Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sycamore Hill 2011, pt.2

I'm just hours from beginning my week teaching at Clarion West. and I'm now a few weeks post-Sycamore Hill, which I never finished reporting on. (I've been battling an upper respiratory infection aggravated by allergies.) As I've been moving away from the memory of Sycamore Hill and begun looking forward to Clarion West, I've been thinking about how both workshops are modeled on the Milford workshops of the mid-fifties, and yet are actually very different. Maureen McHugh once tried explaining Sycamore Hill to some of the goldsmiths sharing the retreat space; she characterized it as a "master workshop for experienced writers." She had in mind that a lot of Syc Hill attendees teach writing classes, either in college or university creative writing programs or in workshops like Clarion and Clarion West. Although Sycamore Hill tends to be a high-energy week, the writers bring finished stories, and they write critiques, not stories. At Clarion West, the students produce a story a week as well as delivering brief (three-minute rather than ten-minute) critiques of one another's work. And they do this for six weeks.

I don't think I can make any other comparisons beyond that, since I didn't attend Clarion West as a student myself. But what I find most satisfying and sometimes amazing about Sycamore Hill is the level of technical craft discussion. Around the workshop table, that discussion tends to zoom in on very specific rather than general situations. But certain themes emerge out of those workshop discussions, themes that spontaneously erupt into the conversations we have at meals and in other social situations.A couple of years ago, the role of voice continually cropped up in discussions of several of that year's stories. The narrative voice, in each case, played a prominent role in the story, and sometimes created ambiguities that critiquers either liked and wanted more of or distrusted or even detested. This year we found ourselves discussing metafictional narratives as well as the use of nonfictional modes of narrative (where the text might or might not actually be fictional). To what extent must a story riffing on another text be comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with the original mastertext? The question, of course, was in part a practical one, of great interest to the two authors of metafictional stories. But the issue also, of course, raised a more general question about whether such stories ought to be crafted in such a way that they can engage and entertain readers as stand-alone stories, even when their readers are unfamiliar with the mastertext. Though we never took a vote, my impression is that the group take was that while making such stories stand-alone was desirable for reaching a larger audience, it wasn't aesthetically necessary (i.e., it was necessary only to the extent that market considerations mattered). I suspect such an attitude had more to do with the composition of the group than anything else. I can easily imagine other writers insisting that only "universally" intelligible stories were worth writing.

Another recurring subject: whether or not we know a story's any good before we get feedback we trust. The answer to this varied from person to person and seemed to have little to do with how long the person had been writing. It strikes me that either way, such a feeling about new work must be the result of a complex interior calculus I can't imagine trying to graph, involving that mysterious, private thing that happens when each of sits down and shifts into the space that produces the self that is the author. (I think perhaps I might be too superstitious even to want to be try graphing it: surely one is not meant to tamper with something that actually works?)

I mentioned fountain pens in my earlier post. It turns out that not only Veronica, but also both Christopher Rowe and Greg Frost prefer fountain pens. I don't recall actually making the decision to switch from using a fountain pen to using an unending series of felt tips (and later rollerballs), but I know it happened in the late seventies. I have the sneaking suspicion that it happened accidentally, on my losing my fountain pen and for one reason or another not replacing it. Or maybe it was because I began using the typewriter in the mid-seventies as much as possible. I do know that once I started composing essays and research papers on the typewriter, I lost the habit of working out my thoughts with pen and paper (except when I get stuck: writing longhand is still what I do when I need to get started or re-started and am getting a blank staring at the white space on the screen). At some point, the lovely flow of ink, which I've always associated with the flow of ideas, no longer seemed necessary. Perhaps working at the typewriter gave me a false sense of clarity? A few years later when I got my first computer, the experience was something else entirely. (Sitting in the dark in the middle of the night, with glowing green phosphorescent words spurting out across the screen...the Marq'ssan Cycle just seemed to write itself.)

At any rate, you all know I'll be very busy over the next week, right?

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