I'm now at the end of the 2008 Sycamore Hill Writers Conference, which was held this year in the mountains of North Carolina. It was an intense week. For obvious reasons I'm sworn to secrecy about what was said during the critique sessions themselves, but I can talk generally about the experience. This is my third time at Sycamore Hill. Each year has been different, for the combination of writers chaanges every year. This year saw an absence of some of the people I most associate with Syc Hill (John Kessel, Karen Joy Fowler, Jim Kelly, Maureen McHugh, and Kelly Link), which made me wonder beforehand whether it would be really, really different. (It wasn't.) This year's combination included, besides me, Judith Berman, Richard Butner, Ted Chiang, Haddayr Copley-Woods, Andy Duncan, Gavin Grant, Eileen Gunn, Alice Kim, Meghan McCarron, Karen Meisner, Chris Nakashima-Brown, and Michaela Roessner.
The week is always grueling. Participants arrive on Saturday afternoon, do orientation that evening as well as collect copies of everyone's story. Critique sessions start at 9:30 on Sunday morning. Cafeteria meals are served three times a day, at 8 a.m., 12:30 noon, and 6 p.m. Staff at the facility ring a bell at 7:30 in the morning to warn everyone they've got thirty minutes to prepare for breakfast. At 7:50 and 8 the bell is rung again, and breakfast begins. The ten-minute warning bell is rung at the two other meals. Most of the people sharing the facilities with us are goldsmiths; Sycamore Hill gets assigned two of the many large round tables filling the dining hall. At meals we seat ourselves at random, so that most meals featured a shifting combination of people sharing the same table. Critique sessions were scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., with the third critique of the day following ten or fifteen minutes after the end of the second one. Most of the rest of our time was spent reading the stories and writing critiques for them and in conversation. We all went short of sleep this week. I regularly rose at 6:15 except for this morning, when I needed to get up at 5:30 in order to finish preparing for the final two critique
sessions held this morning. Some people stayed up really late.
We did enjoy a few breaks in the routine. Last night, for instance, we took seventy minutes out of our reading time to watch a 1940s horror flick in which pacifist Satanists [sic] harrow the life of a rich young woman (whom they fleeced and then pushed into suicide, in supposed accordance with their Gandhian principles), enticingly titled The Seventh Victim. (Said film makes an appearance in the story Andy Duncan brought to be critiqued this week). On Tuesday night we went out to dinner at a restaurant off the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Monday night we had a Scotch and Bourbon party. Other breaks included walks, hikes, and runs, entirely delightful in this mountain location.
Does this sound like an easy schedule? After all, you may be thinking, we had each come with already drafted (or almost drafted) stories in hand, so how could it possibly be grueling? If all we had to do for our critiques was read the story and then give a list of positives and negatives (which is what many workshop critiques amount to), there would indeed have been a lot of time to party and just goof off. But Sycamore Hill critiques involve a great deal more than merely discussing what's "good" and "bad" in a story, or even what "works" or "doesn't work." As in the previous years I attended, many writers brought stories they were stretching themselves to write, stories with challenging technical problems. In every case, critiquing the story meant excavating its narrative structure and addressing aspects of craft using highly conscious, sophisticated approaches. This is something that naive writers simply can't do. To perform this task two or three times a day and then bring one's critique to the table and engage with the other eleven critiques presented is hard work requiring a level of concentration that eventually becomes exhausting.
I've attended relatively few workshops in my life because unless they're of this caliber they end up taking more from me than I give to them. But Sycamore Hill is different. I think it's fair to say that this week I learned something from each critique session I participated in. If you already know quite a lot about how narrative works and want to understand more, Sycamore Hill can help you do that.
Sycamore Hill is also rewarding in briefly creating a sense of community among colleagues that writers aren't often afforded. This is not only achieved by Sycamore Hill's "no assholes rule." There's something about bringing such a disciplined level of concentration to one another's work, with the earnest intention of helping the writer to find a way to make it a stronger and better piece of fiction, that inspires mutual respect. And, of course, one does tend to bond with people who've survived the mutual risk-taking that is involved in a workshop like Sycamore Hill. During this week we each surrendered a piece of our writing to the scarily sharp scalpels of our colleagues and wielded our own scalpels in turn with an honesty many people can't bring themselves to essay in critiques of friends' work (much less in reviews). I think for me it's the courage to be honest and the humility to accept no-holds-barred critiques from colleagues that makes Sycamore Hill what it is.
It's time to join the others on the porch, where we'll hang out and talk and drink for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow's a travel day, but I'll be back posting on the weekend, probably-- at the very least, a photo or two of the group.