Writing conferences are like adult summer camp, and the counselors happen to be your personal heroes, and everyone wants their friendship bracelet making skills to bring them wealth and recognition, one day.
Erin Somers and David Bersell, who earned MFAs from the University of New Hampshire in May, exchanged emails about their recent conference experiences, the thrilling, humbling, and odd. Somers studied fiction at the 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the 2012 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Bersell attended the 2013 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop as a nonfiction scholar.
Erin Somers: How was Tin House? Did you make friends for life? Are you incredibly famous right now?
David Bersell: On my flight to Portland, I shared a row with a fellow Tin House participant—shouts to Vincent Scarpa. He noticed me writing on my laptop and I saw him marking a pile of manuscripts. Each one assumed the other was also going to the workshop, but neither was outgoing enough to say anything.
Later that day, outside of our dorm, we realized we had recently communicated over Twitter about an essay of his, and we had a mutual friend in Portland.
My week: I listened to favorite authors read (Maggie Nelson) and discovered new ones (Matthew Dickman). I got a ride from Chloe Caldwell and Kevin Sampsell. I said, “If I go cheap on the beers, maybe I can afford more books.” I couldn’t afford any books. Dancing. Ben Percy’s voice. Dancing. Started drinking coffee. Sweat so much the insides of my thighs chafed against my jeans as I walked to 7-Eleven for two bottles of red wine, and late night, unable to sleep, three, four a.m., all the leftover anxiety from my workshop or reading or book pitch propelled me though campus in a power walk.
I had a successful meeting with an agent and was on the West Coast for the first time, with a week devoted to my only passion.
I was so lonely. (Louis C.K.: Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.)
This mostly has to do with my personal life and being an introvert, and probably ego, but I’m working on a theory about these types of workshops. Every writer gets the conference he deserves. The confident will be confident and the supportive will be supportive.
I made a few friends, including Vincent, locked myself out of my room on the first night, didn’t talk as much as much as I should have in class, and started a new essay.
Maybe part of conferences is accepting the limits of what you do and how you do it.
Name Drop Total: Six.
Erin, I’m interested to hear about deciding to attend conferences during and right after your MFA and how your experience this summer compared to mine. And what’s the deal with having a roommate at Bread Loaf?
ES: I went to Sewanee while I was still at school, and Bread Loaf this year now that I’ve graduated. I think I’m cool to take a break from conferences for a while. They’re really intense! Both were great in their own ways. At Sewanee, I made friends who I still talk to all the time and had hilarious experiences like going out for Mexican food in Monteagle, Tennessee with Richard Bausch. Not enough margaritas in the world to make that feel normal (though I tried). I think I’ve felt, until recently, a kind of compulsion to find the next hustle. Like, all right, school year’s over, what’s the official Next Step. This year it seemed like Bread Loaf.
My week: I listened to some smart people talk about craft (Charles Baxter, Robert Pinsky, Robert Boswell). I enjoyed nature and hiked around; Bread Loaf’s got a spot in the Green Mountains just outside of Middlebury that’s not to be believed. I requested R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” at a very hilarious dance. I remembered what it’s like to have a roommate (terrible), and what it’s like to be among so many great writers (cocktail of exhilarating and humbling). I didn’t drink that much because I’m twenty-eight and officially on three-day hangover status if I so much as glance at one plastic cup too many of cheap white wine.
I was so lonely.
As I understand it, being pretty lonely most of the time is part of the deal for human beings. But also, these conferences are like parallel universes, where your real life exists only in the abstract. Bread Loaf is on a mountain and in a complete cell phone dead zone, so there’s very little contact with the outside world. (Although, there is Wi-Fi everywhere. Next time I’m going to walk around showing people how to download Skype for iPhone and they’ll canonize me.) I fought the feeling of isolation really hard by using Leo’s spinning top trick from Inception. Basically, by reminding myself of certain hard facts: “I am an adult. I live in New York City. I have a job I am reasonably good at in an office with post-its and printer paper. Fiction writing is very important, but it’s not all I am.” And so on.
