As I alluded to in my previous post, I’m away from home, attending the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference this week. The conference is in St. Helena, in the heart of California Wine Country. It is beautiful here, and more summerlike than San Francisco has been of late.*
I have not attended a writers’ conference before, and I find that having an MFA under my belt makes me more comfortable with navigating one than I might have been otherwise. The workshop, for example, is a familiar thing, even if the leader of the workshop is not, and my peers in the workshop are not. The awkward socializing that writers do is also familiar, although there is less competitiveness and pretentiousness here than I felt in my grad program. I think with a shorter period of time in which to work we in the workshop have no choice but to learn to bond with each other as quickly and as easily as possible.
I have met some interesting and inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds, and that alone is providing me with all sorts of motivation. Perhaps, and I’m just thinking out loud here, the greater diversity one might find in a writing conference like this vs. an MFA program is a good thing.
Last night I heard Michael Byers, who teaches at the University of Michigan, give a lively reading from his forthcoming novel, Percival’s Planet. The reading took place outside, just as the sun was going down. I could watch tangerine light slip down the side of the mountain on the other side of the valley as he spoke. Geese flew overhead. Byers said he felt like he was reading in the White House Rose Garden and did an imitation of Ronald Reagan. We all got cold as the sun disappeared, and Byers wrapped up his reading a little early as a result.
Today, after our workshop, lunch and a fiction craft lecture from Lan Samantha Chang, the novelist who directs the Iowa Writers Workshop. Somehow her lecture tied together Elizabeth Bowen, The Great Gatsby, The Reader, and a Dora the Explorer book. I will admit that some of the lecture was over my head. Or maybe, as Chang said at one point, “there’s such a thing as too much craft.”
Right now I’m relaxing in my hotel room, and from my window I can see Michael Byers strolling around the hotel pool in his dress shirt. Last night as I pulled into the hotel parking lot, my headlights illuminated Ron Carlson, briefcase in hand, ambling toward his room. If I were a ruthlessly ambitious person, I suppose I would get out there by the pool and talk to Michael Byers about getting published and so on. But I am not that sort of person, and I find, after hours of focus this morning in workshop and thinking about the craft of writing fiction and the structure of Fitzgerald’s novel, I feel like being alone for a while to write and process it all.
*Although, just as in my other recent travels, after I arrived here yesterday the temperature dropped about 20+ degrees. Yesterday, shorts and t-shirts. Today, jeans and a sweater. Seriously, it’s like I’m a walking cold front.