For the past week I’ve been at a writing conference, which really is more like an adult sleep away camp for people devoted to writing, whether as career writers and teachers of writing, or as a call they can’t help but answer, a passion they squeeze in to lives complicated by jobs and families and all the obligations and distractions of dailiness.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Summer Writers’ Conference is a special place in the world of summer writing conferences. I know that not only because I’ve been here twice now, and spent a week many years ago at Breadloaf for comparison, but also because others here all say the same thing. This is where people come to improve their craft and get support for the often lonely and scary act of writing, not to show off what great writers they already are.
“This is a populist writing conference,” celebrated novelist and memoirist Andre Dubus III said yesterday during an interview with VCFA President Thomas Greene, a novelist himself. “There’s no stratification here. We’re all just writers and we all hang out together, whether participants or faculty.”
“I’ve been to Sewanee (one of the prestigious summer writing conferences, held in Tennessee every summer) and honestly, the work of the writers there isn’t as good as what all of you are writing,” said Andy two nights ago at dinner. Andy is one of the writers in the novel workshop I attended, led with great enthusiasm and wisdom by Andre.
One feature of the conference is readings every night by faculty members, top-notch writers who can leave a room stunned, as Patricia Smith did after reciting a long poem in the voices of mothers whose black sons have been killed by police. She was followed by Lee Martin who read a short story that rode a wave of mounting tension before breaking open at the end with heartbreaking clarity about the follies inherent in being human.
There’s also a participants’ reading every day, with each person having five minutes. The writing is more often stunning than not. “Damn, these people can all write,” I’ve thought all week as I sat and listened.
The conference feels like camp because while it’s rigorous and serious about writing as authentically and deeply as possible, it’s also a lot of fun. Everyone you talk to gets the part of you that sits down at your computer or journal or pad of paper every chance you get. You discuss and critique and listen and write. This morning’s generative writing workshop used a table full of yard sale items as the basis for prompts to get us writing, whether poems or essays or stories or the beginning of a book. Ellen Lesser, writer, conference director and leader of the workshop, talked about the energy she could feel in the room as 40 people flashed their pens across the pages of notebooks.
I almost didn’t attend. With Chris so ill it seemed superfluous to go to Vermont to work on my novel. How could that possibly count as much as being with my sister and helping her family manage her increasing illness and disability? What difference does it make whether or not I ever figure out how to knit my writing into a coherent, book-length narrative, a story that will bring characters I’ve created to life and keep readers turning the page to find out what happens to them?
The only possible answer to that question is that it matters to me, because the stories in this novel, and in the memoir I put aside last summer, are calling to me. This week is going to help me answer that call, and to remember that the urge to create is worthy in itself. It’s not about accomplishment and publication (though I’ll certainly take as much of that as I can get) when you get at the root of why any of us write. It’s that we can’t not write, so we might as well get as good at it as we can.