Okay, so now that I’ve returned to the blogosphere, I really owe it to the organizer’s of this year’s Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop to recap, from my little ol’ perspective, of what it was like to rub elbows with some of the finest, present-day, American literary writers.
Yes, aside from visiting the Fountain of Youth and returning to one’s college days of commune-like dormitories and unabashed dope smoking, Tin House really is all about the writing…and partying…and writing…and did I mention…?
To gain the privilege of attending Tin House’s Writer’s Conference, one must first submit a writing sample. Depending on your genre (notice my foul use of the word “genre” here. The Tin House folks and adjunct faculty generally snub anything categorized by “genre.” This is not the conference for romance novelists, mystery or thriller writers. This is hard-core literary instruction for literary writing. So what is literary? It is anything deeper, more obtuse, wordier, character-driven, and philosophical than what you’ll find in a Dan Brown or James Patterson novel. Not that those books aren’t wonderfully captivating and well-written. But literary writing certainly serves a different–perhaps more discerning audience. It’s not exactly mainstream, folks.
So, anyway, you must submit a piece of writing you’ve been working on to the Tin House crew prior to acceptance. One can submit a work of long fiction, short fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir or poetry. Then the Tin House staff gets to review your work and decide whether or not you can cut the mustard with the rest of the accepted attendees…and hopefully send you an acceptance letter.
Of course, many of us were wondering if the “acceptance” process was a bit of a farce. None of the folks I spoke with had heard of anyone actually being denied acceptance to the workshop…so perhaps the submission-acceptance thing is a clout builder. And if so–so what? The conference still totally rocks.
Over the course of seven days, Tin House offered 22 lectures (almost none of which were scheduled concurrently, meaning, as a workshop goer, you had all the reason and no excuse to not learn a hell of a lot about writing). Some of my favorite lectures were:
-Obsession, A New Musk (Steve Almond)
-The Agent Game (a panel discussion with literary agents Denise Shannon, Bonnie Nadell, Julie Barer and Betsy Lerner)
-Query Letters to Agents (Betsy Lerner)
-Dialogue (Keith Lee Morris)
Character & Plot (Bret Anthony Johnston)
My second time seeing Steve Almond lecture at a conference, I am even more convinced he is a truly brilliant man set in the body and consciousness of a stand-up comedian. Somehow, Almond captures an audience by the end of his first spoken sentence and gains momentum until the audience is flogging him with applause at the end of his talk.
Almond suggested that upon picking up a book, the reader begins with a basic question: what will I care about over the course of reading this book and what do I think the writer cared about while writing this book? Translation: what obsession does the reader get to hang onto over the course of two-hundred-some pages. In essence, after deciding what the prevailing obsession throughout the book will be (getting the girl to love the guy, vindicating a loved-one’s death, winning the national hot dog eating contest, etc.) frame obsession into every scene, story character (each character can have his/her own obsession).
Aside from the largely fantastic lectures (yes, there were a few that were not entirely fantastic) Tin House lined up eighteen author readings…not to mention the readings and discourse conducted at the Tin House Tenth Anniversary Celebration held in Portland’s downtown Newmark Theater.
Aside from the above-mentioned goings on, each participant who opted into small group workshops met for 2 1/2 hours each morning with their esteemed leader and eleven other participants for hard-core critique of each others work. My group leader was Walter Kirn, writer for GQ, New York Times Magazine, Vogue and Esquire, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, and author of several novels, along with his recently released memoir Lost in the Meritocracy.
Aside from a few organizational and personal hiccups (one guy stormed out of our workshop on Day One because he felt he wasn’t receiving an adequate critique on his work) we had extraordinarily in-depth discussions on each person manuscript submission–and on various writing techniques in general. Each person took their turn going on the hot seat for over an hour…listenting to discussion about and, when invited, commenting on their manuscript (the twenty or so pages submitted to the group, anyway). I left my small group experience with a spinning head, and overwhelmed psyche, and an idea of where to take my fiction manuscript next.
As you can see, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop is an intense experience. It’s well worth the $1500 (this includes all workshop activities, a meeting with a literary agent or Tin House Literary Magazine editor, housing and food for the entire week) and equally deserving of a following week of exhaustion and navel gazing.
If you’ve happened upon this blog post in your own search for a writer’s conference to attend in the future I can tell you I’d highly recommend this one.