Crashing the Tin House Writer’s Workshop

Of course I couldn’t officially attend Tin House’s writing extravaganza this past week—it’s like $1,100. And of course I’ve been plotting for months to go anyway.

The thing is, I’ve been to enough of these writing confabs to know they’re a bit like weddings. Everybody’s slightly drunk and blissed-out and wouldn’t know if you’re a cousin of the groom or the bride’s high school ex. Slipping in without an invitation is pretty easy.

My infiltration plan required two accomplices and a road trip to Portland. So on Wednesday at about eleven, fellow writer chicks Dawn and Grace met me at my house and we took off down I-5 only stopping at a Vancouver Pita Pit to pee (and of course snag a pita).

I was psyched. I’d been dreaming of Tin House for months. I mean, how often do you get the chance to spend a few hours in the company of literary royalty? And really, the Tin House Writer’s Workshop is more like a wedding on TV where the people getting married are celebrities and the weather is perfect and the toasts make you cry (and also change your life—Steve Almond, you know who you are).

Writer Jonathan Dee

Writer Jonathan Dee

We arrived at the Reed College campus with barely enough time to make the first amazing seminar. It was a panel discussion with the gloriously narcissistic title, “How We Write About Ourselves,” and featured the holy writing trinity of Stephen Elliott (of The Rumpus), Ann Hood, and Ellissa Schappell.

After a quick freak out by yours truly over the lack of parking, we found a spot on the street and schlepped across campus to Vollum Lecture Hall with enough minutes to spare for Dawn to find her former grad school mentor and almost-Pulitzer-Prize-winner, Jonathan Dee. He was super nice and had impossibly white shoes.

The panel was alright. Kind of odd. If you’re a Google group member, you can read all about it in Stephen Elliot’s The Daily Rumpus or sign up at The to receive his Daily Rumpus email.

Actually the second seminar called “Say Yes, Say No: Conflict, Tension, and Opposition” by Anthony Doerr was the hit of the afternoon. He demonstrated how contemporary writers push against the traditional story form. He used Tobias Wolff’s short story “Say Yes” (which is awesome) and also Cinderella. The hour flew by.

Reed campus in July is all lush grassy and brick buildings and lazy sun, so we had to force ourselves away from the outdoor tables and drinks to attend an unremarkable student reading at 4:30. The weather was far better than the fiction, but the fiction was better than the hard-ass wooden benches eroding off the hill. You had to push your feet up against the back of the one in front of you to stay upright. Participants were reading works in progress,though, so I can’t be too harsh.

By the time we were ready for dinner, our group of three had doubled to six. We headed off campus to hit Porque No? Taqueria, which probably serves the best-priced Mexican fair in Portland. We sat out in the covered patio area and enjoyed the sun and good food. I sat across from Jon and asked him stupid questions about writing and shared my most embarrassing moments (why on earth did I do that?) and recommended he read James Dickey’s disturbing poem “The Sheep Child” and a couple graphic novels that I love.

I’m an idiot. The guy is WAY more well-read than I am and he probably has a to-read list a mile long and anyway, who the hell recommends books to Jonathan Dee?

But Jon was kind and even told me this great story about when he was an editor at the Paris Review that I think was meant to make me feel less crazy. He said, “You didn’t invent the neurotic writer,” or something like that, and somehow, it DID make me feel better, like he was saying, just because you’re neurotic doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. At least that’s how I took it.

We got back to campus with plenty of time before the faculty readings. The larger group disbanded and a few of us lounged about and checked our Smartphones, as if we might have missed something important in our real lives, which of course, none of us had.

The readings started at 8 pm and featured Elissa Schappell, Melissa Stein, & Steve Almond. They each were fabulous, but Steve was, well…I was nearly in tears. He read “To Behave Like the Fallen World.” Wow.

At the end we bought books and stood in line like adolescent groupies to get our books signed. I dodged the line and stuck my copy of Blueprints for Building Better Girls in front of Elissa right as she was sitting down.

It was kind of an ass maneuver by me, but she was totally cool and signed my book first with a message she probably signs to everyone, but still it meant something to me: “Be the trouble you want to see in the world.”

It rivals my copy of  The Gold Cell in which poet Sharon Olds signed, “For Meagan, In the Poetry Family.” That Olds might have, for a moment, considered me somehow in her same family, even if just as a polite metaphor, has always given me inspiration.

I know I sound like a literary groupie and maybe I am, but it’s just so nice to feel like you’re among “your people.” I spend a lot of time feeling like the weirdo. The folks at Tin House were funny and self-deprecating and politically engaged. And nobody got pissed when I veered away from talking about kids and home improvement projects and the price of gas towards more intellectual conversation. Nobody blinked back at me awkwardly and smiled too-tight.

And the thing is, I’m not even sure I’m smart enough to hang with that crowd for too long, even if I wanted to (which I do, of course). I spent more than ten years out of the literary world and, as pathetic as it sounds, I’d never even read anything by Steve Almond or Jonathan Dee before Tin House, though I plan to read Dee’s The Privileges this year.

Corey Haim

I ‘m not normally prone to celebrity crushes. For the record, I didn’t read Tiger Beat when I was a kid or have posters of one of the Coreys in my room.

But I’ve been thinking way too much about the people I met (or almost met) at Tin House. My heart beats faster when my mind wanders to Steve and Jon and even Elissa. Is there such a thing as literary puppy love?

Now I have twelve months to get over it (or at least reconcile my feelings) and consider whether or not I’ll go back next year.

If I attend again next year as an “unregistered guest,” I wouldn’t get to do the workshops or spend my allotted five minutes with an uninterested literary agent that I would if I was a full-fair participant. The time I’d get to hang out with the literary elite would also be limited, but that’s probably for the best.

I’m not interested in the actual writing workshop, anyway, since I already spend enough time sitting around listening to wanna-be writers like myself describe how my manuscript fails to meet their readerly expectations.

But I DO wanna go back to Tin House. I’m already fantasizing about it.

One year to go.

In the meantime, I’ll buy Dee’s book and find a poster of Steve Almond I can hang up on my office wall.

9 thoughts on “Crashing the Tin House Writer’s Workshop

  1. Double M,
    Funny, and as usual, your incorrigible naughtiness takes center stage. You’ll have to remind me to tell you my adventures with the other half of the Corey’s.

  2. Be the trouble you want to see is great. It’s a good addition to my favorite quote of being the change you want to see. I am glad you crashed the party and had such an adventure. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Thank you for reading! Tin House really is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance, you should go. And Elissa’s book Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a fascinating read. Thanks for stopping by!

        • Hmmm. Book recs… Well, I bought Steve Almond’s The Evil B.B. Chow, but I haven’t read it yet. I’ve a bunch of pre-reading assignments to do for my school residency next month, so I’m slow getting though the books that have been recommended to me by peeps outside my program. BUT, if you’re looking for short story collections, I just finished Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, which is a collection of loosely related first-person narratives. It’s pretty good. What are you interested in reading?

  3. I am glad you came to the workshop. By any means necessary, I say when it comes to getting your art-soul fix. Writing is a far too lonely business so when you can be with your people–even if you have to crash, go for it.

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