Napa Valley & Santa Fe: Two Conferences, Two Perspectives

As noted and noted again I am officially back from my self-dubbed "writing conference tour"! (echo, echo, echo) I applied to, and was happy to get scholarships, two conferences to be in classes with two writers I have admired for years.

My first stop was the Napa Valley Writers' Conference (NVWC). I'll gloss over my frustrating travels in LGA, almost missing my connecting flight, and my new good buddy Barbara and I suffering in 100+ degree heat in California traffic as we crawled from Sacramento to St. Helena. Meeting my workshop mates and workshop leader, Tayari Jones, more than made up for it. As did the wine! (One of my faves of the week was Stein Family Wines Rosato.)

Workshop groups met for a bit to get a sense of what we wanted from the week and why we were there. Before the conference began Tayari was very hands-on in regards to getting a better sense of our work, requesting statements of intents on what we were hoping came through in our pieces and what the overall story was about. This proved to be incredibly helpful when discussing the work so that we could lead into whether or not the bigger picture was being captured.

From the start I felt a very positive vibe from the group and as the remaining members arrived over the next couple days our camaraderie was solidified.

Tayari is a great mentor. What stood out to all of us was her problem-solving skills. Sometimes you're in workshop and while what doesn't work is pointed out it's up to the writer to figure out how to fix it. Not a bad thing, however coming up with resolutions can be more time consuming for some than others. With Tayari, bam, you get insight and fixes.

Amongst ourselves we all agreed, "Damn, Tayari's good."

Tayari had outlined whose work we'd be discussing on what day and had a whole strategy on why certain pieces had been grouped. From the get-go we knew she cared. This was further solidified in the way she spoke at length about our pieces and in the time she took to make comments (via colored pen and sticky notes) and in the one-on-one sessions we had with her the day after being workshopped. Being complimented by an author you admire is one of the highest forms of praise and also one of the best motivators you can get and I think, no I know, we're all flying high after this.

Fast forward to the events. Poetry lectures every morning, a fiction lecture every afternoon post-lunch, and a wine tasting (hey, it is Napa Valley, well St. Helena, after all) followed by a reading.

I was very lucky to receive community housing and stayed in a lovely cottage not too far from the Upper Valley Napa Valley College campus. And it was even luckier that my ride to the conference happened to be staying half a mile away down the road to pick me up every morning. (Thanks again, Barbara!)

Food provided was breakfast (buffet style) and lunch (portion controlled) by the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Breakfast included hard-boiled eggs (from chickens on campus), steel cut oatmeal and fixings, fresh juice, poached fruit, fresh fruit with basil, and homemade pastries which included croissants (dense and buttery), bear claws (with almond paste inside), and savory bread pudding (with and without bacon). For the most part all meals were vegetarian fare, but at the picnic on the last night there was meat! Meat in various and glorious forms such as lamb meatballs, beef strips, roasted duck, and chicken cutlet portions all so delectable it melted into your mouth! And, of course, dessert was at every lunch and dinner. Limoncello pie! Freshly made ice cream with caramel sauce! Brownies! Caramel chocolate bars! Yes, yes, and yes!

I had a great time, a great class, and a great mentor. And I'd like to add that poet faculty such as Forrest Gander and Brenda Hillman were super nice, supportive of all attendees, and very gracious and funny. They were at every event. Forrest even came up to me after the participant reading and said he enjoyed the scene I read from my Collection. A Pulitzer nominee said he liked my writing. Well, knock me over with a feather...

The weather was hot but pleasant and often there was a breeze. It did cool down in the evenings so a sweater/jacket was necessary. The wineries were gorgeous, the people of Napa and St. Helena pleasant, and the surroundings were lovely. My workshop mates and I also became hardcore fans of Gott's Roadside as a dinner option. Went twice (back-to-back days). No regrets.

After a near miss in terms of catching my flight to Albuquerque (for once I am thankful for plane delays) I had a bit of a segue way in Albuquerque before heading to my next conference.

Cue Segue way:

Native American Food Shacks (Pueblo Jemez)!

Hot Springs (Pueblo Jemez)!

Spanish Market with Local Artists (Santa Fe)!

And then we make our way to St. John's College for the Glen Workshop West (aka The Glen). After walking around Downtown Santa Fe I was greeted by friendly volunteers but man was I hot! Not humid, just hot! The sun is In. Your. Face. in Santa Fe. Literally, it winked at me.

