Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reflecting on Tin House 2012

Tin House ended a week ago today. I miss being in lecture, I miss the excitement of hearing new truths about writing, about your friends, and about yourself. I want to keep the dream alive so I thought I'd write a small, not very well-digested recap, and outline some of my favorite things from the workshop, along with a few choice jewels of advice from the faculty.

I was rejected in 2009. It's a bit shame-making, admitting this past failure, but a writer's success, much like any artist endeavor, is defined by those who can triumph over rejection. I tell you about this rejection, because I want you to know how much it meant to me to be accepted this time; also to let friends who applied and were previously rejected (from anything!) know that success is possible with perseverance. 
I labored over my submission, and when I was finally accepted I felt like I had won something. A prize that was bestowed on me not because of luck or chance but because of my hard work. It was, and still is, an incredible feeling. 
Tin House always seemed like some far off dream, something that only "real" writers get to experience. I went in with high expectations and they were met and surpassed beyond anything I could have dreamt or imagined.

Aimee at her reading.

I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to study with
Aimee Bender, who is by far the most generous and kind teacher, brilliant and talented writer, I've ever encountered. I read her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, before Tin House and loved it. Since leaving I begun reading her short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which is filled with magic and sex and humanity and whimsy. I aspire to see the world the way she does.

 *   *   *

One of many cocktail receptions.

It can be overwhelming. You look around and there are 200+ people, all of them like you, laboring over a blank page or hovering in front of a blank screen. They all aspire to write something honest and true and profound. Being in the Tin House bubble means that you look around and know the most interesting detail of everyone's lives. Everyone you meet is like YOU. They struggle with the same things you do, have dedicated their lives to the same pursuit. 

I felt equal parts of accomplished, inspired and intimidated. You can't sit through one lecture or workshop without hearing people say names like John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, names of people I know I should've known, and will soon know intimately (I promise). You quickly realize there isn't enough time to read everything: the Tin House reading list is debilitatingly long.

You listen to Pulitzer prize winner Paul Harding explain "The Jewels of the Cabots," like he fucking wrote it; learn about narration from the wickedly funny and honest Steve Almond, listen to Robert Bosworth tell a loving loving recollection of how he met his wife Antonya Nelson (and the story of his brother) which almost makes (or does make) you cry, all while teaching us the 12 steps to alternative characterization (Tonal dissonance!). You listen to Tony Doerr's brilliant talk on story structure (Freytag can suck it basically) and you realize there is so much you don't know. So much you didn't even think to know and you feel humbled. But it's okay, because then you sit in Aimee Bender's lecture on "Useless Rules" and realize that there is a liberating freedom in writing. Writing ultimate celebrates the individual, the unique voice. Suddenly things start to feel better. 

Aimee talked about this scale, which reminded me of the last post I wrote on "The Writing Disease."

She said that most writer's go through bouts on either side of this scale, but the healthiest, most productive place to be is slightly left of center. Open and receptive to feedback, but willing to take a risk, to trust your voice and try something new.

D.A. Powell's lecture on short poetry was particularly incredible. I could listen to that man recite his poetry for hours, but that is another story. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Mama Allison (Dorothy Allison that is) and her talk on reading as performance. I do believe she brought the house down. Her talk is an experience I won't soon forget, and her advice on reading and listening to your work is something that will become part of my process from here on out.

Here are a few of the best snippets from these lectures that I'd like to share with you:

Aimee Bender from our workshop
- Where the language feels alive is where the story is. Follow the fire.
- Senses are the way humans experience the world.
- Avoid details that are just, "following the shoe leather." Neutral details that are not filtered through a narrative voice.

Paul Harding
from his lecture on "The Jewels of the Cabots":

- The best story embodies it's own characters.
- Stories dictate their own meaning; give instructions on how they should be read.

Christopher Beha from his lecture on Sentences:
- Style is a way of looking at the world.

Matthew Zapruder from his lecture "Useful Poetry":
- The stakes are too high to have one word mean something other than what they usually do. How important can what the poet  say be -- if they are willing to disguise it?
- Avoid the pressure of the real.

Wells Tower from his lecture on the Grotesque:
- Using the grotesque to show the darkest parts of humanity without begging for sympathy.
- Investigations of the ordinary must be handled as an investigation of the grotesque which must be handled as an investigation of the mundane.

D.A. Powell from his lecture on short poetry:
- Compression - when a thought that would be ruined by dwelling on it is made graceful by a light and rapid touch.
- Compression is the first grace of style.
- Time does the editing for you. It gets ride of the loose parts.
- Trim away the unhealthy parts to make the tree healthier.
- Each word must earn its space.

From D.A. Powell's lecture on compression.

Steve Almond from his lecture on Narration:
- People like to know they are in a story, that there is a narrator on duty to guide them through. 
- The reader knows nothing at word one.
- Readers want to know where they are and what is important.
- I want to know enough to feel what is being shown.
- Effective first person narrators are aware they are telling a story.
- Keep reader abreast of the important details.
- (Told by Elissa Schappel, repeated by Steve Almond) The flatest character in the novel is usually the writer, acting as a merged narrator.

Steve Almond on Narration. 

Robert Boswell from his lecture on Alternative Characterizations:
- What the characters say reveal who they are. In plays, the actors speak to conceal themselves. Give a character something to say that people do not usually say. 
- Forced choice questions: where the character is given two options and neither is preferable.
- Say the hardest thing about your character.

Dorothy Allison from her lecture on reading as performance:
- Read your work out loud. Record it, and listen to the story. You will hear where it's lagging, where the grammar errors are.
- Performance (and writing) is about risk. Tremendous emotional risk.
- Performance is the perfecting of text.
Dorothy Allison. I could hear here from all the way in the back.

If any of my Tin House friends have other jewels they gathered from lecture or panels please feel free to share.

 *   *   *

The workshops and lectures and readings were incredible, but my favorite part of Tin House was the people I met. Talented people whose names I hope to find printed somewhere, sometime soon. People who I hope to call "friend" for a lifetime.

It is easy to be intimidated by the talented people you meet, especially the faculty, at Tin House. But as my good friend Ron Maclean, author of Night Bus, told me, writing is at least a 10 year apprenticeship. Writing well takes time. The amazing faculty are like individuals who have reached a higher level of nirvana. It's something I feel everyone can inspire to, if they believe they are able. Tin House gave me faith in hard work and perseverance, and it gave me faith in myself.

I will carry the lessons I learned in my heart, until next year.

Tin House resources:
About the workshop
Reading list on Good Reads

Literary Journals and Daily Reads
The Rumpus (subscribe to the daily rumpus)
The Millions

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