Or maybe I should start with one of the exercise prompts Dorothy gave us this week.
Right now I feel like I fell out of the back of a truck rambling recklessly along the highway. I feel like I struck the asphalt. I feel like I got hit by every single car. I feel like my limbs are about to drop off my body. Watch out for my rolling head!
Being in Dorothy Allison’s workshop wasn’t church exactly but it was religious. She called us “bitches,” she called us “baby.” She pushed us off cliffs. She picked up our broken bodies and cradled them. We looked for ways to put ourselves back together, better, stronger.
I took risks in workshop and in the execises I wrote, exercises I made myself read out loud. Honest, true, and even factual things. If I can’t learn to harness the power and emotion of painful things that have actually happened to me, how on earth will I be able to manufacture that emotion, that power in a fictional character. There were fluttering hearts, tears.
There is usually one big take away for me every year I go to Tin House. The thing is I haven’t paid much attention to the rules of writing for years. I’ve been confident in my instinct and in my ability to re-write, to re-vision. So the big revelation this year wasn’t about a technique or trick of the craft, but rather something so simple. The key to being a better writer, and a published writer is…writing.
A lot of writers whip out, or labor over a draft, and then maybe show it to people and maybe not, but they worry about it. They worry about making it better without making it worse. They worry about how it should really end. They worry about the POV. They worry if they’ve made the right choices. They worry like mad. They worry, but they don’t write. They don’t play around with possibilities. They don’t write the kind of material, that will inform the piece, but that may never appear in it. Writing is a process. Pieces change in the writing of them. So many writers seem to believe linearity in the physical writing and re-writing process to be some binding law of physics. I’ve discovered that the only way to figure out how to write, and what you are writing, and how to make it better, is simply by doing it a lot, and accepting the fact that it is going to be grueling, and depressing, and that what you write will not always be good. In fact a lot of it will be bad. But you do have the freedom to try whatever you want, mine strange places, write a story backwards, and upside down until you figure what works for you and what works for the piece. You just have to stop worrying. You just have to stop thinking about it. You just have to get up to your elbows in it, up to your ears in it.
I’m not done.
The other thing is talent. It’s the thing that I used to believe separated me from the faculty, and from the published writers/ guests of the conference.
Someone who went to The New School the same time I did was a guest of Tin House this year. Actually he was a year behind me there, but now here he was at Tin House with two books under his belt, while I’m still struggling on building a story collection. Was it because he is a better writer than me. He’s a different writer than me, but what seemed clear is that he had worked his ass off.
I love Tin House. I kept telling people it was my last year. I’ve gone five times in a row. I have to stop sometime. I need to take a breath. To try to fly off the nest.
Denis Johnson was there my very first year. He had a guitar player with him, and even though I’ve always been awkward and shy, I just had to gather around near him and sing, along with him and all the others who had gathered.
I had heard rumors, and then the last night I saw, a guy with a banjo, Wells Tower on guitar. Aimee Bender with a guitar. I mentioned to someone, that I had a ukulele in my room. Wells said to bring it out. I said I wasn’t very awesome. That didn’t matter, and I ran anI grabbed it. Wells said I was going to shred it on that thing, and for some reason it seemed the mere presence of the uke made Aimee happy. AC/DC. And I was trying to read the chords off of Wells’s too-bright phone, and I asked after them and I fumbled along. Then sprinklers, screams, and running to dry land. We lost the banjo player in the move. But we whipped out Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t always know the chords, but pushed on, happily there, happily strumming, happily being a part of making the music, that people gathered around and added their voices to.