June 3, 2009. The clock on the dashboard registers 11:00 a.m. as I slip my Toyota Avalon into a parking space at the Gettysburg College campus. Registration for the writers' conference is not until 1:00 p.m., so I stroll through the grounds and take in the sights. Bucolic is the right word for this place: manicured green lawns, large old trees, comfortable wooden chairs sprinkled about strategically. I particularly like the chairs, angled backward and designed more for relaxation than intense study. A nice touch, this. Other colleges should adopt the idea.
The buildings are a combination of the old and new, brick and stone, the oldest being located in the center of the campus. It is large, white, multi-leveled, with iron steps leading up to the entrances both front and back. A sign reveals that it was used as a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—not surprising given that many buildings in the area were appropriated for the same purpose. Nearby I note a curious, circular building of dark stone with stained glass windows. I peer in. Was this a church? It is called Glatfelter Lodge. Later in the evening I find we will have our reception in this very same building.
I have never attended a writers' conference. My foray into writing began at age twenty-seven. I produced three novels, six short stories, and some poetry in ten years, but found little interest in my work from the publishing world. Discouraged, I abandoned the enterprise altogether and devoted myself solely to my practice in psychology for the next quarter of a century. At the ripe old age of sixty-two, however, in semi-retirement, I took up pen again. I dusted off an old memoir and sent it to the Gettysburg Review; five months later it was accepted. Naturally, this event prompted me to assume that my latent literary genius had finally become manifest, and I immediately sat down to prepare an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize that was surely looming in the future.
Unfortunately, other literary publications were less enamored with my work, and the following ten months brought no fewer than 135 consecutive rejection slips. Confusion reigned. Was I a good writer or not? It seemed to me the literary world needed to make up its mind. The next two years of writing did not resolve this issue: an acceptance here, an acceptance there, accompanied by many, many rejection slips. Finally, I decided to attend a writers' conference to find out what was missing. It is a general truism that we do not know what we do not know.
At one o'clock I wander into the offices of the Gettysburg Review. Their headquarters are located in a quaint, whitewashed, two-story building of modest interior. Most of the rooms are small and cramped, but the place has a homey feel to it. I am greeted by Kim Kupperman, managing editor of the Review, who has everything organized in neat piles for the participants as they are scheduled to appear throughout the day. She hands me my orientation package and a key to the dorm room where I am staying for the next five nights, and informs me carefully that there is a seventy-five dollar charge if I lose my key. She adds that if I lock myself out of my room I can call the college emergency number and security will let me back into the dormitory—once. After that, it is fifty dollars per rescue mission. I think this is rather amusing since I have never locked myself out of my room in my life. Two days later I lock myself out of my room.
The "dorm" is actually a requisitioned motel turned into living quarters for the students. It is spare: two desks, two chairs, two single beds, and a window with a pull down shade. A bit gloomy. The bathroom is adequate, but the flush toilet does not work properly—I have to jiggle the handle. I could call Maintenance and have it fixed but I decide I'll just jiggle the handle. I discover that dorm living is not as romantic as I remember. At the University of North Carolina in 1962, three of us lived in a room smaller than this one, and I loved it. Now, apparently, I have outgrown Spartan conditions. Well, no matter. It's just five days, and I'll be busy most of the time.
At eight o'clock that evening we have our opening reception in the small, circular, stone building with its stained glass windows. Kim Kupperman bustles around greeting everybody by name (we have identification tags hanging down from our necks but she already seems to know everyone) and offering wine and other libations from the table of hors d'oeuvres. People intermingle. There are thirty-two students altogether, eleven in poetry, ten in non-fiction, and eleven in fiction. Their ages range from the twenties to the sixties and they represent a wide variety of states, most coming from the surrounding region: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. On the other hand, there are two participants from California, one from Colorado, Ohio, and Georgia. A variety of professional backgrounds are represented. I meet a massage therapist and also a biochemist. Several people teach in colleges and universities. One person blinks at me with bespectacled perplexity and says, "I don't know what I do. I work for the government." He turns out to be a poet who has published in the Iowa Review. The only consistent feature among these people, as nearly as I can tell, is their passion for writing. Otherwise, they are a kaleidoscope of backgrounds, personalities, and orientations.
