Editor’s note: Jared Robinson and Hannah Murray (above, Jared in striped shirt, Hannah next to him in tan jacket) are undergraduate students who recently attended the 75th IU Writers’ Conference on campus. In this post, they jointly reflect on their experiences as conference participants.
Jared: The experience of the conference is something that, over the past week or so, I have had a lot of difficulty putting into words. Whether trying to describe it in an interview with the provost’s office or just to my mother on the phone, I have found myself stumbling. The best metaphor I think I have for it was gifted to me by Lynda Barry during our final workshop as she concluded her week long conversation on the writer’s first tools: his hands. She told us that the way a psychologist learned to cure the pain of a phantom fist’s clenching was to build a mirror box—let one hand help the other. In the treatment, the man who had lost his left limb years ago put his right hand in the box and saw a left hand reflected. He tricked his brain. By just opening his right fist and watching the reflection, he was finally able to let go of whatever his left hand was holding onto so painfully. This is what the conference, interacting with the writers, listening hard and being heard has taught me: that just by watching some other hand opening very closely, I can find a way to let go of what I’ve been holding onto, and finally show it to someone else.
Hannah: On the first night, Adrian Matejka read a number of his poems, including one he wrote while attending the IU Writers’ Conference in the early nineties. One memorable poem, “Ticket on the Titanic,” reimagines Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, as a rejected passenger of the Titanic due to his race. Adrian beautifully captures Johnson’s multifaceted feelings of frustration yet relief over the matter in just 16 lines.
Jared: The participant reading seemed scary at first. The trick is to remember that since you’ve been in class, you’ve probably read or at least spoken in front of all present parties. Also, you only get two minutes. So even if you think you are going to, say, embarrass yourself irrevocably (which is not possible, I don’t think, in hindsight. The room was like the conference: very welcoming) you would only be doing so for exactly 120 seconds. The trick is to breathe, and remember that you’re among friends or, if you are not the type to make friends so easily, classmates, or if you’re not the type to conform to such institutions at the very least a human among other humans. With the wonderful addition that these particular humans have assembled for the sole purpose of hearing and being heard. Just like you.
Hannah: Prior to the readings that night, I got the chance to speak with Gabrielle Calvocoressi about her process before readings. Gabrielle will do a ritual walk around the block to calm her nerves. As a rule, Gabrielle requires that she do one thing each day that she could fail at, which she claimed at her poetry reading Sunday night (though I can vouch for Gabrielle that her captivating reading was anything but a failure).
Jared: Lou Berney normally described his lessons as cave man type implements: blunt, forceful, but incredibly effective. His teaching style, though he seemed always to knock it, was extremely grounding (his class came after the Gabrielle Calvocoressi religious experience and before our psychoanalyst appointment with John-Paul Zaccarini). He reminded us that writing is just writing. Fiction is fiction: just make it up. This seemed to be Berney’s big secret: he could teach us complicated concepts with minimal obscuring rhetorical flourish. Take, for example, an exercise we did towards the end of his last class made to simulate a writing room for, say, a television show. As students shouted responses to his questions, building a story, he taught us to appreciate the way simple decisions can change the entire mood of a story, its location, the qualities of its characters and, of course, its mysteries. His was the type of class to remind you: the first fiction of fiction is that it’s actually fiction.
Hannah: Alissa Nutting’s class, “How Embarrassing! Crafting Fictional Characters Through Obsession and Anxiety,” had me in hysterics. Alissa taught us ways of amplifying tension between characters through capturing feelings of guilt. She recommended having a character come close to exposing an embarrassing fact about him or herself to another character and instead withhold this information to see how this complicates the scene. Alissa’s own unwavering vulnerability when teaching the class made me admire her as both a writer and an embodiment of human resilience.
Jared: Classes with John-Paul Zaccarini were absolutely mesmerizing. The whole room would lean forward listening as he developed a line of questioning about writing as a practice. He tried in one exercise to alienate us from our environment, from what we saw. He tied his tie. He untied his tie. He tied it again, over and over as we watched. He asked us to try and describe the action to someone who wouldn’t intrinsically know what it meant. This is what he revealed about writing: OK, we do it, we can do it, but do we know how? Where does our writing come from? And, in the end, who is it for? He told us we didn’t have to know the answer, we should just think about it. John-Paul reminded us to think about writing, and gave us tools for doing so.
Hanging out with the writers was something I never thought would never happen to me. It was easier than I thought, though — they were all very open and receptive. Dan Chaon and Lynda Barry sat at a high-top table drinking Bells Two Hearted and asking a group of us (maybe seven or eight deep) how we’d rather die — say, if we got to choose between being mauled by a bear, having a terminal illness, or dying peacefully in our sleep. Lou Berney squeezed between two participants in a corner booth at the Atlas talking traffic in LA and racking his brain for his most embarrassing memory. John-Paul Zaccarini, illegally sitting almost cross-legged on the edge of a table overlooking the Bluebird stage as two MFA students did karaoke, leaned over to say he thought we were up next. (We sang an Adele song together. Seriously, there’s a photograph.) They were tired, like us, from being up at 8 and going to bed after midnight. But also like us, they seemed ecstatic to engage.