I got back from the Winter Getaway late Monday. It was a great weekend.
I arrived on Friday knowing almost no one, and I felt a little awkward in the crowd of tables, especially as returning participants were greeting each other all around me. I had never been to a writing conference before; the closest thing I had experienced was the (giant) annual AWP conference, which has always left me bewildered and self-doubting. Fortunately, Peter and Amanda, the Getaway’s organisers, have created a space that is powerfully welcoming, and I got to know more and more people each day I was at the Seaview hotel, a process that began almost as soon as Friday night orientation began. We all headed around the ballroom clutching a playing card, looking for partners, and I was lucky that a couple of the scholarship judges recognised my name-badge, and introduced me to their circle.
I met many people quickly, talked, drank, watched the disco from a distance. I shared a room with a remarkable poet, Rocky, who carried around a toy monkey, and sometimes wore a jester’s hat.
Saturday morning I woke too late for yoga, but in time for breakfast, and then went to my class with Richard Weems. The ten of us in the class had a writing prompt (show two people trying to achieve a tangible goal, the frustrations of which reveal something deeper about their relationship). At ten a.m. we were released to write, and I tap-tap-typed a short story during the two and a half hours we were given. Then we met in the afternoon to share and discuss each piece. Class ended, there was a little time free, then the author of Boardwalk Empire gave a speech on researching and publishing his book, the source of the now famous HBO series. I had heard vague stories that once the book had been published, Martin Scorsese had simply read it, called, and the rights had been bought. This was revealed as a pleasant fantasy: Nelson Johnson spent twenty years researching and writing the book, then struggled over and over to get it published, and then, once it was published, laboured again and again to interest Hollywood in Nucky Johnson’s story, which made up the book’s middle chapters. The truth was not surprising. So much of this is perspiration.
I went out with new friends for dinner and drank much wine. The following morning I missed yoga again. The prompt for Sunday was to write a story using only imperatives, instructing the reader in something, as well as to include a recipe and recommend two acts that you (the writer) find morally abhorrent. Classmates produced some great pieces: “How to Become Invisible,” or “How to Make Love to a Werewolf.” Mine was “How to Pass among Mortals.” I read it at the late night open mic.
On Sunday evening, the four scholarship winners were presented with their awards (I have already posted mine back to my parents, as a tiny gesture of thanks for all their support), and after that ceremony lots of people wanted to talk to me and offer congratulations. The Winter Getaway is a very encouraging place, where people unaffectedly say nice things. In a corridor on Monday morning, one older gentleman told me congratulations for the scholarship, and asked how long I had been writing. I said eight years. He nodded, then said,
“For me, I have a wife, children, a home. I’m happy. I hope you can get those things too.”
I was reminded of Yeats’s old dilemma:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
I hoped that the stranger and not Yeats would be correct.
After the scholarship presentations, the poet Stephen Dunn got up to read. If you haven’t heard Dunn’s poetry, you seize any chance you get. He is the real thing. He manages to write poems about everyday life in New Jersey (he was and is a teacher at Stockton College) in seemingly simple free verse, which yet contain enormously powerful insights and arguments. I was on the verge of crying out a request for the poem “Here and Now,” but he soon read it anyway, the poem he called “a better love song” to his wife Barbara. Downstairs in the hotel, there was an exhibit dedicated to Dunn, showing his drafting process of several poems, including this one, and I had already seen Dunn’s handwriting re-work this poem, paring down the final lines until there was nothing excess. The whole poem is here: here is the second half, each verse growing in certainty and power:
…Electricity may start things,
but if they’re to last
I’ve come to understand
a steady, low-voltage hum
must be arrived at. How else to offset
the occasional slide
into neglect and ill temper?
I learned, in time, to let heaven
go its mythy way, to never again
be a supplicant
of any single idea. For you and me
it’s here and now from here on in.
Nothing can save us, nor do we wish
to be saved.
Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We’ll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will.