After an hour, Peter Stitt, editor of the Gettysburg Review, greets everyone and introduces the three faculty members. He briefly praises Kim as the managing editor, "without whom the Gettysburg Review would not be able to function." I suspect there is much truth to this. I have received a barrage of emails from her over the past month, covering every detail imaginable concerning our workshop. She's here, she's there, she's everywhere. She's Cosmic Mom.
Stitt invites everyone to a local watering hole after the session, then sends the groups into different areas of the building to get better acquainted. Lee K. Abbott is our leader, a faculty member at Ohio State University and author of seven books of short stories. He was the fiction instructor at last year's conference and was so popular that they invited him back. He is of average build with short gray hair and a very flushed red face. I wonder if he has high blood pressure or an alcohol problem. Later he admits openly in our class that he does not take very good care of himself—he drinks and smokes too much.
On this first evening, Lee has very little to say. He introduces himself and asks if there are any questions, then encourages us to get to know each other. "Tomorrow morning, work will begin in earnest," he says. People break up into twos and threes and begin chatting again. Somehow I end up alone, silently sipping my drink and picking up little snippets of conversation here and there. Ten minutes pass before a man from across the room strolls up and holds out his hand. "Joe Chamberlin," he says. He is stocky, with thinning gray hair, and wears glasses. He gives me a big smile and looks at my name tag. "You've got to stop talking to so many people, Henry. You're going to wear yourself out." He laughs.
We begin to chat, and I learn that he works in "mediation." I have no idea what that is, and consider asking him, but somehow never get around to it. Joe and I form an instant friendship, and become constant companions for the next five days.
The group breaks up and a large number of us head for the previously mentioned watering hole.
June 4. Class begins at 9:00 a.m. Lee Abbott lays down the rules: a story will be selected and we will go around the room allowing each person to express what they like and do not like about it. Criticisms will be presented in an objective manner. The author must remain silent until everyone is finished, then can respond and/or ask questions. By the luck of the draw, my manuscript is chosen first. I have brought a rather long story—7300 words—which traces the life of a young tennis player who is a star in college but finds his life spiraling downward when he enters the real world. It is modeled after the famous story by Irwin Shaw entitled, "The Eighty-Yard Run," and I rate it as the most difficult story I have ever written. The manuscript was still undergoing revision when the deadline for submitting it to the workshop arrived.
The group is not impressed. After the first person has made a few suggestions, Lee Abbott pounces on it like Byron's wolf on the fold. He finds it tedious and boring, the main characters self-indulgent and vapid. He considers the entire structure wrong, and points out there is no conflict until the fourteenth page. He feels there is too much exposition and not enough action. He questions the motivations of the characters, and thinks the purpose behind their actions is obscure. Several students in the class echo his sentiments, although two women disagree, and insist the motivations of the main characters are quite clear.
I am incensed. When my opportunity to speak finally arrives, I point out that no one in the room has understood the story. The real theme being explored here is the lack of control people have over their lives. It is about the illusion of self-determination. Furthermore, I make it clear to everyone that I am a psychologist with forty years of experience, and to second guess a person with my background about psychological issues is ridiculous. I may not know much about literature, but I certainly know something about peoples' behavior.
The group is taken aback by my outburst and several of the members regard me quizzically. Lee, however, is unmoved. He repeats several of his points, and emphasizes that the lack of conflict until page fourteen is simply unacceptable in a short story. He suggests I read over his notes and give further consideration to the input from the class. He then dismisses everyone for a five minute break, leaving me frustrated and confused. I still have no idea what is wrong with the piece and do not feel anyone has provided me with useful criticism. However, several students approach me during the break and hand over critiques, saying kindly, "Maybe this will help." As the day progresses I receive more critiques, and by evening have accumulated a stack of seven or eight. I read them carefully that night in my room under the glow of the single light bulb attached to the ceiling. I mull over each person's observations and gradually begin to see their points. Lee is right: the story will require massive revision before it can possibly be published.
