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Tin House Writers Workshop: Day One

So, before I go any further in this post, I would like to clear up this long-standing rumor that writers drink a lot–by confirming it more certainly than I’ve ever confirmed anything in my life! But more on that later.

The first day of the workshop, I left Seattle around 9 or 10 in the morning, seeing as how check-in was to be from noon to 4pm. The drive was almost exactly 3 hours, but ended up being more like 3 and half or 3 and45 minutes thanks to Portland’s awesomely confusing street system! But to my luck, I wound up in a residential neighborhood and asked someone for directions, which they were able to provide (accurately, no less!) quite easily. So, once I got to the parking lot on the campus, I followed the signs and lugged my bag into which I packed way too much shit up this ridiculously long and rising hill to the main building. When I got there, people were really nice while asking me for the remaining balance I owed. After paying, I got the keys to the place I’d be staying in (Russian House), along with directions on how to find it. It was about a five-minute walk.

The campus was very beautiful and the weather was just freaking perfect. 75 degrees and the wind lightly stirring, I took my time walking to the house, savoring the campus, taking it in. It’s actually quite a small campus, but the buildings are all beautiful and it’s nestled in a really urban part of Portland, but it doesn’t seem like it. Trees and ponds litter the campus and at one point there’s a footbridge crossing the pond. I found the house pretty easily–and when I say house, I mean house. As far as I could tell, the house was used during the regular school year as the house of the students at Reed College who wished to study Russian. Everything in the house was in Russian. Everything. It was probably one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. And it was one of the coolest places on campus, in personality and temperature. I deposited my bags in my room and then went back out to meet the peeps. Hmm, that sounds like a TV show with the guy from Blues Clues interacting with the candy.

I don’t know why I wasn’t like the normal, awkward, shy self I normally am that day, but instead of acting anti-social, I walked to the first table I saw with people at it and introduced myself. And I didn’t blow up! It turns out that there were a lot of people there from New York and Fresno. I met many of them at that same table and still can’t remember most of their names (give me a break…I met over 100 people that week). Quickly a pattern began to repeat itself when two not yet introduced people met. It started with exchanging names and then progressed to discussions of who had which workshop leader and then to where each person was from. Then it was usually time to go and meet someone else. It sounds shallow the way I put it, but there was actually a lot more room for discussion, as this was occurring over a 4 hour period. In the middle of all this, I had the opportunity to grab lunch, but I didn’t take it because I was too engaged in freaking conversation!

At 4pm, we filed into the lecture hall, hereafter referred to as Vollum, to hear the welcoming address by Editor-in-Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman. This guy is a dope-ass motherfucker. He kind of dresses like my friend Aaron, except he’s in his late 30’s. Anyway, it became readily apparent that he and all the other staff was happy to see everyone and that this was a place dedicated to putting out a vibe of brother and sisterhood and dedication to having fun and developing their craft. Someone asked how my experience was once I was done. What I said was, “It was like stepping into another world and finding out that everyone in this world spoke the same language as you.” And that’s what it was like during this whole time. We were then introduced to the man who would be running pretty much the whole thing, Lance Cleland. This guy was also awesome and towered over me by about a whole foot. He dressed in the hipster chic appropriate and associated with Portland and Seattle. This guy was a freaking rock throughout the week–talk about grace under pressure, Hemingway could never have written a character this unable to be ruffled.

After the welcome, we met for a half hour with our workshop leader and fellow workshop members. This is where the first of many instances of name dropping will occur. We gathered in one of the classrooms just off the hallway from both the cafeteria and student union to wait for our leader, the renowned Benjamin Percy. People are always bigger in your mind than when you meet them. Not this guy. He was only like 5’8, but his voice would rival that of James Earl Jones. When he stepped into the classroom, everyone’s trap clapped shut. He didn’t say a word as he walked down the length of the long table and sat down right next to me at the end of the table. A couple seconds went by. And then he broke into a smile and said, “Hey guys, I’m Ben.”

We nodded and smiled, a bit nervous and a bit afraid of this guy who wrote stories about tying people to sleds and dragging them behind dirt bikes or people killing animals and gutting them all on their own. This dude was rugged. But then he broke the ice by telling us to partner up with someone and find out their name, where they’re from, what their favorite book is and something interesting about themselves. After we did this, “Ben” as he likes to be called, told us what he was looking for in our critiques. He preferred a tighter run ship than most workshop leaders, I think. But this served me really well. Basically, the way he wanted the workshop to go was pretty much like this: Ben would riff for a while on something that related to one of the pieces that would be discussed. Then we would discuss how this relates to the story we are workshopping. Next would come the comments on what is working well in the piece. After that would be the talk where we discuss “What’s it about?” and try to ascertain some sort of meaning or theme. Critique then comes next, stating problems we have and also giving suggestions as to how to try and unify the theme more tightly. Finally, the writer then is allowed to speak and ask questions.

Next came dinner. The food, I’m happy to say, was delicious. I sat with some new people and learned some new names which I probably don’t remember. I don’t remember who I sat with, except that they were people who I hadn’t met before. The people were all really friendly. Dinner then lead to the first reading of the week: Scott Sparling, Dorianne Laux, and Jonathan Dee were reading that night. The nightly readings took place in an outdoor amphitheater with wooden benches. Facing toward the pond, the amphitheater was an awesome place to listen to people read. Scott Sparling’s reading was definitely my favorite that night. He read from his book, Wire to Wire, which took him about 20 years to write and publish. Good Christ, that is determination! Dorianne Laux read from her latest book of poems, which were really good. Then finally Jonathan Dee read from a work that he is working on currently. I was filled with lots of inspiration as I listened to these people read. After the reading there were books of the authors’ for sale.

Finally, the last even of each night came–the reception! First night is open bar. If you think writers drink a lot when they have to pay for it, you should see them drink when they don’t! Holy shit, people were milling around talking, drinking, smoking, laughing. It was awesome. I gravitated around, talking to different people I had met that day. I will be introducing names soon, but at the moment, I’m showing how confusing it is to meet so many different people on the first night. I can’t even remember on which day I met certain people. But anyway, at around 11pm, I started to get really tired, so I went back to Russian House and slept in my bed. It took a while, but soon I was slumbering quite nicely. So, that’s the end of Day One. Pretty awesome. And it gets better!

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About rydowney

My name is Ry Downey. I'm sometimes a poet. I exist and sometimes that's really difficult.

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