Fire dancers, doing the wave, and drinking like Hemingway

We’re writing about contests and conferences this week here on the Debutante Ball. I love them both! I got my first short story published and made the only money ($500!) I’ve ever made from a short story with our local Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest. Other than the horrific picture of me, it was an amazing experience and really kickstarted my career as a writer.

But what I really want to tell you about today is a writing workshop I went to a few years ago that was one of those experiences that changed me, not just as a writer but also as a person. And that’s not something I say lightly.

imagesIt was 2010. I had been through a recent breakup and really wasn’t over it. I just wanted to wallow and be by myself. But I’d taken a week off from work, paid a nice bit of money, and submitted a short story to be workshopped at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland. I was going to work with Karen Russell whose writing I adore. But that Saturday, when I was supposed to be packing my car and my mountain bike for the long drive up to Portland to be there for registration on Sunday, I was wallowing.

“You’re going,” my friend Christine told me. I always call Christine when I need a kick in the pants. She’s got the best ass-kicking boots in the business. I’m sure I gave her some wah-wah-heartbreak-wah-wah back. But Christine doesn’t falter. “You’re going and you’re going to have a good time. So just forget the bike and buy a plane ticket. Email me when you get there.” As usual with Christine, I did was I was told.

The workshop was on the campus of Reed College in Portland. I checked in and found my dorm room with the sheets that you could see through and the bathroom down the hall. I started composing the spite-filled email I was going to send to Christine. I got unpacked and started to explore. I ran into Karen Russell, this writer I was and still am in awe of, and introduced myself as being in her workshop. “You’re Shelly King!” she cried. “I loved your short story! Let’s take a walk. I want to know all about you.” Seriously. I’m not kidding. This really happened. I was soon to learn Karen is one of the kindest people ever.

Fire Dancers
Fire Dancers

And that was just the beginning. To call my week at Tin House amazing and wonderful would be an insult. It was so far beyond that, I don’t think words have been invented for it. The other writers in my workshop were so talented and so much fun. We spent the week hanging out together, talking about writing, talking about life, drinking beer late at night in the quad watching a group of fire dancers. (It’s Reed College, OK?)

Our crazy crew of writers
Our crazy crew of writers

The workshop with Karen was the best I’ve ever had. Her insights into everyone’s submissions was so thoughtful and well presented that I felt like I could do anything with my writing. I was learning as much from other people’s critiques as I was my own. As a workshop leader, Karen was positive, kind, but also tough in pushing us to be better writers. I loved every minute of it.

At night we’d go listen to readings from the workshop leaders–Steve Almond, Nick Flynn, Whitney Otto, Joy Williams, Antonya Nelson, and many more–that made my insides crackle with electricity. When it was Karen’s turn, she was a little nervous so we all conspired to sit right up front and do the wave when she stood up to read. It was a marvel.

images (1)At night, we’d all drink like Hemingway until I stumbled back to my dorm room and wrote like a mad woman until I fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning.

I loved that week. I’ve stayed in touch with nearly everyone I met there, including Karen who continues to be generous mentor. When I got home, I felt like I was a completely different person than when I left–confident, determined, basking in the energy of all the wonder of that week. And two weeks later, I met the man I married. I’m not saying Tin House made me a better writer and helped me find the love of my life, but I’m saying that after being renewed at Tin House, I was ready for anything, even love.

After I got home from Tin House, and thanked my friend Christine, I got a package in the mail from a fellow workshop member. It was a CD and a letter. She’d made a mix CD. Each track was a song she felt like was the soundtrack to each of our short stories we worked on in the workshop. I love that CD and I still listen to it when I need a bit of courage in front of a blank page.

I haven’t been to a conference or workshop since that Tin House of 2010. To be honest, I think that workshop ruined all others for me. I just couldn’t bear it if it wasn’t as great. But I encourage any writer to find their perfect workshop or conference for themselves. Ask around. See what people’s experiences have been. Because when you find the right one, there’s nothing better in all the world.

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. Wow — what a story, Shelly! That’s one thing I’ve never had and often wish for — a writing mentor. You are definitely lucky to have had the experience, and you’re probably right that it will ruin any future conference you attend 🙂

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