It's always nice to be a part of the first of something, especially when it comes to creative endeavors or anything that results in something good and positive. This year I was honored to be included in the first group of attendees for the Summer Writers Lab (SWL) hosted at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus and directed by author and LIU MFA professor Jessica Hagedorn, with instructors/authors Gabriel Cohen, Jennifer Egan, and Marlon James. I was lucky enough to get into, what appeared to be by the amount in attendance, the popular Jennifer Egan workshop. Now, my definition of workshop is one in which you write, you submit, others read & critique it. This was not the same framework for LIU's three-day seminar. It was that, a seminar. While we wrote short in-class or at-home exercises and read these in class time, especially with the twenty or so people in attendence for her class alone, mainly permitted us to comment on what caught our ears and provided great visuals. What struck us immediately to help the author know what to continue to do or leap off from moving forward. Turns out that this is how Jennifer Egan's reviewers handle critiquing each others work primarily. Intriguing, and something to learn from seeing how much Jennifer had a keen ear.
Jennifer is lithe, easy-going, kind, supportive, likes baked goodies, and is a great listener. Learning from someone like this who has achieved so much in her career is something that always sets the emerging writer's mind at ease.
Three days and twenty-one students means there may be a high expectation to achieve a lot in nine hours time total. And while I think a smaller group may have helped delve into Jennifer's agenda more fully, the wealth of sincerity and intrigue and kindness and creativity and support in this room was some of the most satifying I have experienced in 3 days than in 4 years of undergraduate studies in Creative Writing and two years as an MFA student. In three days Jennifer went over Characterization, Dialogue, and Voice and gave as much help and advice as she could as the minutes ticked by.
In the first day we spent about two hours introducing ourselves and asking each other questions to get to know each other better. Jennifer was adamant about this and in the end proved herself quite capable in remember details about us and all our names in the matter of a couple of hours! The exercise itself lent itself to the overall theme of the day "characterization" but was also a way for us to get to know each other better as writers and as people.
One of the other workshop participants, Julie, said it best "I could listen to her for hours." And it's true. Jennifer speaks in such a way that you feel like you're equals. She never references her prizes or how much her books have been lauded. She even has a self-depricating humor at times when it comes to her process and how many of her books have started out. When placing an author on such a high pedestal to know that there's no clear-cut process, no "a-ha!" that hits them in one week flat to create, that they're not completely sure of their work at all initially can help you to breathe so deeply in relief at the realization of no one having all the answers and allowing the process itself to take over, trust those around you, and believe in yourself to persevere. It's something that can't be learned, but hearing it from someone who's just won the Pulitzer helps tremendously.
In the midst of my workshop with Jennifer I heard nothing but praise for Marlon James' workshop, which has a smaller number of participants who enjoyed more one-on-one specific critiques of work.
At the first night's evening event with a reading by all three instructors and Jessica attendees were enlightened and introduced to some powerful prose. The standout of the evening was Marlon James' reading from the new novel he's been writing about seven young men who attempted to kill Bob Marley. It was written in Patois and Mr. James' being of Jamaican descent was able to give the prose full force in his reading. Everyone was blown away and I'm sure he added several dozen new fans to his work and social media pages. The next evening brought a lively discussion from authors Wesley Stace and Rick Moody where many learned about their process as writers.
Saturday afternoon's Q&A panel with representatives from the publishing world that authors often need in their corner was incredibly insightful for those who are used to these types of discussions or who are new to them and need to get thinking on what the publishing world is like and where it's heading as the millenium moves along. Faith Childs, Rakesh Satyal, Johnny Temple, and Harold Augenbraum were extremely kind and generous in their time, (2 hours!) as well as answering additional questions we had. Learning that Faith, as an agent, invests in careers not one-off works; that Rakesh, as an editor, admits that writers should be the most enthusiastic about their work amidst so much competition; and Johnny, publisher of Akashic Books, bringing awareness that us as artists shouldn't pity ourselves because we can't just be artists, but be glad that we can afford the luxury at all even if it is in spare time or time we make at any hour of the day available. And Harold thinks we should not look down on the dinner party in terms of writing or readers. (You had to be there.)
Throughout these three days we were immersed in a community, one you're aware of, but may not be privy to always be around. Like Jentel being surrounded by artists who understand what you're going through in your angst, insecurity, and unfailing ability to procrastinate are there to support and listen. That's what a community is. From the day I walked through the English department and introduced myself to one of my workshop mates I felt the connection. From the moment I looked around at attendees and was approached by Jessica who eagerly wanted to know who I was I felt it. From the smiles I received from those each morning and evening at every event, on our way to and from the bathroom during break, on Twitter, on the street, getting a round of applause from workshop mates because I made blondies, I felt it again and again.
I felt a slight sense of remorse when I left the Greenlight Bookstore yesterday as the SWL reading confirmed the end of the first year of this new fiction immersion program. I would miss the encouraging smiles and words and hearing Jennifer admit that no one knows it all but that you keep going. I'll miss hearing Jennifer compliment my workshop mates and myself on things it took us minutes to write and I'm sure many of us weren't overly confident in. Something I wrote on the subway was structurally sound? No freaking way! I'll miss seeing a familiar face from graduate school and catching up on what we've both been through as we've plodding along on our work over the years. But in the midst of missing this I know that there's another community I got to know, from another convention/conference what-have-you and that there'll continue to be people you'll meet who'll help you and believe in you. And that this is what these types of conventions are created for. They want to bring people together and in this case SWL was successful.