“Gossip is the source code of novels.” ~Alexander Chee
This summer, after a 21-year hiatus, I attended not one but two writers’ conferences. (I attended Bread Loaf in 1995, which has lived large in my memory for two decades for reasons too numerous to list.) The first was the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, held July 10-17 in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine 250 adults, all of whom strive in some capacity to connect with others through the written word but usually from the introspective comfort of some coffee shop corner, gathered suddenly together on a college campus. We’re more J.D. Salinger than F. Scott Fitzgerald, most of us, known more for our peculiarities and reclusiveness than our partying-like-it’s-1929. But nothing eases a writer’s social anxiety better than cocktail hour, and the forward-thinking Tin House staff had the bar set up right away—and every evening thereafter. (It’s a worthwhile question to ponder: How much writing gets done at drinking conferences?)
I needn’t have worried about making friends. I met Jennifer via the ride-share forum, and what will surely be a lifelong friendship was struck before we even met face to face. (She likes mountains and hiking; I like music and walking in the rain.) My friends Emma and Jenny were there, and it was wonderful to see them in their element. And by the end of our first meeting together, the twelve of us in Alex Chee’s workshop created a bond that we memorialized with matching #TeamChee t-shirts and that became the envy of the other groups.
Alexander Chee, essayist, Twitter maestro, and author of the gorgeous Queen of the Night, led our daily workshop with thoughtful guidance. He sometimes appeared to absent himself, staring for minutes into the middle distance, then would resurface with some unforgettable bit of wisdom like “most literary fiction is a mystery in which we wonder if the main character will ever realize who they truly are” or “sometimes a story doesn’t want to be told.”
Workshops were the supposed pith, but equally valuable, entertaining and enlightening were the events surrounding them: panels, seminars, craft talks and readings at the Cerf Amphitheater. Dana Spiotta talked about “The Art of the List”, Jess Walter gave a hilarious and self-deprecating lecture about Robert Coover’s story “Going for a Beer”, my man-servant Steve Almond challenged us to write about our first crushes during his talk “The Lit Crush: When Writing Crashes into Doubt”, and Kiese Laymon read a shattering piece about sexual violence and demanded of us: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?” My favorite moment, however, was during a panel with Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Chinelo Okparanta and Joy Williams on “The Multi-Tasking Scene.” Joy seemed a little bit…pococurante. When the moderator asked her a question, she just sighed and said, “I hate talking about craft. Craft, craft, craft, craft, craft. It’s like talking about cheese. You should just write or else there’s no magic in it.”
The communal meals, often taken outside in the beautiful, cool weather, meant that faculty, staff, guests and attendees could mingle, usually without that awkward middle-school worry whether the cool kids would let you sit at their table. There we all were, reaching out to the world with our stories and poems, wanting to connect, and discovering each other in the process. By the end of the week, it felt like we’d all known each other forever.
Perhaps we have.