My Two-Sam Summer

“There is no right way to write a sentence,” Lan Samantha Chang told her workshop students last month at the Tin House Writers’ Conference, in Portland, Oregon.  I was particularly grateful to hear this bit of wisdom because it was spoken in reference to a story by me.

Summer writing conferences are intense, total-immersion experiences, in which you find yourself inhabiting an alternate reality where writing is the most important thing in the world.  I attended two this summer, Tin House and the Lambda Literary Retreat, in Los Angeles.  They were very different.  At Tin House, where I studied with Chang (who goes by Sam), every day was filled with non-stop activity: morning workshops, afternoon craft talks, evening readings.  Sleep was elusive; in the hallway outside my dorm room, a large industrial AC unit with the engine capacity of a fighter jet roared night and day.  It made for some interesting dreams.

The craft talks were fabulous.  Dana Spiotta spoke about creating rules for your novel and then violating, complicating or escalating them.  Luis Urrea suggested using nouns and verbs, rather than adjectives and adverbs, to describe a place.  Matthew Specktor asserted that all narrators are to some extent first-person narrators; every narrator is a character in a story.  Steve Almond deplored the modern habit of starting a novel or story by plunging the reader into a frenzied scene, and advocated a “ruthless and tender quality of attention” for the opening paragraph.  The opening paragraph, he argued, is the place for “a sustained effort to orient the reader,” “to establish a relationship of informational equity between reader and character.”

Anthony Doerr, in his talk entitled “On Failure,” offered this: You don’t make the wings to fly.  You make the wings to make the wings.  The only success is work.

Tin House also offered surprisingly good cafeteria food (lots of healthy, vegan, gluten-free choices, perhaps to counteract the dangerously enticing dessert bar), as well as the gorgeous setting of Reed College, with its many stately trees and a long dirt path that rambles around a quiet, marshy lake.

Best of all was Chang’s workshop.  I was thrilled by the high level of the students’ writing and the lively, intelligent critiques.  On the first day, Chang encouraged us to orient our critiques from the point of view of what the writer had in mind.  She struck a lovely balance between allowing the discussion to develop organically while also taking charge to emphasize particular issues in a given piece.  I was reminded of how my tai chi teacher talks about the flow of energy in tai chi as alternating between river and mountain.  All river would be too diffuse; all mountain too dogmatic.  In their balance, we were invited to be part of the flow and to learn from a master teacher.

At Lambda, which was held at the American Jewish University, in Bel-Air, I studied with Samuel Delany, my summer’s second Sam, (although he actually goes by Chip).  To continue with the tai chi metaphor, Delany was definitely more mountain than river, more yang than yin.  Early in the week, he told the class that he is “a rigid reader, a hard reader.”  His workshop was structured very differently: each student had two minutes to offer a critique, and we went around the room in a circle, with everyone speaking (usually for more than two minutes), followed by Delany’s thoughts about the story or novel excerpt.  I was initially resistant to his approach, until I realized that it was my job to become the river.  By opening up to his considerable wisdom and experience (by the end of the week we were calling him Dumbledore), I opened up to the possibility of learning.

For instance, Delany is not a fan of the flashback.  The strongest you can make a scene, he said, is just to have it on stage.  Put the whole thing in chronological order, and you’ll see where the holes are.  He is also big on setting.  Too many stories, he said, suffer from “white room syndrome”: stories that don’t seem to take place anywhere.  Truly dramatic structure moves from location and situation to action and effect.  This kind of structure provides grounding for the story’s flow.

Most interesting to me was the discussion, on the last day, of what he called his “dark side”: that mysterious place where language comes from, what people sometimes call the Muse but what for Delany is more akin to a little child that needs to be treated with tenderness, humbleness, and respect.  You don’t demand or argue with this little boy or girl: it can easily be scared away.

I also liked a visualization exercise he suggested, in which the aspiring writer imagines her novel as a finished object in the world.  Hold out your palm, he said.  How much does this book weigh in your hand?  What does it feel like?  What color is the cover?  Make your story something real in your mind that you can aim for.

Another reason for the success of Delany’s workshop was, similar to the workshop at Tin House, the presence of incredibly gifted writers, whose collective grace and insight were simply amazing.  I’ve heard stories about being in workshops with dud or cranky writers, but this summer I really lucked out.  Every one of the writers I workshopped with, at Tin House and at Lambda, had a valuable story to tell, and interesting language for telling it.

A key difference at Lambda, of course, was that everyone there was queer.  Such a gathering of smart and talented gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender writers offered an environment of safety, community and inspiration that is hard to describe.  (Malinda Lo, one of the other Lambda faculty, does a good job of describing it in her blog.)  We still live in a society that, despite many advances, invests an awful lot of energy in keeping non-gender-conforming people in a place of inferiority—of shame.  The antidote to shame is community.

Lambda was smaller than Tin House (forty-eight students, compared to a couple hundred), which made the group gatherings more intimate.  At an afternoon workshop on how to write transgender characters, the discussion grew heated over the issue of trans and non-trans (or “cis”) terminology.  Conflict can feel uncomfortable, yet this conversation was, for me, one of the highlights of the week, for it stressed the deeply rooted nature of language in our lives.  For those of us who were called names growing up, or who hid out of fear of being named, of being seen, it matters what we call ourselves, and what we demand to be called by others.  (My Lambda fiction cohort and new friend Everett Maroon has written an excellent blogpost on this subject.)

Another reason I so enjoyed the workshop on writing trans characters was that it gave me the opportunity to learn new information, new ideas, new approaches.  The older I get, the more I love to learn.  Cheryl Strayed, whose Dear Sugar column “Write Like A Motherfucker” is one of the best manifestos about writing I know, said in her craft talk at Tin House that “we are always starting out, every time we sit down to write.”  I have been grateful to spend the summer learning and growing, with a beginner’s mind, in the company of some generous mentors and peers.  Now I ride the wave of energy of these two weeks to return, as gently as I can, to the solitude of the desk, the chair, the blank piece of paper, the screen.  I am remembering something else Strayed said: “What you have to offer as a writer, only you can say.”