Teachers and Artists
I’ve had an ongoing discussion with a friend about how to choose a workshop leader when planning for a conference. She maintains that she must more or less sit at the feet of someone she considers a master writer. I have found that the best artists don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For many of them, the process comes so naturally and intuitively that they can’t break it down so that others can follow or learn from their experience. Sewanee confirmed my assessment. I observed one noted author whose work I greatly admire, delivering brilliant monologues, full of extended conceits extempore, but whose comments I suspect were of little value to the participants on whose writing he was commenting. On the other hand, another writer whose work does not exactly sweep me away turned out to be an excellent teacher and delivered perhaps the best craft lecture of the conference. Neither of the above were my group leaders, Christine Schutt and Barry Hannah, both of whom are teachers as well as artists of highest caliber.
I’ve been to three now–Squaw Valley Community of Writers (thrice), Napa Valley, and Sewanee. Squaw was my first and takes place in the very country–the high Sierra–where my novel The Maxwell Vendetta is set (Access the first chapter through the “writing” page.). A number of writers who are more or less regulars there deal with California and Western history. Oakley Hall, the founder of the conference as well as of the renowned MFA program at University of California, Irvine. Max Byrd, whose latest novel, Shooting the Sun, follows several successful novelized biographies of presidents: Grant, Jackson, Jefferson. Jim Houston, latest novel Snow Mountain Passage about the Donner Party, and Jim Holliday, author of the gold rush classic, The World Rushed In. So Squaw was extremely compatible with my work. The conference is organized to expose everyone to a range of authors and others in the publishing business by assigning a different discussion leader to each group each day. The advantages of meeting writers, agents, editors, and publishers on such an intimate basis are obvious. Also obvious are the disadvantages compared to the way the other two conferences are organized.
Napa pairs up a group and an author for the entire week. you gets to know the leader much better, of course. I very much enjoyed the time with Chang Rae Lee, a low-key guy who talked little, but made his points count. Napa’s housing is a bit of problem, most of it expensive and located far off-site. Readings were conducted at different venues around the valley, which made for good sight-seeing and wine-tasting, though it was a bit disunifying for me.
Sewanee, I assume because of their money, is able to pair authors/groups, lasts long enough and is self-contained enough that you can get acquainted with just about anyone you want. I guess I have to sample Breadloaf to get the full range, but I’m skipping next year. Don’t want to turn into a conference junkie. Would you?