Saturday, August 08, 2009

Write Camp Notes Part One

It's been a couple weeks since I got back from the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College. Now that I've finally unpacked, I'll share.

First the basics and logistics. It was a four week workshop with the option to attend for only two. I was there for the second half. Many of the students were there on scholarship from grad or undergrad creative writing programs at other schools. Others were teachers using continuing ed grants. Others were serious "hobbyists" like me, who need to play full-time writer for a couple weeks every year, on vacation from otherwise unrelated dayjobs. And there was a handful of retirees, some just starting to write. The mix of age and experience was large (with all the positive and negative aspects one would expect). Most of us stayed in the dorms, in a block of single rooms set aside for writers.

The schedule was less strenous than other conferences. Mornings were unprogrammed. Workshop met Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. Class size ranged from 5 to 16. There were 7 concurrent workshops, so it was possible to learn every single student's name. Some students paid extra for a consultation on a book-length manuscript with an author of note. (Many of them told me it was a shining highlight of the conference.) Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were generic Q&A sessions with visiting writers. (These sessions relied on the students to provide the topics of discussion, which I felt was a weakness relative to other conferences--I would have preferred to hear the authors talk on specific craft-related subjects. Wouldn't you love to hear Russell Banks talk about voice for an hour? Or Charles Simic talk about what one learns from doing translations? But I digress.) Each evening had a reading by two of the faculty or visitors, followed by a reception. There was a good amount of drinking but alcohol was not the main event. Sunday evening had a student reading and barbecue at an old Victorian mansion attached to the school.

But enough with the nuts and bolts, and on to the unique and/or noteworthy aspects. My overall impression was that we were encouraged to delve deeply into the work of others. The nightly faculty readings were long (each author for as much as 45 minutes) and gave more than a taste of a writer's work. Bob Boyers, the director, gave a thorough, thoughtful introduction to each writer, and while the good-natured jokes did fly about the length of his speeches, they were an art form unto themselves, carefully composed (and even, from previous years, compiled in a volume called A BOOK OF COMMON PRAISE), and designed to help us hear new things in the work of authors we thought we already knew.

A word on the faculty and guests. It's an astonishing list of literary heavies, and my reason for going. (My favorite readings were from Charles Simic, Danzy Senna, Nick Delbanco, Rick Moody, and my teachers Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill.) Hero worship was definitely in the air. But the faculty, too, seemed committed to passing the baton. It felt (to me) like it was more than a dayjob to them.

This theme of delving deeply extended into the classroom, where we were reading and annotating 30 pages each of student prose. (Most other workshops I have done ask for half that amount.) With a class of 16, plus assigned published works to read, the load added up. I learned what a slow reader I am. I had flash memories of the oppressive weekends of grading papers, back when I used to teach comp. So the "free" mornings in Saratoga Springs turned out to be me with my folder and pencil, changing venue but not activity: to the cafe in town, to the cafeteria, to the library, to my dorm, to the outdoor chair. To work and work some more, this annotating freak went.

The sheer volume of required reading created in me a new impatience for extra verbiage, for explanation of character motive and/or backstory, for wit for wit's sake. I apologize (if you're reading this) to my classmates for the mass of delete marks I put in your pages. It's not you, it's me, and I think I overreached. I encourage you to ignore the unhelpful comments. I'm not one of those people who thinks workshop is about thickening your skin. But it is about sharpening one's taste and editing skills, and I grew a lot in that department. Emphasis on taste, as in that's why there's horseracing.

I kept thinking about what my husband says about a good day up at bat. The pitch might be coming at 80MPH but if you're in the groove, if you've practiced your fundamentals and put on your lucky underwear and said rabbit rabbit rabbit when you got out of bed in the morning, if you are in the best possible shape before you stand at the plate, the ball looks like it's hanging in the air. All you have to do is whack it.

I felt a little of this shift happening in my brain. The long hours spent picking apart other peoples' unfinished work has made it much easier to pick apart my own. The mistakes and missed opportunities jump out faster. I don't have to beg readers to show them all to me.

The other byproduct of the deep-looking emphasis of the conference was a total lack of instruction on how to get published. I found this refreshing. It wasn't a matter of the discussion being premature for the students (it was for some, but not all), but rather, it would almost be in bad taste. This was a conference about writing and reading, but not about sales. Yahoo.

I want to get into more specifics about what I learned in the classroom, but I'll save that for a future post. Just one more thing before I sign off--that sparkly water they have all over Saratoga bubbling from those cute Victorian spigots--delicious! But it contained microbes my body did not know yet. Be warned. Also: racehorses are exciting and gorgeous when they're working out in the morning. They're not wearing all that wacky colorful clothing they wear on race day, and they are not in a big pack, so you can see more of what they're doing. Worth getting up early. Damn, they're fast.

More later! Off to make dinner.

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Blogger The other Olga said...

Anne, thanks for posting this -- very interesting! I loved the "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" part :))

11:35 AM  
Blogger Anne Elliott said...

Thanks, Olga! I hope you don't mind if I link to one of your blogs on my sidebar...

4:56 PM  
Blogger The other Olga said...

Sure, Anne -- link away. I'm also trying to blog about the conference (just typing up my notes), but going very slowly at it..

12:39 AM  

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