Tuesday, July 26, 2011

[Staglevision] living in the tin house

Dear friends and readers,

It's been a week since I returned from the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop, but sometimes I still catch myself wondering what afternoon lectures I'll be attending, what sugared treats await me on the dining hall dessert cart, what creative cuss words Dorothy Allison will scream out next.

Call it denial, but it feels more like a high that refuses to fade. That week in Portland, Oregon was a pure delight. Once my "ride friends" and I arrived at Reed College, it was easy to forget everything else. The green, wooded campus was a self-contained world. It was just us and the middle school math campers in their multicolored sarongs.

Our daily schedules were packed with events: morning lectures, two-hour workshops, afternoon panel discussions, agent and editor meetings (daunting at first, but surprise! they're human). Then, in the evening, we'd gather in Reed's outdoor amphitheater on the creek for cocktails and faculty readings (occasionally interrupted by intrepid joggers, and once, a saucer-eyed kid on X).

One night, a group of us explored downtown Portland. Another night, we held a guerrilla reading in our dorm's third-floor common room. At the end of the week, there was a dance party that lasted from 9pm until the airport shuttle picked us up at 4am...

My novel workshop with Jonathan Dee contained writers of diverse ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. I developed a reputation as a constant snacker, my messenger bag overflowing with napkin-wrapped baked goods. It was really productive to be in a group where everyone was working on a novel. We struggled with similar questions: Should you frame narratives set in the past? How much does a reader need to be 'grabbed' or 'hooked' on page one? What is the balance between lyricism and abstraction?

I workshopped 25 pages of my novel, beginning with the scene where Sy shapeshifts for the first time. The feedback I received was really encouraging and constructive; it not only resolved some of the stylistic doubts I had while writing those pages, but also explained why I'm having difficulty with the scene I'm currently writing. Ben's failure to react to Sy's initial transformation is, I think, what has made it so difficult to write the scene where they confront each other the next day. I've been writing backwards, trying to figure out exactly what Ben saw/heard/felt the night before.

I'm back in the real world now, fighting for time to write in a world that conspires to keep me from writing. At Jonathan's suggestion, I'm continuing my education by reading all the Paris Review interviews with famous writers from 1950 to the present. In one interview, Robert Stone said, "[Writing is] goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it." In that respect, Tin House was such a gift because everyone cared. Everyone understood how hard it was.

One important idea that our instructors reiterated throughout the week: good writing takes time. There are writers who have spent 10 to 20 years working on their novels. So take the time you need to get it right. Give yourself that permission, and don't beat yourself up about it. Don't rush the work. Agents and editors will still be interested one year, two years down the road.

I know I'll forget this later, so I wanted to say it here.

Till soon,

P.S. Here are some photos from the week!