I have much to learn.
In the afternoon we are treated to a panel discussion by the three faculty members. Lee sits in the middle, flanked by Rebecca McClanahan, the non-fiction instructor, and Dean Young, the poet. Rebecca graciously defers to Lee to run the show; Dean makes it clear he doesn't want to talk anyway. Lee has no problems with this. He is confident and assertive, with an element of gruffness in his demeanor. He reminds me of a character from the Old West: hard working, hard drinking, hard living, unapologetic, uncompromising. He stares at you implacably; he pulls no punches. He is Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and John Wesley Hardin. He is The Gunslinger.
The title of the panel discussion is "Literary Touchstones." The panel members discuss writing past and present, and the difference between publishing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Dean has little to say, and answers questions from the audience with apparent reluctance, and yet it is obvious he has read widely in areas far from his expertise. The three panel members are very knowledgeable about print media but express little understanding about the emergence of online publishing. One panelist even admits, "I'm suspicious of online publishing." I find this to be interesting because I hear it regularly from the old guard in the literary world. I am fairly certain that online publishing is the future, whether people like it or not, and that the mastodons of print will ultimately have no choice but to embrace it.
At eight o'clock that evening, Rebecca gives a reading. She is the author of five books of poetry and three books on the craft of writing, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queen's College in Charlotte, N.C. She is all femininity and grace and polish as she glides up to the podium. She floats on air. She smiles beatifically at the audience. She is The Ethereal One. She reads a poem, and then moves on to a non-fiction work concerning a surgical procedure she underwent in a hospital several years ago. The writing is smooth, beautiful, elegant. It is poetic even while she is dealing with a subject I consider immensely banal. I find myself becoming annoyed. She epitomizes my complaint about literary journals in general: beautiful prose about essentially tedious subjects. Plot is anathema. "Real" literature revels in the investigation of Self, where greater issues flow from character. But the subject examined may be as humdrum as visiting one's mother in the nursing home, dealing with a daughter's abortion, or even painting the house. Small wonder that the majority of the population eschews "real" literature, and print publications are struggling to survive. Jack London, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy—masters of plot—would grimace at this development.
By the end of the reading I am downright angry. I envy Rebecca's mellifluous prose, but I fear my interest in plot development may very well eliminate me from consideration in the literary world. Perhaps I am wasting my time even being here.
I express my misgivings to Joe who is seated next to me. He pats me on the shoulder. "You don't understand," he explains. "Her writing is like polished porcelain. That's her style. You can't write that way. You have to find your own style. Don't worry about it. There's enough room in this business for everybody. Now, let's go get a drink."
The previous night I had ordered virgin fruit juice beverages. Tonight I will order libations with genuine alcohol. This literary business is getting on my nerves.
June 5. In the morning we examine three more manuscripts, one per hour. A woman in her sixties presents a story that is religious in nature, moves at a slow pace, and contains a considerable amount of Spanish terminology. The manuscript is not well received, and is heavily criticized by the group. After it is over, the woman expresses her appreciation for the feedback and assures everyone that their suggestions are very useful. However, she adds, dropping the bomb, the story has already been accepted for publication by a print journal. This causes the woman sitting next to me to hiss, "So, what did we do all that work for?"
In the afternoon we listen to a presentation by Mark Drew, assistant editor at the Gettysburg Review. He is relatively young, long-haired, laid-back, casual, and tends to interact more informally than other faculty. He explains that he reviews all the poetry and fiction for the Review, while Peter Stitt, editor-in-chief, reviews the non-fiction. He passes on to Peter all manuscripts that he likes—about ten to fifteen percent—and Peter makes the final determination. Despite the mountain of reading Mark does every day, he is obviously quite passionate about his work. In response to a question concerning simultaneous submissions, he details a recent manuscript the Gettysburg Review lost to another publication because the competing journal was quicker on the draw. Genuine pain crosses his face as he recounts the incident, and I find it refreshing that he invests so much of himself into this age-old business.