As I headed up for registration I saw my instructor, Sara Zarr. And you know what? She recognized me! And you know what else? She hugged me straightaway! I almost begged off, embarrassed I was sweaty and she said not to worry. How cool is she?! I also met my workshop mate T. Michael Martin (expect his book The End Games next May). I heard some of it...awesome.

So after getting my packet and such I got some help from Greg's (Image Journal founder's) son Benedict (Ben). Super nice guy. Very helpful and seeking to pursue sculpture. Go Ben!

Attendees were warned, on more than one occasion, and I was warned by those from desert areas that I would need to adjust to the elevation. No joke. Ben and I were huffing our way to my dorm, which wasn't even that far in all honesty. But the high elevation (over 7,000 feet) and the thinning air made it a challenge for us low-landers.

Going from a cottage to a dorm is an adjustment, but I liked the size of my room and the fact that we were provided towels and bedding and such. I was out of the sun but it was warm. My roommate Raina was super nice and often not around so I had the space to myself often and where I was off at events in Napa, I got to utilize downtime in Santa Fe and get writing/reading done on a daily basis.

In Santa Fe water became a second appendage for those of us around campus.

"Where you going?"


"You really need that water bottle, it's down the hall?"

(Clutches water bottle/kleen canteen) "Never know."

Three meals (with vegan/vegetarian options) were provided on campus in the cafeteria. The Glen participants also shared time and space with visiting MFA students. Our schedule was thus: first breakfast, three hour workshops, then lunch, then break, an afternoon reading/lecture, dinner, then an evening reading/lecture, worship (where Scott Cairns talked about how one can mix their faith and their art), and then on a few days the open mic (prose, poetry, song, and visual) for participants. On the first day was a wine & snacks party and the last evening a wine & snacks and dance party!

Yes, I did say worship services. The Glen is a workshop organized by Image Journal and one of their goals is that "[T]hrough a commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth, Image has taken its place on the 'public square' and is poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture." For those who are non-religious or agnostic, like myself, I want to convey that The Glen is not a workshop that centers around religion. It's about finding a balance in faith and art. And if you do not feel especially close to a particular faith do not feel like you'll be judged or preached to. It's a very comfortable environment where everyone listens and respects one another and for me I became even more intrigued by the mixing of faith and how everyone uses it to push their work. I even found in myself that I do subscribe to a faith of being good to my fellow man and woman and wanting to create the most honest portrayal of culture in my art.

Sara had been in touch with us prior to The Glen with an outline of what to expect and just to say "hello!" On the first day we relaxed, got to know each other, and did writing exercises. After that she scheduled work with groupings to talk about some things but also in what may work with each other. It was a relaxed style where hand-written critiques weren't necessary but a discussion always keyed up with someone saying "I loved this..." and others echoing that statement along with support on how to make certain aspects stronger and resonate more with the reader, while also helping the writer to feel more confident about pursuing their work and honing in on what the heart of the story is.

Sara was very generous with her time and even spoke with me afterwards about my story and my overall concerns with balancing personal changes in my life with focusing on my art. I can't thank her enough for the time she gave while at The Glen and the interest she showed. And have to extend another thanks to my workshop mates who liked Calvin and Kayla's relationship and gave me more to consider in revisions. Thanks y'all!

Both NVWC and The Glen offered something different but incredibly helpful and introspective as I shared different pieces from my Collection. In Napa people felt for the pain of a woman dealing with a miscarriage who's uncertain about where her life is going. One of the best pieces of advice I got from Tayari Jones on how to fix this in the revision phase was to "add some happiness" into her life so that the pain would pack a harder punch.

In Santa Fe I shared a portion of the life of an angry teenage boy whose love for his little sister trumps all but even he messes that up. His is a story about the inability to forgive and forgiveness and chaos and everyone in Sara Zarr's workshop got that. From Sara I got a great idea on how to tie up loose ends so that the reader will still stay with the main character even when he can be dislikable.

For me, it's been helpful to know that each time I show a piece from my Collection, flaws and all, the characters still come through and the readers I meet--strangers and artists around North America--become part of my cheering squad. So, yeah, the stories have flaws but the heart is there and that's what I needed to know to keep going. Two weeks away and I come back filled with even more gusto.