Last week I participated in Writers in Paradise, the annual writers' conference at Eckerd College. I encountered the conference first during my senior year of high school, when a friend invited me to see author Tim O'Brien read from his novel, The Things They Carried, as part of WIP's evening reading series. I was familiar with Eckerd and had visited often, since my father is an EC professor and runs their International Cinema Series. However, I had never been to a literary event on campus before - I hadn't known about them. Witnessing WIP for the first time in high school was an important moment, because I had recently applied for admission to Eckerd College; although I wasn't sure if it would be the right fit for me, I was glad to learn that Eckerd's Creative Writing program allowed its students to apply to WIP for course credit, and that someday I might return as a participant.
After I entered my Eckerd education (studying Creative Writing and Visual Art) I regularly attended the January WIP readings, but I wasn't able to join the conference as a participant until my senior year. This year, I was lucky enough to be placed in my top choice workshop: the Short Fiction Mini-shop with Lan Samantha Chang, whose short stories I admired. Rather than the typical six days, this workshop spanned three days and contained half the number of participants in other WIP workshops. The small size of our group allowed us to spend over an hour and a half on each participant's submission, and left us additional time to discuss topics from living a writer's life to the importance of pacing in short fiction.
I was impressed by my classmates' and instructor's thorough reading and thoughtful comments, and with the clarity of each participant's distinct written voice. In the end, I learned as much from workshopping the others' drafts as I did from the comments on my own work-in-progress. Additionally, I couldn't help but compare this workshop to the seven writing classes I've taken during my college career. I found the greatest similarity to be the structure: each round began with the author reading an excerpt of their work, then falling silent as peers discussed memorable features of the story, and areas of possible improvement. One difference, however, was Chang's approach to each story; which I could only describe as "both serious and compassionate" whenever I was asked by members of other sections.
After a few days' reflection, I think what I meant by "serious and compassionate" was that, from the beginning of the first round of workshop until the end of the fifth, I got the impression that my work and my peers' work was important. Too often, writers' hands are pinned to our desks by the self-sabotaging question: "is my work worth it?" We worry that no reader will care about the stories and poems we have carefully pieced together. Or, we lose touch with the heart of our stories in an effort to make them technically "perfect," "impressive," or at the least "interesting" to imaginary readers. We forget why we write in the first place, which is -- to borrow a phrase from Russell Banks (who gave an "anti-craft lecture" on the final day of WIP) — to cultivate our capacities for attention and honesty.
Writers in Paradise reminded me why I write, but also gave me direction as I consider what kind of writer and reader I want to be. For example, Chang modeled what it means to be an attentive, enthusiastic, and supportive — but not flattering -- reader of others' work. She reminded me that it's equally important to approach others' stories in workshop as a comrade-in-creative-arms as it is to be a meticulous editor. I will carry this forward, along with the numerous lessons gleaned from the rest of WIP's events and activities, to my upcoming, final (!!!) college workshops.