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American Past Time
A novel by Len Joy

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Disappointed, Not Discouraged

Well, maybe a little discouraged.

One critical component of my plan to become a writer is to attend a professional writer’s workshop each year. In past years I’ve attended workshops at University of Iowa, Tin House (Portland, OR) and Squaw Valley, CA. The Iowa program is open to all, but Tin House and Squaw Valley require a writing sample before they accept you. Last year I applied to the Sewanee Writer’s conference in Tennessee. It’s a great program, several of my writer friends on Zoetrope have attended, but more selective than the other programs I’ve attended. Last year I didn’t get in, so I re-applied to Squaw Valley and had a very productive week.

This year I considered boycotting Sewanee to punish them for denying me admission, but decided to be mature and give them another chance. While I professed to having low expectations, the reality is I never have low expectations. Before a race, I always predict my time and I’ve never once beaten my prediction. (I like to think I’m optimistic not delusional.)

And this year I had so much more to offer Sewanee – more publications, a new improved version of my novel and I had completed over a hundred reviews of other people’s work (on Zoetrope). I was certain the Sewaneeans would recognize the great contribution I could make to their conference. How could they not?

Obviously they found a way. In fact they found it a month faster than they did last year.

This blog is about writing and training for triathlons. While the two endeavors are in many obvious ways different (which is why I like the combination), they are similar in that for me to get better in either one I need professional training (not to be confused with professional help).

I can swim 2,500 yards every day, but I won’t improve significantly without someone to help me with my stroke mechanics. Bootstrapping to improved performance is almost impossible unless you are a very gifted athlete (or writer).

When I go to a Master’s swim class and my time for a hundred is 1:45 and the guy next to me is swimming 1:10 – it’s clear there is great opportunity for improvement. I can hire a swim coach and he or she can videotape my stroke and show me what I’m doing wrong and what I need to change. It’s not easy to make the changes, especially since I have to unlearn decades of bad form, but I can do it. And the improvement is measurable – the times come down. It is so simple. So objective.

Writing is different. I can read “Olive Kitteridge” or “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” (my two most recent Kindle reads) and see that they’re better than anything I’m doing right now. But how are they better? What do I need to work on to make my writing better? I could hire a writing coach, but I believe the conferences are a much better use of my resources. At a conference I usually get some individual help (not much – an editor or writer hired by the conference will usually critique 20 or 30 pages of a manuscript), but I also get exposed to what other writers are doing, hear a variety of craft lectures, listen to good writers read and discuss their work. Out of all that, I always learn something that helps me improve.

It’s not as neat and tidy as having a swimming lesson, but that reflects the nature of the challenge. My dream is to write a great novel (or two). My goal is to simply improve every year. I don’t know if my writing “times” will ever be as good as those novelists whom I love to read. All I can do is keep trying.

So now I need to find a new place to go for my summer writing vacation. I’ve applied to Breadloaf and to the Norman Mailer retreat at Cape Cod, but I’m not optimistic. No – this time I’m really not optimistic.

But it’s not me – it’s them.


Ania Vesenny said...

Great post, Len. Boo Sewanee, really! I hope you get into one of the others available. I disagree with you about a writing coach. I think if you find the one you respect and can trust, the experience has much to offer. I'd love a writing coach, if I could afford one.

The photo is priceless!

Len said...

Thanks, ania. I guess with writing coaches it's finding the right one. I was sort of hoping to be discovered by Richard Russo or Elmore Leonard or maybe John Updike. I guess that's not going to happen.

無尾熊可愛 said...

thank you for you to make me learn more,thank you∩0∩