July 20th, 2016
For years I’ve thought about attending one of the many summer writing workshops in the US: Bread Loaf, Tin House, Iowa, Sewanee. I’ve studied their programs and the lists of authors and talks and envied the immersive creative community. Since I grew up (part of the time) in America I knew the college atmosphere from my undergrad days, but I moved to Australia in my early 20s and never experienced a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. We just don’t have them here.
The Doctorate of Creative Arts which I finished last year gave me a wonderful supervisor who read, advised and guided my project, but never the intensive workshop structure which is available in the US. My scholarship gave me the financial freedom to write, but I never felt part of a community of writers, and even working from my desk at the university the other writers I came into contact with existed in the bubble of their own work. I think there is something to be gained from reading others who are still figuring things out, learning from each other’s mistakes and being pushed by their inventiveness. I love being challenged – critiqued – questioned. Being asked: what’s at stake for you here? What’s your vulnerability? How can you push this further?
So this year I made my plans far in advance to apply to the Tin House Summer Workshop, in part because of their reputation and the quality of the writers they publish, and in part because the timing fit perfectly with my kids’ school holidays. I blocked out two weeks – one to attend the workshop and one to conduct interviews with Australian WWII war brides for the novel I am working on, and visit WWII-era ships on the West Coast (more about this in a later post). Only when I received my acceptance did I start to question my decision. Was I really ready to leave my children for two weeks? What if my workshop hated my writing? What if everyone was so much more meta than me? Although I had taught workshops recently I hadn’t workshopped my own work in so long that it made my stomach flip with fear. Even though I’ve had two novels published, I still feel like every time I’m beginning again.
So it was that my first night on the campus of Reed College in Portland Oregon I lay in my single bed, the plastic mattress squeaking beneath me, the bathroom door across the hall creaking and clicking, thinking “what the fuck have I done?”
Would I just have been better off taking a week alone to write? Was I going to feel comfortable enough with a group of strangers to bear hearing them talk about my work?
I wouldn’t have and I did. I was in the novel workshop with Dana Spiotta, an author I’ve read and admired. This interview with her in the New York Times earlier this year made me think she would be a damn good teacher too (and quietly subversive – right up my alley).
I won’t go into detail of my workshop group here, just that I came to trust them and their judgement, to feel safe with them, to know that they would have insight into things which in my own work I couldn’t see. We all came from such different places, we wrote wildly different kinds of fiction, but we also had many of the same problems and structural challenges. We bonded over oddly descriptive cafeteria food and quite a bit of alcohol. I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.
But it wasn’t just the workshops every day: it was the seminars, panels and readings which filled me to overflowing. Sarah Manguso talking about the power of omission. Steve Almond talking about how our stories suffer from emotional cowardice – how too often we look away just at the moment of turmoil. Kiese Laymon questioning the act of representation and what our responsibilities are as writers. Alex Chee on what drives our characters and how we make this into plot. Gregory Pardlo reading a poem about his father (“like America his fist only rose on occasion”). I was struck by the joy and vitality Sharon Olds communicated when she talked about her work, about how after graduate school she decided “I will give up all I have learned if I can just write my own poems.”
How important it is to keep our roughness, our “skin in the game”, our voice which communicates our own particular vision of the world.
I took a lot of notes but hardly wrote a thing of my own when I was there. What I did was experience, fill like a sponge until I couldn’t hold another thing. Now I’m wringing myself out, clinging to each drop.
So here is my advice if you are thinking about attending the Tin House Summer Workshop, or pushing yourself into some other unfamiliar territory with your writing. Swallow your fear and do it. For me, just one day would have been worth the trip.
I was able to attend Tin House Summer Workshop thanks to funding from the Copyright Agency Limited Career Fund and the Australia Council for the Arts.