This past weekend was my fifth time to participate in the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. You might be asking, “How can you get something new out of it over and over?”
For one thing, the other participants. All the faculty this year said the writing just keeps getting stronger, and I agree. I read and critiqued 200 pages (my fellow writers’ manuscript submissions) in preparation for the workshop, and I was blown away by the talent amongst the sixteen people who came to Oxford to hone their writing skills this past weekend. Those folks included a retired physician, a lawyer, a life coach, a young woman from Moldova who barely survived the horrors of a TB hospital, a college writing professor, two journalists, four college/grad school students, and a handful of emerging middle-aged writers who keep plugging away because we love it. What a joy to read their work and to hear their take on mine. (And Cherry Bomb left her mark at Taylor Grocery on Saturday night!)
Okay, this is starting to sound like a newspaper article, but I just want to give a big shout out to all the great faculty before I focus on what was, for me, the pivotal event of the weekend.
Neal Walsh, who teaches in the MFA program at LSU, was our workshop director, who kept everything running smoothly, and also took the time to read and personally critique each of our writing, even though he wasn’t the critique leader. (That's Neal, our host for catfish at Taylor Grocery on Saturday night. I just couldn't resist capturing him beneath the No Smoking sign.) Neil White, John Brandon, and Ann Fisher-Wirth all gave superb readings and craft talks throughout the weekend.
I already knew Neil and Ann, but this was my first opportunity to hear and meet John, and what a treat that was! His writing is pitch perfect, and his talk on how to write dialogue was nothing short of brilliant. (That’s me with John, who is signing his novel, Citrus County, before his reading at Off Square Books on Saturday night.) John was the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss in 2009-10, and then was asked to stay and teach Barry Hannah’s classes (after his death in 2010) until a long-term replacement could be found. (Richard Ford will be there this fall!) All that to say that it was a treat to learn from and hang out with John this weekend.
And now we come to the pivotal event of the workshop, at least for me. Every year, Scott Morris gives a craft talk on Friday night that is, well, legendary. (That's Scott, with his fiancé, Katie, outside Taylor Grocery, where we went for catfish on Saturday night.) Read about his craft talk in 2008, “Learning to See and Write Sunsets,” and in 2009, “The Writer’s Cross: Transcending the Existential Shorthand,” and last year’s talk, “Empathetic Imagination: Exploring the Interior World Through Writing.”
This year he hit it out of the park, again. (Scott is also the manuscript critique leader, and yes, he’s amazing in that capacity as well.) His topic was “voice,” but that was only part of what he addressed. I’m almost afraid to try to share much about his talk, because anything I say will only be scratching the surface. But I’m compelled to try.
What is voice? One aspect that Scott addressed is that voice is “using a language that bears the mark of your personality.” When you read something by Hemingway, O’Connor, or Faulkner, you know who wrote it. What does it take to get there? As Scott says, “any writing that aspires towards art demands prolonged attention.” He talked about how serious writing has to do with being truly human. It matters. It’s arduous and lonely. “We are haunted creatures…. and our work is an essential part of what it means to be human.”
I’ve felt this about myself for some time, but I haven’t been able to come to peace with this knowledge until this past Friday night.
“We use words to make sense of the world.”
I don’t think that’s original with Scott… I know I’ve heard it before, although it could have been from one of his talks. But it stayed with me. And then he upped the ante:
“To write is to long for something that exceeds your grasp…. We’ll never be that person we strive to be, but our primary responsibility (as writers) is to craft stories. It’s how we come to terms with our suffering—to grant it dignity.”
I should probably just stop right there. At that point in his talk I was weeping. The only other time I’ve ever felt that way in a literary event was back in November when Robert Goolrich was reading from his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, at Off Square Books. (Goolrich's book also inspired my first guest post at Jane Friedman's Writer's Digest blog, this past January: "Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional."
But, as I told Scott later that night, this was about more than what to do with my writing. This was about what to do with my life. With my wounds. With my anger and regret. Here’s where he went next:
“The novel will just sit down in that place of suffering and spend time there…. The great novel trades in regret…. This type of writing is up against the dominant culture of the day…. Great writing is about going to those wounds and staying there.”
He also mentioned that alcohol and other escape mechanisms so common with writers and artists are about dulling the pain. It’s no coincidence that people of the page (and the palette) are prone to addictive behaviors. It’s not that our pain is greater than anyone else’s. It’s that we strive to make peace with that pain through our writing.
So here I am, more convinced than ever that while I will always long for something that exceeds my grasp, I am—possibly for the first time in my sixty years of life—at peace with that truth. I think I’m finally ready to “sit down in that place of suffering and spend time there,” not looking for a fix, not believing in a cure, not hoping for healing. And if that sounds fatalistic to you, then I’m not communicating well. I’m ready to grant my suffering dignity, which is exactly what I think Robert Goolrich did when he wrote his memoir. I am so ready to make art, even if I have to spend the rest of my life in this place of suffering. As Scott says, sometimes “the best peace is to make peace with that.”