How can ten days contain so much conversation, laughs, insights, glasses of wine, hugs, moments of immense pride, writerly gossip, and inspiration? Here, then, are only a very, very, very few of my personal highlights at the recent winter residency for the Converse Low-Res MFA program, held in the mountains of North Carolina at the Pine Crest Inn in Tryon:
--Not to start with a disappointment, but I was distressed that the Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge was closed because it was Tuesday when I drove past it on my way to Tryon. To make matters worse, the line at the Cook-Out was 30 cars long. I had to stop at Taco Bell, for goodness sake. I’ll have to stop talking about these places if you people are going to interfere with my plans!
--Our keynote guest speaker was the super-smart Mark Powell who read from forthcoming work and gave an amazing craft lecture about finding “the emotional core of the story.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I scribbled down some excellent advice from the masters:
· Dig deep enough in one place and you’ll hit a groundswell of universal experience: Flannery O’Connor
· Whatever you’re ashamed of, write that: Raymond Carver
· Write naked, write blood, write from exile: Dennis Johnson
· The difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that the professional will write 300 pages and tear it up, and the amateur will try to save it: Harry Crews
--CNF faculty member Susan Tekulve gave a great lecture on how to write love scenes and death scenes and made us laugh with her examples of “what not to do” (sorry, Charles Dickens, but apparently Little Nell doesn’t translate to the 21st century).
--We had some incredible poetry guests this semester, including poet Jillian Weise, who had me with her terse, tight poems but who really grabbed me when she leaned over the podium and said, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” and told us anyway. Poet Jeanine Hathaway did a fabulous reading from a collaborative project in which her part was to write poems based on prompts from the language of textiles. Since our writing workshop had been working with prompts, this was additional evidence of how prompts can open the creative mind.
--Oh, the stupid, stupid weather…poet Albert Goldbarth was stranded in the Midwest and our agent couldn’t get to us from New York, but an unexpected free night sort of helped pace everyone and meant we could watch the big BCS game, most of us with immense joy at the outcome.
--My friend Sheri Joseph drove up from Georgia, braving the cold, and she and I read together which was a pleasure and an honor for me. The new story I read was also based on a prompt, so I liked keeping that theme going. I had recently finished Sheri’s new novel Where You Can Find Me, so it was great to hear more about her writing process (writing 400 pages of pre-story and throwing it away!) and to get the inside scoop on being photographed for Vanity Fair as part of “Atlanta’s literary sorority.”
--My travels in Georgia over the summer inspired my craft lecture, in which I compared Flannery O’Connor’s first published story, “The Geranium” with its ultimate revision, her last story, “Judgement Day,” as I pondered the process of revision and how the story made that 18-year journey. I love how attentive the audience always is at these residencies, and how smart they are with their questions. They keep me on my toes, for sure!
--Co-teaching with my colleague, fiction writer Marlin “Bart” Barton, was as fabulous as usual. We had an excellent class, and we focused our discussion on plot structure and developing scenes. I was especially impressed at how inventive the workshop students were when we were playing around with plots…they were beautifully mean to our poor, imaginary characters, shoving them into dire situations, and I know this bodes well for the fiction I’ll be reading over the weeks to come.
--We had eight graduates this semester, all from the fiction side, so each was someone I have worked closely with over the past few years…and I will miss these men and women terribly now that they’ve graduated. But as a last hurrah, they treated us to some amazing lectures and riveting readings; I was so proud of all of them. I especially applaud the moments of bravery I witnessed, as more than one chose to read selections that were emotionally close or otherwise difficult. Bravo and brava!
--As for the food at the Inn, I can’t deny that there were a few slip-ups due to some malfunctioning equipment in the kitchen, but in spite of that, we had some amazing soups, especially a tomato (and cauliflower?) soup for lunch, and a lovely dish of sliced broccoli served raw/blanched with light lemon vinaigrette (please remember that I don’t even like broccoli), and crab cakes with a spicy kick of a green sauce. Oh, and how did I almost forget those lemon ricotta pancakes!?
--I’m sure I’m forgetting 1000 other things, but I won’t forget to thank our fearless director, Rick Mulkey, for all his hard work creating and nurturing this special community of writers (the expression “herding cats” comes to mind). If you’d like to join us at Converse this summer, applications are due February 15. (Details here.) We would love to welcome you!