Thursday, May 6, 2010

What's Your Major?

The air is decidedly cooler and lighter on a June morning in the Boston area than in Florida. This is my thought as I sit in the orientation of my first Solstice Writers’ Conference. I am also feeling oddly unencumbered, as if I have forgotten something. I didn’t have to wake anyone this morning, didn’t have to start a load of laundry, didn’t have to field breakfast requests. Instead, I rolled out of my lumpy dormitory bed, ate eggs and sausage prepared for me in the campus cafeteria and left my dishes for someone else to rinse and stick in the dishwasher. I sit back, flanked by two friends that I met at an earlier conference, and wait for the conference director to address the group.

Writers’ conferences are a bit like wandering through a bar in a college town. What’s your major…the college bar. Which class are you in….(novel, short story, non-fiction) the conference. When do you graduate…the college bar. Have you gone yet…(meaning has your work been critiqued in class yet?) the conference. Where are you from…the college bar. Where are you from…the conference. And like in college, when attending a conference, a participant has an assignment. Each writer must submit 25 pages that will be read by eleven or so classmates. For many attendees, this is why they have boarded a plane, hired a babysitter, purchased new luggage. They have hopes of finding a cure for their weary manuscript.

When a particular writer’s turn rolls around, he or she will sit quietly, (we’ll call her she) barred from speaking during the discussion, and the others will talk about and debate what is wrong with her work and what is right. But mostly what is wrong, or maybe it just feels that way. When it is over, usually lasts about 45 minutes, the writer takes a deep breath and says thank you for the flogging. (Another thing I’ve learned along the way…if this process doesn’t sting, at least a little, it probably isn’t working.) Later that night, while sipping wine following the nightly readings, people will ask, have you gone yet? The writer will say yes. How did it go? I learned a lot, the writer might say. And drink another glass of merlot.

The conference director arrives at precisely 9:30. She begins by announcing a room change and goes on to remind us that coffee cups and silverware are not to leave the cafeteria and that the library will close early on Sunday. Lastly, she welcomes and introduces the teaching staff. The morning lecture will begin shortly, the director says, but first she has a bit of advice. We students think we have come to the conference to share our work with our peers, to have our teachers comb through our pages to instruct us on how to fix our plot lines and round-out our characters. But if you want to learn, if you really want to learn, the director says, fall in love with another writer’s work. Love it like you love your own. Make it your mission to lift up that person and ensure that he or she leaves a better writer. Fall in love with someone else’s work and good things will happen. Fall in love with someone else’s work and you will leave a better writer.

Sadly, the Solstice Writers’ Conference doesn’t exist anymore, though Pine Manor has a fine MFA program. And while that conference may no longer take place, I count that advice among some of the best I ever received.

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