Every July for the past three years I have spent two weeks at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, attending the New York State Summer Writers Institute. For me, it’s two weeks spent as far away from my normal life of software engineering and management as I can imagine. When I was young, nothing mattered more to me than literature and writing, but the need to earn a living took me away from that pursuit for most of my adult life. That and the lack of stunning Brett Easton-like success as a writer in my early twenties is what led to my life in the software business. I finally started writing again about four years ago. I’m not sure how, but when I started again, my writing seemed to be better than I had remembered. I was too intimidated to write fiction at first, so I tried to start with something simple, a piece of nonfiction, so that I wouldn’t have the pressure to be “creative,” but would help me practice some basic skills. Setting a scene, evoking mood, and maybe some dialog. The end result was a personal essay called “After the Fire,” which was later published in The Oregon Literary Review. More essays followed and then finally some fiction.
As my interest awakened, I started feeling a need to be around other writers and artists. I fondly remembered my college days where my circle of friends included not only writers, but also poets, actors, painters, anarchists, Marxists, vegetarians, and various other misfits. I had spent my final two years in college with at least one writing workshop each semester. I wasn’t about to abandon a successful and fulfilling career to give in to a midlife crisis, much to the relief of my family, but I still needed to feel some connection to other people who view the world from an artistic (“odd”) point of view. I decided that a two week immersion at a writers conference would be enough to satisfy this need without causing too much disruption.
I decided on the New York State Writers Institute conference for several reasons. First, the conference was in Saratoga Springs, of which I had fond memories. I went to school at SUNY Albany and I had spent some time in Saratoga Springs. It’s a beautiful place, especially in summer. Second, I had a somewhat remote connection with the Writers Institute. The New York State Writers Institute was founded in 1984, two years after I graduated from college by William Kennedy, who had taught at SUNY Albany. Although I hadn’t studied with Kennedy, I had known him slightly from just hanging around the English Department. Finally, it was the writers who taught and read at the institute. Many years earlier, I had read Mary Gordon’s Final Payments and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Having recently returned to reading literary fiction, I was now captivated by Robinson’s gorgeous prose in Gilead. Both were teaching at the institute that summer, as they have for many years. I sent in a writing sample, an early draft of a story called “A Couple,” and was utterly surprised when I was accepted into the intermediate writing workshop. I was far too intimidated to even apply for the master class taught by Gordon and Robinson.
And so, with the blessing of my wife and daughter, I packed up my car and drove up to Saratoga that first summer, with the first two chapters of my still unfinished novel, Winslow. Needless to say, since I returned for the next two summers, it was a wonderful experience. There were a few things that were a little unsettling at first. Age, for one. Although the students of all ages attend the conference, and while I was far from being the oldest one there, I certainly wasn’t the youngest one. Most of the students were undergraduates or graduate students. There were times that first summer where I felt a bit like Roy Hobbs from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Also, as an undergraduate, I’d always gotten a queasy feeling whenever my work was coming up for discussion in a workshop and that hadn’t changed, but the workshop and the entire environment was so supportive that I never felt like I didn’t belong there.
During the three years I have attended, I’ve had the privilege to participate in workshops conducted by some wonderful teachers: Elizabeth Benedict, Kathryn Harrison, and Gish Jen. The most enjoyable parts of going to these conferences, however, have been the evening readings (which are followed by equally enjoyable beer and wine receptions). I’ll never forget the inspiring creative buzz I felt on those leaving the lecture halls on those moonlight summer nights. Many of the writers who read at the conference read new work before it has been published. Some moments that stand out in my mind are Elizabeth Benedict reading a very moving personal essay called “Mad Dog Taborsky & Me,” one year and another year reading a hilarious and adult-rated essay on internet porn. Yes, she is indeed, “wickedly entertaining.” Another experience that I’ll never forget is Joyce Carol Oates reading from her novella, “Papa at Ketchum, 1961,” before it was published in her book Wild Nights. More than simply mimicking Papa’s writing style, she captured his desperation at the end of his life. Sentences rang out like gunshots and the only way I can describe the experience is shattering.
The most inspiring performances at the readings, however, were the poets. Invariably, they were the ones who sent me off in the night ready to try anything as a writer. The purity of their focus on language, words and words alone, helped to see all over again that every single word matters. I’m not really a poet myself, but the few poems I have written were written in the days and weeks that followed these readings. As poor as they are, my poems owe their existence to Carolyn Forche, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, and Campbell McGrath.
I’m hoping to begin a low-residency MFA program next year, so I won’t have enough vacation time to be able to attend both the conference and my on-campus residencies. so this year was probably my last trip to Saratoga. When I left Saratoga for the last time this past July, it was with a bittersweet feeling for many reasons, but it was also with a conference inspired poem called, “Compartments,” which has been published in Mississippi Crow.
Writers and poets mentioned:
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