Monday, July 8, 2013



Just in case you didn't read the last post or forgot or something, I was at the Esalen Institute last week at a writer's workshop with Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. Big Sur is foggier and chillier than you'd think.

All week I composed pieces of this blog post in my head, trying to figure out what I was going to say and what I was going to keep to myself about this experience. It would have been a lot easier to write this if I'd still been at my old anonymous blog; I went through an interesting emotional arc from Sunday to Friday, and I'd love to have the chance to decompress about that in thousands of rambling words. I also have a lot to say about experiencing Esalen, not all of which I'm eager to set down under my real name.

So rather than trying to write the most exhaustive or illustrative post about the experience, I'm going to use a technique I learned from Cheryl, and make a list.

1. I am so much more enthusiastic about rewriting now than I was at the end of last week. About the prospect of writing a scene four different ways, even if it takes precious time. I think the way they made us do a pile of exercises and then only mentioned some of them again, leaving the others to be washed out to sea (or expanded upon in one's own time), helped enormously with the feeling that effort expended on writing is disposable, should be disposable, in order for good work to appear at the end of the road.

2. Pam showed us how literary dialogue is supposed to go: at cross-purposes, two separate conversations going on at once rather than direct communication. This was a total revelation. Everyone I talked to about it said the same.

3. The whole time, I was on a knife-edge between pleasure that a place like this exists and astringent cynicism. Very hard to take seriously at the same time as it was a relief to open my mind to hippie woo-woo stuff and enjoy.

4. My writing exercises improved noticeably (to my eye) over the week.

5. I kept coming up with questions that I knew it would be stupid to ask, because they'd send us down a tangential rabbit-hole that would have been great for a lazy afternoon seminar but not good at all in this limited environment. Things like "can MacGuffins exist in lit-fic, or are they just for genre writers?" and "how do you keep from writing the boring story?" and "why is it good to show instead of tell and bad to tell instead of show? Who set up that standard?" Some of these I brought up with other writers over lunch or dinner and we had interesting talks.

6. I made amazing, wonderful new friends, and am terrified that they didn't like me as much as I liked them.

7. I didn't miss Facebook and whatnot at all while I was there, but once back, I fell into the same pattern as before I left. I hope to remember that feeling, though, and treat the commitment of FB a little more lightly.

8. "Yeah, but Alice Munro is a wizard."

9. Form will set you free! Alton Brown says this about keeping organized while cooking, and he's exactly right. Writing a sonnet sounds like it'll be a lot more complicated and difficult than writing free verse, but at times, the limitations can help you to imagine your way into far more interesting places. I saw this come true under my pen this week (not literally with a sonnet but with something similarly formal). Previously I knew this wisdom in a very different context: classical Hollywood cinema labored under a LOT of restrictions and still turned out remarkable art. Sirk wouldn't be Sirk, in all his hilarious symbolic glory, without the Hays code.

10. I smoked too many cloves and even a few regular cigarettes. Aside from looping conversations that drifted well past bedtime, this was the best thing about the evenings there. I miss smoking so goddamn much.

11. One of our exercises was to write down the question at the core of our work. I had a very hard time with this at first, although eventually I came up with an answer. But more on that in the next post.

It was a remarkable week and I'm very, very glad I went. I wish I could do a big workshop like this every season, four times a year, because it's just the sort of thing that quantum-leaps my writing into a new place and presses me back into the confidence I sorely need to get to work.

PS: Everybody to whom I described the wikibook thought it was a neat idea. Nothing is going to keep me from getting this thing done, even if it takes two years.

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