NYS Summer Writers Institute Recap

Eleven days ago, my time at the Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, ended.  It’s hard to encapsulate those two weeks.  My elevator pitch for those who ask how it went:  It was delightfully selfish to be immersed in writing, reading, and thinking for two weeks.  

On Day 12, I wrote this…”I have lived in a condo with two poets and two fiction writers. Never have I felt the comfort of shutting a door to my room as what I do here. Whenever I want to read or write, I shut my door. At home when I do this, I put a note on the door: "I am writing, please do not disturb. Love, Mom" I very rarely do this because it feels so heartless and unnatural, to bow out of house-life like that; hence my emphasis on "Love" with a hand-drawn heart next to it. Here, I open the door when I'm done cocooning. And my cocooning is never taken personally, for I live with four others who are also working on their butterfly wings.”

Most of my mornings were guided by the library opening its doors at 9 a.m.  On the 4th of July I met another student at the locked doors.  He looked at me and said, “It’s closed for some reason?”  I shared the same baffled expression as he had voiced.  I can’t remember where I went, but I do remember standing at the big double doors feeling cheated.  Seven percent of my writing mornings on the third floor, the quiet floor, had been stripped away.  

Libraries should open earlier. I spend many waking hours waiting for the library to open, wondering what to do before that nine o’clock hour.  Staying quiet in the house while my three boys sleep.  Some days, I can’t keep the pot on simmer from sunrise to the unlocking click of the library doors. This wait feels like boiling potatoes and constantly adjusting the lid and the fire so they don’t boil over and make a mess on the stove. In the stillness of early morning, my blood accelerates with each sip of coffee, and the words roll in my head.  I’m such a habitual library writer that I rarely try to write at home in the morning.  I wait for that perfect three or four-hour stint in the quiet room at my library.  

At 7:30 this morning (Tuesday), I feel like a human statue in NYC Times Square that must scratch an itch.  I announce to Bill and Liam that I’m going to write in the office; Will is still in bed.  Then, I post my signs on the two doors.  Our office is a through-way between the dining room and the hallway to the kitchen.  Once inside I need blinders to create a tunnel vision that blocks the over-stuffed shelves, the laundry on the chair, and the piles of paperwork.  The conditions are not optimal.

Afternoons at the Institute meant one of two things: Three days a week, I went with my fellow non-fiction writers to a three-hour workshop to critique one another’s work with our professor.  The other two days, I went with my fellow writers of all genres - poetry, fiction, and non-fiction -- around 75 of us in total, to an hour-long Q&A session with a visiting writer.

At the first of the six workshops, I learned a new verb: “workshopped.” I belong to two critique groups near Boston where we “critique” one another's work, but in a collegiate setting, we “workshopped” each other's writing.  Before each class, we read three sets of manuscripts and commented on them – that could mean up to 90 pages of reading and note-making before each workshop.  In class, for a half hour or so, each writer’s work was workshopped by the students and then by the professor. 

My takeaways: I pulled my submissions for this workshop out of a line of writing that I send to you every week, and for someone who has never read my essays, I need to add specific details about the characters I mention, as well as the farm equipment I describe, aka: in the mouse story, I mention a “combine” with no explanation of what it is other than “big equipment."  Phillip Lopate thought my writing reads like a column in a regional newspaper, and in our conference after class, he encouraged me to submit my essays to regional Midwest papers and to magazines or the “back cover” short article.

On my 52nd birthday and my last day at the Institute, I met with Lorrie Goldensohn, the poet/writer who reviewed my 200-page manuscript.  She earned her Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Iowa and was an Assistant Professor in writing, most recently at Vassar College, before she retired in 2000. She has a background in writing and in the Midwest!  I came away from our two-hour meeting with fresh ideas.  Where my strengths are in relating place, people, and processes.  Where I need to pump up the essays a bit before I publish a book.  Where omission of autobiographical information leaves gaping holes.  

While I’ve been attacking this project as a collection of essays, Goldensohn suggested I read memoirs to see how other writers create a whole picture of themselves and establish a readily identifiable voice.  She asked me what I read.  Do you know that the only authors I could come up with were Shel Silverstein, David Shannon, Mick Inkpen, and JK Rowling?  I just said I didn’t read much.  If I want to improve as a writer, I need to read more.  And to do so as a _writer_.

I left the Institute with new perspectives, paths of opportunity, solid publishing ideas, and renewed optimism.  

Yet, the libraries still don’t open until 9:00 a.m.

Here in our office, the cow clock has just mooed the 9:00 a.m. hour -- as the robot stood guard.