Summer camp for writers; short stories instead of leather lanyards, playwriting instead of slapstick, and poems instead of finger-paints, but otherwise my twelve days at the Southampton Writers Conference was pretty much that, summer camp for writers.
It was also my first for-credit writing adventure as a part of my MFA program at Stony Brook University making me now an official grad student. All of the paperwork went through ages ago to support my student status, but now I feel official after summer camp, um, I mean the writers conference.
Above all, these action packed 12-days gave me an up-close-and-personal preview of the community of writers that I am about to join full-time.
Having no notion of what to expect, I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon in July, checked in and made my way to my dorm room. This was, in fact, my first stay in a dorm room. Ever. And, I guess that at age 50, that is kind of unusual, but that is also another story entirely. I digress.
Once I’d dropped my bags, I made my way to our orientation session. We were briefed on the basics of the logistics and then divided into groups for a literary scavenger hunt which was a great way to discover the campus, meet some of the other participants, and have some fun writing silly stories together. And, I might add, that my team rocked. Not only did we win two sub-categories, we won the whole damn thing and took home the grand prize for sauciest writing.
Speaking of sauce, immediately following dinner, we made our way in to the lecture hall – a medium sized auditorium with theater seating – for the first of a seemingly endless lineup of readings.
The extraordinary poets Terrance Hayes and Billy Collins started us off and to my delight, the caliber of the writers and readings never swayed from that inspiring opening night.
Readers, in addition to Hayes and Collins, included Frederic Tuten, Julia Glass, Susan Scarf Merrell, Matthew Klam, Patricia Marx, Philip Schultz, Peter Lerangis, Libba Bray, Roger Rosenblatt, and Meg Wolitzer. And, of course, me, because we all read from the work we produced at the end of the conference, but perhaps it is presumptuous to add myself to this list just yet…soon though!
Every other morning we had workshops for several hours and mine was on creative nonfiction with Matthew Klam. Like most workshops, we read and gave feedback on each other’s writing, discussed craft and were assigned nightly reading materials to dissect later in class.
We also had the opportunity to join in a three-afternoon mini-workshop for which I selected fiction with Susan Scarf Merrell. Besides thinking she is a brilliant writer, I now know that she is a gifted instructor. We looked at fairy tales and did reverse outlining and then, based on that, wrote our own short (read, very short) stories. I’ve struggled for a long time with basic structure in my writing so this workshop was a godsend.
On other afternoons and some mornings, there were craft talks or interviews or panel discussions. Among my favorites was a workshop with two composers who discussed how musicians read. Russian pianist and composer – Konstantin Soukhovetski – first read the poem “Claire de Lune” by Paul Verlaine, in the original French, then played the classical piece by Claude Debussy and had us keep in mind the poem and where the breaks were when he read. It immediately became clear that the pauses in the music matched the breaks in the stanzas. So simple, but a perfect moment of magic where we experienced the intersection of music and prose.
Another session that stood out was a panel on the trauma of war and touched on issues both of reporting on war but also on the impact war has on the writers, whether they are warriors recounting their first hand experiences or journalists covering conflict. What struck me most was to see these individuals who report from the front lines regularly (Masha Gessen, Adrian Bonenberger – a fellow Stony Brook MFA student – and Benjamin Luft) expose their vulnerability and show the human side of their work.
On top of all of these workshops, readings, panels and discussions, we also got to attend the first-ever Southampton production of The Moth. Hosted by the creator, Adam Gopnik, we heard Ted Conover, Tara Clancy, Wendy Suzuki, Simon Doonan, and Meg Wolitzer stand up and tell stories on the topic of “Fish Out of Water.” I’ve had the good fortune to attend The Moth a few times, but it never fails to impress me and it was a perfect way to round out our time together.
My sense is that it will take months to sort through all that I learned at the conference, but the experience was overwhelmingly a positive one. I got to meet and interact with many of the Stony Brook MFA faculty and students and felt both encouraged and confident that I’d made the right selection in choosing Stony Brook as the best fit for my graduate studies.
Our regular semester begins in the end of August and I’m certain that my classes in Manhattan will resemble a more traditional experience, but I am very glad I got to start my program off at the Southampton Writers Conference. So far, so good: Stony Brook, here I come!