“Fill your pen with love or don’t bother picking it up.”
— Luis Alberto Urrea
How not to blog: about once a year, post overlong entries with way too much text and barely any photographs. With apologies to you, dear readers, here comes a download of my time last week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Though this was my 3rd time at Tin House, it was very different from my previous experiences. In fact, it wasn’t like any other gathering of writers I’ve ever attended. Wordy is the only method I have to begin to do it justice.
Tin House assembles an impressive set of faculty, and as a result has gotten more selective each year about the students they accept. While this might result in a more competitive vibe overall, I found the opposite to be true. None of the faculty needed to prove themselves as writers, and that characteristic radiated out to the entire group of 200-plus attendees.
For the workshop part of the week, we gathered each morning in pre-assigned groups of 12 to work with a member of the faculty. I decided to give fiction a try. My workshop leader was Jess Walter, a writer whose work I’ve admired for awhile. I met Jess the last time I attended Tin House, and based on our conversation and the excellent craft talk he gave about narrative time, I had a hunch he’d be a good teacher.
Remind me to always trust my hunches.
Jess was a stellar teacher, leading our group with warmth and generosity. He is hilarious, and we laughed a lot in workshop, but we also had deep discussions about each of our stories. He treated us as a writing peer, sharing craft and ideas for improving our stories and even giving us access to his awesome music collection while we spent 10 minutes each morning writing. (We WROTE at a writing conference! Believe it or not, this is unusual.)
And then there were my workshop-mates, an exceptional group of writers, critiquers, and humans. I feel like I won the workshop group lottery. It wasn’t just Jess who was generous and insightful. It was everyone. Our nametags said “Team Jess Walter.” We wore our badges proudly, and we quickly became besotted with one another. Someone quoted The Big Lebowski during my critique. Anytime there’s a Coen brothers reference related to my work, no matter how tenuous the connection, I consider that to be a successful workshop.
Team Jess (clockwise from L): TJ, Gabe, Jill, Marrie, Jess, Michele, Annabel, Robert, me, Colleen, Earl.
If every other moment of the conference had been terrible, I still would have been glad I went. But the workshop was just the beginning of the awesome. Every afternoon, the faculty take turns giving talks on the craft of writing. On Day 2 of the conference, we settled into our auditorium seats as Kiese Laymon took the stage, having no idea what was in store for us. He read a powerful piece (an adaptation of this one) about sexual violence. Then he posed a question to the audience: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?”
For the next 30 minutes, people began to answer his question: what do we read, what do we write, who gets to go to literary gatherings? On and on it went, the question rippling out to the rest of the conference, and still ringing loudly in my ears over a week later and a few hundred miles away.
As the week went on, I noticed 2 of the themes introduced during Kiese’s mind-blowing talk got repeated throughout the week in the talks, the readings, and of course in the workshop: love and kindness. Steve Almond talked about writing our emotions, and had us create work about our childhood crushes.
Sharon Olds and Jericho Brown, gorgeous people, gorgeous writers, gorgeous voices. When Terry Gross retires and I take over as Fresh Air host, Olds and Brown will be my first guests, appearing together. They’ll have a conversation, and I won’t have to say anything.
Olds read a series of unconventional odes, including “Ode to My Hymen” that were both funny and gorgeous. I noticed that all 12 of the Team Jess Walter stories were about love – romantic, familial, love gone stale and the love between friends. Luis Alberto Urrea delivered a talk to close out the conference, a love letter to us in which he said, among other beautiful phrases, the one quoted at the top of this post.
“Make great work its own reward,” Jess told us near the end of the week. He was telling his publishing story, which included 7 years of rejections before his first short story was accepted by a journal. He talked about being happy for our friends when they publish, about being gracious. “It’s much more important to be a kind person than a successful writer.” Look at all of the quotes I have to pin above my desk.
A few years ago, I attended a writing conference that didn’t go very well. I put my memoir away for 6 months and wrote very little during that time. On the last day at Tin House 2016, I was exhausted. I averaged 5-6 hours of sleep a night all week, my brain buzzing at each end of my slumber, and by Saturday afternoon I was toasted. In dire need of a nap, I headed toward my AirBnB. As I walked I looked to my right at the quad and the light slanting through the trees. My need for sleep was overpowered by a need to write. I veered right and spent the next 2 hours writing.
I arrived at Tin House as a nonfiction writer, and a week later I left brimming with ideas for how to turn my story into a novel.
How about that?