Name Drop Total: Four.
Tin House: would you go back? Mostly cool young dudes like yourself, or a mix of ages? How did it feel to be a scholar? I assume you got demi-god treatment for that? I’m picturing you being carried around in a sedan chair…
DB: 1. I would go back—top notch instructors, a caring environment, ice cream sandwiches at every meal—but not for a few years. Being fresh out of school, a lot of the conference felt like a more exciting version of what I had just completed. Once I miss being part of a writing community, it will probably be more valuable. Right now, I’d rather use a week to write full-time.
2. My estimate is most students were in their upper twenties, a few years older than me. Plenty of writers in their thirties and forties, with some older and younger. More women than men.
In my class, I was the youngest and only guy, which I’m used to as a memoir writer, and as always it wasn’t a problem. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE LADIEZZZE!
3. The only time the scholarship came up was when I checked in. I didn’t want to be a dick and throw it into conversation, but that didn’t stop me from having a chip on my shoulder, being surprised when my workshop didn’t love my essays, and assuming I was a better writer than Dude in Flannel Shirt #7 who wasn’t overly friendly to me.
I still have things to work on.
I’m interested in what you wrote about conference loneliness. (Because of course I am.) If real life is abstract and there are nothing but readings and cocktail parties, amateurs like us can feel like pros. Is this where the struggle starts, realizing that being a Writer isn’t satisfying in itself? Or is it that we know it’s pretend, that on Monday camp ends and we go home? Maybe it’s just the nature of an exhausting week away from loved ones.
Or maybe it’s us.
Hundreds of attendees can’t all be bummed out, right? I know I could report a travel piece from just about anywhere and the place would read as weird and broken and grand.
So what are we trying to do with writing? Is it like DFW and Franzen say, the goal of storytelling is to help people feel less alone? Do you have the sentimental story about how you started writing as a young person?
ES: Dave, these are the big questions, and we’re not going to figure them out today. But I do think you’re on to something. Earlier this summer I got word that my first short story is being published this fall. My print debut. Great, right? Yeah, I was able to feel good about it for maybe three days until the satisfaction wore off. Three days! That’s when I was like, “Oh no, what if this writing thing isn’t ever going to satisfy me. What if I’m actually going to achieve some approximation of success and it won’t be enough.” I actually said this aloud to my boyfriend. He goes, “Who are you, Charles Foster Kane?”
Personal anecdote about writing as a young person: The first thing I ever remember writing was a story called “Mr. Cabbage” in second grade. At my elementary school they had this excellent little print shop where they’d bind your story into a book with a waterproof contact paper cover, and you could illustrate it and give it to your mother. What a school. So I wrote this story, about the eponymous Mr. Cabbage, a dude with green hair, who is constantly ridiculed by his neighbors in this apparently not very accepting town. As a result, he lives in complete isolation and is terribly, crushingly lonely all the time. I’m making this sound a little disturbing for something an eight-year-old wrote, but it was actually pretty funny. Anyway, in the end, Mr. Cabbage becomes a writer, so he can grapple with his feelings of crippling alienation publicly and for pay. Just kidding, he falls in love with Miss Petunia, a florist who thinks his green hair is cool as shit. The act of writing this story felt great, but afterward, when my teacher and parents made a big fuss about it (BRAG: I was way above grade level in language arts), I was inwardly like, “Can’t anyone see that this is saccharine, derivative of Roald Dahl, and I’m basically a huge fraud?”
The scramble for publication, the (very normal, I think) desire to get some positive reinforcement from editors and mentors, the verbal jockeying to impress a room of young, smug, white men at a writers’ conference: these things aren’t satisfying. But the right things are. As in, the actual writing. Sitting at the keyboard and figuring out how to crack something, toiling away at it. That’s pure. Ian McEwan had a beautiful essay in the New Republic a while back about the ebb and flow of his disillusionment with fiction writing. Here’s how it ends: “Everything absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months—science, math, history, law, and all the rest—can be brought with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.”
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