03/11/2010 11:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Age, Writing and Workshops

Any idea that I was still a young woman was temporarily dispelled the first few days of the annual Tin House Writers Conference at Reed College in Portland Oregon. Organized by the cutting edge literary magazine of the same name, Tin House provides a crash course in writing for writers -- emerging, hopeful, discouraged, promising, full-time, part-time, no-time -- all serious. Lectures, panels and readings by established authors of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry round out a weeklong program of mind-bending complexity and richness. And though I didn't set out to question what I'd decided to do with my life after I'd lived halfway through it, the first days I felt less like an up-and-comer than a what-the-f-er.

I had no idea what to expect from the conference, or what I wanted to take away from it. I went there on the suggestion of a writer friend, who is also a respected teacher. She saw that I was a bit unmoored from working in complete isolation, not just physical. I have no regular readers, belong to no group, have no mentor in my life. What motivates me are the words in my head that struggle to march single-file onto a page to form stories I want to tell. Fiction writing is my second career, and most of the time (when not distracted by bathroom tiles that need cleaning with a toothbrush) I can't write fast enough. But my friend sensed I needed context -- to know more about the profession I was trying to write my way into.

It was hard not to feel like I had arrived in a place I had no business being. I landed in the quad on Sunday morning, weighted down with bags like an exchange student from Pakistan. I lugged my suitcases (I broke my carry-on-only rule, made after years of baggage-claim banditry mostly in Warsaw Pact countries....I'm dating myself already). I had packed an electric fan, towels, manuscripts, computer, a reading light, and bedding. As I struggled with an errant wheel, I walked again and again past a young man chatting on his cell phone. I was sweating in my raincoat, swearing and directionally, way off course. He mouthed, multiple times, putting his hand over the receiver, "Did you find your dorm yet?"

My room had the charm of an IRA safe house, with its twelve and a half-watt ceiling-mounted bulb and window blocked by a cement grate. Nosing around the rest of the dormitory, it was clear this was mere bad luck. The other rooms, though not kitted out with rosewood armoires or Neal's Yard amenities, were spacious (even sprawling), comfortable and had windows you could see out of.

I spent the first couple of meals piling on the salad bar croutons, and sitting alone in the dining hall, making my best to appear that I was lost only in thought. In between classes and lectures, I continued my ruse to look busy, as I rushed back to my dorm, where, prone on my student bed, I would read from a stack of books and magazines. I checked Facebook to see which of my friends were presently in the departure lounge at Heathrow. I called my kids who were having a ball and couldn't have cared less that I was alone in my little room somewhere across the country. I got a Masters in Foreign Relations a year ago, wanting to learn narratives of contemporary global crises so that I could weave them into my fiction. For the kids, mother was at school again. Yawn.

I sucked it in and introduced myself to lots of people; a couple of them were writer/teachers whose faces I hadn't recognized but whose work I admired. They were approachable -- part of the mix. Everyone ate, drank and talked in the quad. Quads -- they take you back. It was hard not to feel a notch below the young and hip. I have no visible piercings, wear no Buddy Holly glasses. But I did have a decade or two of life on many conference attendees -- years in which I was too busy chasing a reliable paycheck to finish all the fiction stories I had started. I don't envy anyone's youth, but I envy the time they have -- in my case, the years I was not writing is time I can never get back. These kids, with newly-minted MFA's, seemed way ahead of me. All the things I knew seemed, in the context of a writer's conference, suddenly meaningless. And when the talk turned to submission guidelines of the various literary journals, I felt something akin to panic.

Many people at the conference, however, were my age and older. This was a huge relief. They came to Tin House -- as I reckon I did -- to hone their skills, to listen to big-time writers who inspired them, to find a teacher and support. Many were starting new or parallel careers as memoirists or poets or novelists, and wanted to practice the craft and discipline of writing while immersed in a community of equally-obsessed and perhaps crazy peers. They came also for feedback, which improves the work and thickens the skin, allegedly.

The morning workshop was the spine of the week; there were eleven of us with a wide age span, and we had all chosen the brilliant writer Jim Shepard of Williams College to be our teacher. At the beginning of each class, he read a poem. It was a subtle form of wizardry -- the best teachers ram nothing down your throat. The poem was a warm-up for our ears -- it opened us up to listening and ultimately, to reading. Jim is a teacher of writing, and a great one, but he placed equal emphasis on teaching how to read as writers -- to be "rigorous, fastidious and optimistic" in both. It hadn't occurred to me that knowing how to read was essential to knowing how to write.

I was happy to learn that "workshopped" is not a synonym for "public flogging," but skin-thickening, too, is a skill to be learned. Still, I took it well when one person -- unfortunately a very smart one -- described as "soft porn" parts of my not-too-graphic short story about an erotic obsession. I had not been in a workshop since college in the eighties...back in the days when tattoos were found on Navy Midshipmen and prison lifers but not on the ankles of gentle young poets at writer's conferences. It was a while ago, and criticism still refuses to build my character.

It was a relief to land safe and sound in class every morning, where we did serious work but laughed a lot. We gelled as a team -- like a family, only better. The contentment I felt there was a subtle admonishment of me to lighten up the rest of the time. Especially when the previous night brought back some freshman kegger jitters.

My friend the writer told me, regarding conferences. "You don't understand them when you're in them." A lot will fall away from my week there, but more will be left standing. The light in the outdoor amphitheater when listening to great contemporary writers read their work each evening. Jim's poems. The writer Steve Almond's mindblowing talk on obsession. My own reading, the second to last day. I read from my novel -- a book about marriage, compromise, and the attempt to find salvation in an old lover. The crowd was sparse -- nothing like the SRO crowds that turned out nightly for Walter Kirn, Ann Hood, Karen Shepard, Kevin Young, Tony Doerr, Ron Hansen, and Keith Lee Morris, among other resident authors. Two dozen or so people were there for me, all students, half of whom were my classmates. We showed up each day to cheer each other on. The afternoon sun was in my eyes, and the bleachers dissolved into a wash of light. I have given many speeches and toasts; I love a podium, to clear my throat, test the mike, and catch that person's eye in the audience. When I began to speak, my book, which lives at present in a word file, came to life. Characters I made up -- Anna, Art and Jeff -- took their first breaths. I had five minutes to read but what was the rush? I had all the time in the world.