categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I disdained all organized writer things when I was young (in my twenties, that is), regarding them as extraneous and foolish and vain. I thought the only proper apprenticeship for a writer was to make pages on my own under the unwatching eyes of various writing gods, not Shakespeare—I thought he was a jerk for all the puns—but more like Scott Fitzgerald and Bukowski. I worked in construction and as a bartender and on a farm and played music and all of these things were the experiences I was collecting for my writing fund, real stuff, life stuff. Anything I did was writing, as I saw it. I was on the wet path, as the Buddhists call it, partying and playing and working the sentences when I saw fit and writing in fits and starts, getting better, sure, but in a terrible vacuum—aside from reading, reading. Study and devotion to a mentor seemed too much the dry path for me. And why bother, since everyone knows both paths—wet, dry—lead to enlightenment.
This week I’m teaching at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. I drove over in the remnant of Hurricane Irene, got here in time to watch the wind increase off the ocean, the waves mount, nice.
The craft school is a great environment for teaching writing—my group is among other groups, not isolated away from the other arts, though each group has its own studio, its own specialized equipment. People are blowing glass, firing clay, dyeing fabric, working with precious metals, making prints. At first I felt envious, and I know some of my students felt envious: the other workshops were making stuff.
But we’re cheering up—because we’re making stuff, too. It’s just that we do it out of words, whole worlds. And it’s good to recall that a craft is a craft is a craft. Our pots of words we can smash again and again and thereby improve them. Too much decoration? We’re learning to trim.
The best thing we’ve learned by watching the others is the function of the studio.
All meet formally from 9-12 in the morning, then (after a rocking lunch) from 1-3 in the afternoon. We read the responses to exercises I’ve given, we read passages from books, we argue, we cry over unexpected passion, we do a lot of laughing. And then we part ways. I’ve been swimming off the rocks, after, and taking long walks, and that’s pretty wet path, indulging the body, all good in my book.
But look at the other workshops. They meet for the same formal hours, the teachers lecturing a little, walking the studio, commenting individually as the students work their projects. Not so very different. The difference comes after class time, and then after dinner, and then all night, when students and teachers alike rush back to their respective studios to keep working.
I’m trying to get my folks to work like that, treat the lab time as precious, as if our equipment—a couple of pencils and a pad of paper, maybe a laptop—were just as exciting as a new kiln, or a laser cutter.
Anyway, the advice this week is take a workshop somewhere. Doesn’t have to be writing. Glassblowing would be fine. You can import the lessons later. There are sentences that must be heated to precise temperatures and stretched and turned and heated again, maybe splashed in cold water for a little craquelure. There are sentences you can dip in various colors of ink and repeat across page after page. There are sentences you leave in the ocean water for salt dyeing, or sentences to be left in spruce-forest puddles to use the natural tannic acid, make ready for the dyes of meaning.
But a writing workshop is a great thing, too.
I was wrong and stupid not to apply to Bread Loaf when I was 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 38. With luck, my application to be a waiter would have been accepted, and I’d have been part of a cadre of young writers getting to know seasoned writers in a wet-path atmosphere, a cadre that would have grown with me over the years. I would have skipped several of those years of trial and error, when I was too shy to show my work to anyone and in my own head disguised the shyness as contempt for the community I so longed to join. Weird behavior, but not unusual. When I finally did go, as a fellow, 1992, I could hardly believe the joy of the place, all those friends I might have had earlier, but that I still have now.
Like Bread Loaf, like Haystack, many of the best workshops and conferences take place in summer. Get started now—if you’re young and poor, apply for the scholarships, the work-study programs, the fellowships. If money’s no object, dream your way to workshops in other parts of the world, build vacations around them.
And when you’re home again, keep in touch with all the friends you’ve made, gather them to your breast. Together, you will make careers.
Plus you get to sit on the rocks by the ocean and stare.