Ah, the workshop-style writer's conference: Two parts dread, one part excitement. Studying with a prominent author you admire. Soaking in the wisdom of stellar faculty. Being intimidated, awed, or maybe not-so-impressed by your workshop-mates' work. Anything can happen. And it's always fun, and often educational, to get an inside glimpse into the more well-known ones as Lesley Green Leben does, below.
Over the last couple of years, it's been my good luck to have Lesley in my online classes, and as a writing coaching client. What a pleasure to see her work grow. She's a contributing writer to Grand Piano Passion and her essays and articles have also appeared online in More Magazine and Dan's Papers.
Please welcome Lesley Green Leben.
I pull myself out of bed, wash my face, and grab my small carry-on. Before I can yawn I am on the Hampton Jitney headed from my New York City apartment to Southampton, Long Island - a 92 mile distance - for the 12 day Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference. I have been accepted into the memoir workshop with the illustrious Mary Karr. I’m a fairly new writer (more verb than noun) and this is my first writers conference. I settle into my seat and pull out the memoir excerpts of my 12 classmates, each 10 pages, sent via e-mail, and read.
I suddenly realize that they're all really good. I'm overwhelmed by a wave of self-doubt: Am I good enough to be in this class? Will Mary like me? Will she like my writing? And most important, Will I have someone to eat lunch with every day? I picture myself sitting in a small plastic chair, alone at a big white metal table, trying to feign interest in my tuna fish sandwich. I tell myself that if I have to choose between Mary liking me or my writing, I would choose my writing because that is the way a real writer would think.
I walk into the lobby of Duke Lecture Hall where the attendees are gathering. People introduce themselves and I quickly meet a few of the 12 students in Mary's class, 11 women and 2 men. At 51, I was worried that I would be the oldest, but I discover instead that I am among the youngest. I also meet people taking other workshops: fiction with Meg Wolitzer or Melissa Bank; poetry with Billy Collins or Heather McHugh; memoir with Roger Rosenblatt or Matt Klam. Everyone is friendly.
The next day, I pop out of bed at 6:38 am (two hours earlier than normal), a routine that will continue the entire 12 days. Each morning, my mind is racing, bubbling with ideas from the numerous craft lectures and readings the day before, given by the fiction, memoir and poetry workshop leaders, as well as the writers Daniel Menaker, Marilyn Nelson, Renee Shafransky, Julie Sheehan, Emma Walton Hamilton, Joe Mantello, Jon Robin Baitz and others. I hop into my car, blast the radio, and vibrate my way to class.
Over the 10 days, we meet with the beautiful, brilliant Mary Karr (whom I dubbed "The Queen of Carnality") every other day, and workshop our 10-page memoir excerpts. The night before it is my turn, I'm nervous. I usually write short humorous essays but I submitted a serious essay about my dad. A few classmates told me that they were so moved by the piece they cried, so I feel confident Mary will like it.
I daydream how things will play out. Mary will hold my essay high above her head, then in her Texas twang say, "Miss Lesley, this is the most brilliant piece of writing I have read in a long time. Class, let's take a moment to applaud Lesley's piece." The next day Mary starts, "Miss Lesley," but the words coming out of Mary's mouth don't match my fantasy. I hear "Where's the carnality in the scene? Where’s the fearfulness, I don't see Dad's anger…"
I feel a stinging in my eyes and before I know it, I am crying. Big salty tears stream down my face from under my red framed glasses. Mary says, "Oh no, oh no" and jumps up to hug me. Other people hug me too because at this point we are already one big workshop family. I hear kind words from my classmates, yet I can't shake the feeling that it isn’t my writing being critiqued but me, personally.
Back in my room, I am able to separate my feelings a little better. Deep down, I know Mary is right, I can do better. I go back to my essay to write from the inside out as Mary taught us. I close my eyes and try to smell my mother's kitchen. I remember the big glob of emotion stuck in my throat whenever my father yelled at my mother, my nighttime ritual of tapping my night table an even number of times before bed, the pattern of the wallpaper in my childhood kitchen. I put it all in my story. On the last day we read a few edits; all our stories are more vivid.
The second week, three-day mini workshops are held in poetry, children's book writing, memoir, fiction, and playwriting. On a whim, I chose poetry with Star Black. I am the only non poet in the class and it is to Ms. Black's credit that I leave feeling like Maya Angelou. My snowball poem is extremely compact: "only rolled a few inches" (for you non-poets, not a good thing), but I challenged myself. I write a sonnet, a haiku, a name poem, a Catullus (great for getting your aggressions out), and others.
There are readings every night after dinner by well-known authors like James Salter, Jim Lehrer, and Ursula Hegi, followed by a wine reception. The conference culminates with a group reading (one page double-spaced) in the auditorium -- a great way to support the members of your workshop and hear pieces from other genres. Everyone is a bit nervous, like turning your skis downhill, but there is a great sense of accomplishment afterwards.
What a wonderful experience; I encourage everyone to apply. If you are accepted, trust that you have earned the right to be there. If you're still feeling insecure, I have compiled a few tips to help you better fit in:
1. Say you read The New Yorker. (Even if you don't.)
2. A couple of Proust quotes go a long way. (Google "Famous Proust Quotes")
3. As you listen to the poetry readings, which can be particularly dense and esoteric, knit your brow and nod.
5. Be extremely self-deprecating and insecure about your own writing: no one trusts a confident writer.