I should have known better. I’d delayed decades before getting my MFA. For years I’d told myself that if my books were getting published then I didn’t need a degree in creative writing. Once I finally admitted that the quality of my books (not to mention my reading habits and teaching ability) could bear improvement, whether they were published or not, I found that I had at least as much to learn as my unpublished classmates. And being a student made me feel younger! The same process repeated as I first resisted and then embraced the idea of applying for this year’s Sirenland Writers Conference. Yes, I’d taught many workshops myself, but I needed help with my current novel, and Sirenland instructors Anthony Doerr, Jim Shepard, and Dani Shapiro (who will be Goddard MFA’s visiting writer in Vermont this summer) are literary superstars. It didn’t hurt that this improbable conference is held at Le Sirenuse, a five-star hotel in Positano, Italy – surely one of the most beautiful locations on the planet. The conference website sent a kind of thrill through me that I hadn’t felt since prospecting for MFA programs. Ditto when I made the cut of 30 attendees.
Just don’t be an asshole, I told myself while waiting at the Naples train station to meet up with the first of my fellow “Sirenlanders.” A show of authority, confidence, and experience is helpful if not mandatory when teaching a class, but humility is rule number one when the roles are reversed. For this week, I was a novice. Others were in charge. My job was simply to pay attention and make the most of whatever they had to offer. I didn’t even have to try to hide my insecurities. If my work weren’t a mess I wouldn’t have come!
As in graduate school, my fellow students proved to be a smart and talented bunch. Spanning more than 50 years in age, they included journalists, film industry veterans, visual artists, marketing pros, and plenty of other MFA grads and veteran teachers. All but two, as it happened, were women. I was well in my element and soon began to relax.
Then we met the faculty. Guggenheim Fellow and National Book Award finalist Anthony Doerr sat at my table at our kick-off dinner and showered us with the irrepressible enthusiasm of a man gobsmacked by his good fortune. Dani Shapiro, who founded Sirenland nine years ago with her husband, screenwriter Michael Maren, has a more reflective, benevolent demeanor, but when I remarked that some writers programs subtly segregate teachers and students, she said with emphasis, “We don’t do that here.” And my workshop instructor, Jim Shepard, who’s a regular at Sirenland, obviously takes this mandate to heart.
The author of six acclaimed novels and four story collections, Jim has been teaching creative writing for more than 30 years, currently at Williams and Warren Wilson, and I’d venture that every one of his students tags him as the best teacher they’ve ever had. The splendor of Positano and other luminary company notwithstanding, Jim’s insights and strategies for reading, writing, and teaching would be for me the real rewards of this conference.
The preparation he’d clearly invested in our work, close-reading each piece multiple times and heavily marking up the pages with “subliminal coordinates,” “rate of revelation,” “orientation,” and other vital marginalia, was only the beginning. Each of Jim’s workshops was an interactive performance that opened with a poem. William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Lux, Carl Dennis, Louise Glück. It didn’t matter that we were all fiction writers; Professor Shepard wanted to impress upon us the primacy of meaning and exacting language. After the day’s poem he paced like a maestro for three hours, scrawling First Principles on the white board, acting out our characters, tearing our stories apart. He pounced on our most egregious gaps of logic, then showed us how to “interrogate the weirdness” of what our subconscious was really trying to say.
Problems that I’d felt but been unable to identify in my novel suddenly became crystal clear. The proportion was all off. The rate of revelation stalled early on. I was taking far too long to crack open the “deeper pits of shame and guilt” that my characters were far too effectively concealing. Like almost everyone in our group, I was letting my main characters off too many hooks, protecting them from the true consequences of their actions.
Jim didn’t offer solutions. This week was about diagnosis rather than prescription. And diagnosis was exactly what I needed, especially since the problems being exposed involved not just mechanics but the soul of the work.
“Every character is selling something,” Jim said more than once. “What’s that sales pitch trying to hide?” This tension between pretense and shame, I realized, is what generates the deepest dramatic heat. It’s the tension most often lacking in my students’ work. It’s the tension that’s slowest to develop in my own. And yet it’s inescapable in life. How else to explain the internal wall that I’d erected between being a teacher and being a student?
I left Positano with a new lease on my writing, a wealth of new insights to share with my students, and a profound sense of gratitude. As Socrates said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Perhaps the most valuable lesson I brought home is that there’s no end to the need for new kindling, no matter who you are.
Photo of Sirenland by Claudia Mozillo