In the evening, Dean Young gives his reading to the group. He is the author of numerous books of poetry and teaches at the University of Texas, where he holds the William Livingston Chair of Poetry. He has already expressed his disinclination to speak in public, and now sidles up to the microphone with head down, making little eye contact. "Go ahead and continue whatever you're doing," he quips. "I'll get this over with as soon as possible." The group chuckles, and he launches into his first poem. I am absolutely stunned. What I hear makes no sense whatsoever, but there is an indefinable power to it. He fires forth one poem after another, preceding each with a dismissive comment such as, "It won't be long now," or "Only a few more." He is truly The Reluctant Poet. By the end, I am quite impressed, though bewildered by what I have just heard.
Later, I ask the government-employee-poet, "Why was that good? I didn't understand a thing he said."
He replies, "It's all about images and music, not logic."
I celebrate this new discovery by having a few drinks at the local bar. I feel I am making considerable progress at this workshop in my ability to hold alcohol. We must cherish our victories wherever we find them.
June 6. The morning session begins and we critique a fantasy story by one of the female participants. The author has applied numerous exclamation points throughout the story, prompting a few humorous asides among the students. In the spirit of things, Lee Abbott opines, "Every author during an entire lifetime of writing is entitled to use three exclamation points. You have used a total of thirty in your manuscript—I counted them. This means you have already used all of your allotted exclamation points for the rest of your life plus those of nine other writers. You are forbidden under pain of death ever to use one again."
This, of course, breaks up the class, while the writer, who takes it good-naturedly, smiles sheepishly.
In the afternoon I have a private session with Mark Drew who has been given the responsibility of reviewing a short story of mine. He has inserted comments throughout the manuscript, most pertaining to picayune details that I consider inconsequential relative to more important issues such as plot development and characterization. It is curious to me that this somewhat simple tale has been reviewed previously by others and each person's reaction has been completely different. The writing world seems highly subjective, even among the so-called experts. Ultimately, I disregard the majority of Mark's objections. Five weeks later the manuscript is accepted by a literary journal.
Later in the afternoon, the three muses give another presentation in the auditorium where, as before, The Gunslinger directs the show. The subject is writing and polishing, and each speaker emphasizes the importance of writing consistently and devoting considerable time to polishing. This has been a problem for me. Often I have to write a sentence or paragraph dozens of times to get it right. Given that I am also hyperactive and can only write in half hour bursts, my literary production is less than prolific. The truth is, I don't even like writing. I like the creative aspect of it, but dislike the drudgery. People who assert they enjoy writing have my unbridled envy. I wonder how much Scott Fitzgerald—who wrote for days on end—actually liked creating novels and short stories. Or Faulkner. Or Cheever. The days when I practiced psychotherapy were easier, more effortless. Now I'm engaged in something that approaches a marriage of conflict. I feel like a true suffering artist, and the end product of my travails is dubious at best.
Toward the end, I ask a question about MFA programs, citing literature which claims they tend to be autocratic, narrow-minded, and rigid, and teach students only to write in a certain way. This forces The Reluctant Poet to bestir himself. He sits up and says, "I don't believe that at all. There is no Iowa style versus Stanford versus Chicago. All the programs are simply trying to foster good writing."
I follow my question up with another, citing claims that MFA programs are largely useless, and anyone who wishes to learn to write can do so on their own. Now The Reluctant Poet becomes truly animated. "The basics of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry can be taught at the graduate level just as effectively as one can teach social work, French literature, or physics," he declares thunderously. "It's up to the students to develop those skills once they leave school." He goes on for a while, his voice filled with eloquence and passion, and when he finally sinks back into the chair, exhausted, the audience gives him a rousing ovation.
"Class dismissed," The Gunslinger says.
That evening Lee reads several short stories to the group. His prose is as different from the polished porcelain of Rebecca as one could ask. The characters are vivid, raw, primitive. There is swearing and belching and farting, with pot-bellied cops, fast cars, and animated dialogue. I perk up in my seat. My mood lightens. Now this is literature I can identify with. Hard nosed, in-your-face, pulling no punches. I can write this. I can create these kinds of characters, this kind of plot. Maybe writing isn't as difficult as I think. Maybe the literary world does have enough room for everybody.
