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Monday, July 24, 2017

Here Be Unicorns: The Tin House Summer Workshop

I read my heart out in the splendor of the Oregon outdoors.
Photo by Laura Citino 
Last July was the worst in my personal history, and this July is giving me no reason to love it at home. I'd heard of the Tin House Summer Workshop for writers and decided to apply for it, not imagining I would be accepted, but hoping it could be a way to spruce up a rotten month if I somehow were able to attend.

I was accepted! I agonized over whether to attend for about an hour. In the end, I decided good things are few and far between and I must take these opportunities when they come. 

Am I glad I did. There are few things I would trade that week for. I learned so much about writing, I think I could teach it. I met some rock stars of the publishing world, and they were all good human beings—no egos darkened the week. Most secret and alchemical of all, putting so many writers together to work with each other creates a sense of belonging like I've never experienced. If you are a writer, do Tin House. Even if you never do another writerly community activity, apply and apply until you get in to this one. You won't regret it. 

The bookstore displayed a few of the faculty's magisterial titles. 
This summer, we enjoyed meeting and talking shop with stellar faculty: Margot Livesey, Saeed Jones, Danielle Evans, Karen Shepard, Renee Gladman, Joshua Ferris, Manuel Gonzales, Morgan Parker, James Hannaham, Naomi Jackson, Emily Witt, Jim Shepard, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roger Reeves, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Natalie Diaz, Anthony Doerr, Mat Johnson, Paul Lisicky, and Mary Ruefle. Additionally, there were agents and most of the editors of Tin House. Everyone took students' work seriously with naturalness and humility that make the world a wonderful place. They divulged their deepest writing secrets without prodding. We were all there for the same reason: to celebrate and create good writing. 

We were accompanied at all times by ravens. They scavenged during our outdoor meals and made portentous paths across the sky at the evening readings. For many, ravens are frightening, but for someone who's seen them up close at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, they're marvels of nature. Many and many a year ago, my old pal Eddie granted them a literary air that felt appropriate for the week. 


Visitors to campus that week got the impression
Oregon is a sunny, warm place. 
Word was that the janitorial staff hates Tin House week because the attendees are always drinking and getting locked out of their rooms. I did neither, but still had a rich, socio-psychologically complex time. I can only report on a fraction of what we packed into that week.

I'd already been deeply impressed with the quality of the other participants' stories as I read them in preparation for the week. I got the feeling I would be working with writers who were not only better than me (which is ideal in a workshop situation), but also were just as weird or weirder than me. Normally, I'm the only writer in a room who's heavily influenced by magical realism and worships the unexpected. I had trouble identifying the emotion that rose up within me when we all met for the first time—could it be a sense of belonging? I feel it so infrequently now that my true love is gone, it seems overly sentimental and out of place, but oh, if I find it again, I'll grab on and never let go! The workshop leader and I weren't the only published authors in the room, and yet everyone was there to listen and learn. Never stop learning. Never close yourself off to new ideas that could make you a better writer/person.

Manuel Gonzales gave a lively lecture
in which he mentioned both his unicorn story
and his friend Marie-Helene Bertino's unicorn story,
which won an O. Henry Prize. 
"Leave your preconceived notions about how a story should work at home," said our workshop leader during the orientation session. I chose to be in Manuel Gonzales's workshop because I'd read his short story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. I dared not dream the author of those crazy-beautiful creations would grant his proteges access to his mystical mastery of imagination, but I figured at least I would get to say we were in the same room for a while. 

During the orientation workshop, Tin House had everyone bring a paperback book they enjoyed in  a white elephant paperback exchange. Everyone's selection seemed unusual and exciting, demonstrating their eclectic tastes. Manuel Gonzales presented his book last and explained it was no used copy but something he bought specially. It was worth the wait—the lucky student to his left received The Princess Bride, which he admired for its humor and daring narrative techniques! A dopamine rush for at least this student! I knew then that I'd made the right choice.


Gonzales's dynamic reading convinced me to buy his novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack! In his masculine voice, I heard the fast-paced self-deprecation of his sassy young female protagonist. I can't wait to read it, especially after I heard a bit about the book's journey from idea to published novel. The lecture he gave, "In Particular, The Universal," discussed the way fine details help readers relate to the characters and story and take it as their own. He's often asked what his unicorn story is about. It's about a unicorn. It must be a real, physical unicorn before it can take on any further meaning. To take an example from Marie-Helene Bertino's O. Henry Prize–winning story, in order for her unicorn to symbolize inherited family burdens, we must first imagine what would happen if someone tried to transport a real unicorn in an SUV. (It would eat things it shouldn't and do its business everywhere. It's the writer's job to depict exactly what it ate and ruined and how—but only if it adds to the story.)  


Eleven other writers and I were lucky because we got to spend hours with Gonzales, while everyone else got only the short reading and hour-long lecture. He made it clear from the beginning that stories are serious business, and his critiques were jaw-droppingly perceptive, but he approached our work with a biting sense of humor and bone-dry delivery that had us laughing the entire two-and-a-half hours the workshop lasted every day. In the middle of the week, someone from a neighboring workshop came to the door to tell us to keep the noise down. "You can't keep us from loving each other," he retorted, though I'm not sure anyone else heard, because they'd already found the request so humorous. While I perceived straightforward love and tenderness in the other workshops, our atmosphere felt unique. Respect and equality were established among us with vigorous ribbing and creative antagonism no one else seemed to understand.

Our group dynamic followed a character arc I'm not at liberty to discuss here, but it involved a lot of cleverness, trivia night, and the O. Henry Prize. The well-earned finale was when, after the last workshop, one of the students returned from her individual consultation to tell us, "He said he really enjoyed working with us!" Hallelujah, amen. 

In other events of note, a mindfulness seminar run by none other than Aimee Bender's husband brought sanity to the beginning of each day. Writers being as crazy as any other artists, the seminar was an excellent idea I hope they bring back.

Last but not least, my true love was with me for all the ups and downs. He was perhaps most present when I attended Aimee Bender's reading and brought my hardcover of The Color Master for her to sign. I'd bought it when the book first came out, when Stanley and I were living in a hotel in North Carolina. The first edition has an embossed title that's a tactile delight, and Aimee greeted it like an old friend. I told her how Stanley and I had read all her books to each other, and I silently remembered the feel of the hard couch in the hotel and the bizarre futon we had during our lean Arizona years, and the way Stanley would tell me, with his heart-melting voice, his unique impression of each story as soon as I finished. Aimee wrote the lovely inscription pictured, and I retreated to my room so no one would see me weeping widow's tears.

Get more tangible details about this week at Drew Ciccolo's blog post. Takeaway: Always walk back from Safeway!

Thank you, Tin House and everyone who attended.