and always looking for new writing *lanes* to explore. The Tin house seems to offer magic at a time when magic feels neutrino small. 🙂

    When did you take this workshop with Anthony Doerr, Jess Walter, etc?

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