The summer of 1995 my husband dropped me off at camp, leaving me to my own devices far removed from the real world as I knew it. That's how I felt as I waved him goodbye standing in front of the white painted wooden barracks at Fort Worden.
From an article in Poets & Writers I had learned a conference was the place to be for aspiring and seasoned writers alike. I gathered ten pages worth of vignettes and poems that related to my childhood growing up in the Netherlands, and signed up for a fiction workshop with Janice Eidus at The Port Townsend Writers Conference on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
Janice presented us with guidelines for critiquing other people's work, with writing exercises, and valuable assessment of our manuscripts. I learned I had a knack for story analysis, didn't write fiction myself, and that being in the presence of authors who are willing to share their knowledge is inspiring to say the least. And last but not least, friendships forged at that time lasted way beyond the ten days at camp.
In 1997 I was submerged in the writing of a book length manuscript on loss, grief and recovery(*). By then I'd learned how lonesome a writer can get, I craved being in the presence of other word smiths. Apart from that, Fort Worden, the location where An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed, situated on the wooded hillside shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca had become a favorite destination. This time I signed up for an open enrollment workshop with fiction writer Robin Hemley.
The difference between a manuscript workshop and open enrollment was soon apparent; for the latter more true beginners signed up. While I hadn't wanted to workshop my WIP, and Robin's classes were fun and valuable, I missed the level of other writers I encountered in the earlier manuscript workshop. Still, even today, when I create a character, I use Robin's suggestions to pin down the characteristics in description without ever mentioning the underlying adverbs of adjectives. Another memorable plus point was a one-on-one conversation —in the laundromat of all places— about grief writing, with another faculty member, Bret Lott. While folding our clothes, Bret told me he published a book Reed's Beach about loss himself. His kind response to my description of my story encouraged me to continue with my project, even though infant loss would not be a subject that would appeal to a mass market.
Six years would go by before I returned to Centrum's Port Townsend Writers Conference. After I published my memoir Creative Acts of Healing in 1999, reading Robin Hemley's book Turning Life Into Fiction lead me to understand that could be my next aim.
In 2003 Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina appeared on Centrum's roster. She said she recognized the secrets in my writing, the double whammies, the layers of reality and separate reality. I had to keep in mind not merely the different departments in my writing, but my own veiled personality, and that truth is a many-layered thing. In my fiction I would have to show that. Something that's kept me busy ever since.
In 2008 I took advantage of a Creative Residency during the conference. A retreat, that gave me the opportunity to take in the atmosphere, and communicate with other writers, while not participating in any workshops.
Perhaps it's time to touch base with Dorothy Allison at the Port Townsend Writers Conference again? Or join up with Pam Houston, I remember the enthusiasm of her students in 1995. Centrum has both authors scheduled in the first of their two week-long conferences. Yes, two, from July 8-15 and 15-22, 2012.
Or perhaps I should give myself the gift of just being there, enjoy a retreat and the company of poets and writers at an amazing location.
(*) Published in 1999 by Paseo Press as Creative Acts of Healing: after a baby dies.
This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License