I whirl around to express my sentiments to Joe, but he already knows what I am thinking. "Let's go have a few drinks," he says, grinning.
I thought you would never ask.
June 7. Our last day of class and there are four manuscripts to critique. One of them is microfiction, four stories totaling only four pages.
"I have to admit I don't know much about microfiction," Lee confesses.
"The first three stories are finished," the writer informs him. "The fourth is not."
"That's the only one I thought was finished," The Gunslinger says
"Well, I just happen to have the requirements right here for microfiction," the writer replies helpfully, and extracts a scroll-like paper from his pocket.
The group listens intently to the man's list of rules, and then dives in to critique the stories. A variety of views are expressed, with little consensus. I find the stories as abstruse as Dean Young's poetry, and I doubt the others understand them any better. Later I ask him if we were helpful at all.
"Sure," he replies, but I'm not convinced.
The late afternoon arrives and the long-awaited open mic session is held. This is an end-of-the-conference gathering where everyone has the opportunity to read some of their material before the entire group. Twenty-four of the thirty-two participants have elected to read, including nine of the eleven poets. Time before the microphone is restricted to four minutes and is closely monitored. Cosmic Mom runs the show, and cordially requests that everyone hold their applause until the end. This request is promptly ignored.
A portent of coming attractions arrives almost immediately. The speaker is an attractive, red-haired lady from my fiction group who speaks in a gentle, almost melodic voice. In our class she has been diplomatic to the point of apologetic in her literary assessments. Now she strides to the microphone with confidence, her body language transformed, and briefly warns everybody that "this may be a little naughty in the beginning." She then lowers her voice a full octave and launches into a narrative that begins something like: "I was flying down the scorching asphalt highway in my red convertible with the top down and my boyfriend's dick in my mouth."
I am jolted out of my reverie. Did I hear that right? I jiggle my ear several times and look over at Joe. He is staring forward with jaw slightly ajar. Everyone in the auditorium seems to have adopted the same expression. This isn't the same little old red-haired lady I have come to know over the past five days. I turn back and stare at her with renewed focus. Oblivious to the effect she is having, she belts forth her scenario of a woman discussing finances with her boyfriend while giving him a blow job. An intriguing plot, it seems to me, with a sprinkling of graphic detail, and delivered with great gusto. I wonder where she learned all that stuff. In the end she is given an enthusiastic ovation, and she thanks everyone graciously in her soft, tinkly voice.
I turn to The Gunslinger who is sitting behind me and say, "See what you've done?"
He ignores me.
A series of writers follow: poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I am surprised by the beauty and depth of some of their work. It seems to me many of these people should be teaching the courses rather than taking them. One of the last poets delivers the coup de grace: a stunning portrait of an Abu Ghraib prisoner undergoing horrifying torture. She draws a haunting parallel between the man's shackled body hanging hopelessly from the wall in a grim cell, life slowly ebbing away, to that of Christ dying on the cross. For the first time I feel the power and the majesty of a poem embracing a universal idea with an absolutely stunning impact.
Afterward, I seek out the woman to congratulate her. She expresses her appreciation and informs me the poem was published in 2004.
At six o'clock there is an outdoor barbecue with hamburgers and hot dogs and various assorted condiments. The wine flows freely. Later in the evening most of the people at the conference gather at the Gettysburg Hotel bar where we commandeer an entire room. Drinks are ordered at a dizzying rate. Peter Stitt, Mark Drew, Kim Kupperman, and the three muses all make their appearance, the three muses sitting apart for a change. One of the poets says to me, "You fiction people are wild!" I have noted the poets in this conference are more serious, reserved, and idiosyncratic, while the fiction writers are spontaneous, extraverted, and free-wheeling. I wonder if my small sample is representative of the general population of writers.
Midnight arrives. The drinks are still flowing. I am numb. Many people leave; a few stay. When I finally roll into bed at two-thirty in the morning I am feeling no pain. It has been a glorious experience. I can't wait to sober up and start writing again.
Title graphic: "Outlook: Hazy" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.