- Alice McDermott
At Sewanee, I usually schedule my manuscript conferences in the afternoon while the alternating-day workshops are being held. The campus grows quiet then, and the heat and humidity hit their stride. There's that academic stillness about the place: the sense, carried on the air, that out of the sun, in the cool confines of old buildings, minds are at work.
I like to use the small library in the Women's Center for these meetings. I like the odd collections of books on the shelves, the worn couches, the wood paneling, and the dim light—a light that often grows dimmer as the afternoon progresses, as the windows darken with the approach of a summer storm.
All the Conference's readings and lectures, and not a few social gatherings, take place at the Women's Center, so at this hour in mid-afternoon the unaccustomed quiet just beyond the library's doors seems to replicate the general hush outside—a kind of double-wrap (as if with cotton) of silence.
Which strikes me as the proper setting in which to discuss with another writer a good portion of his or her unfinished work. An unfinished work being, to my mind, something as precarious and fleeting as those great ideas you have, and instantly lose, just before you fall asleep. Something, in fact, that probably should not be made to endure discussion.
But writing conferences and extension classes and MFA programs would disappear entirely were it not for these meetings to discuss works-in-progress. Or, more accurately, were it not for the authors who gamely expose their nascent creations to the eyes of another writer, a writer who aims to teach.
As one of these, I've found that there's a vast difference between what goes on in the workshop setting and what takes place in the course of an hour-long, one-to-one manuscript meeting. This is [End Page 736] especially true at Sewanee, where two writers lead the discussion, and can entertainingly confirm or contradict one another's lessons and dictates—and, of course, borrow them for future use.
Years later, I still quote John Casey's instructions to our workshop: imagine you are on a cross-country bus trip, you've brought nothing to read, and somewhere in the middle of the desert, these pages blow in through the window. Then imagine you are the editor of a small, financially strapped literary magazine, and a generous benefactor has agreed to fund you for the next decade, if you will only publish this story of his—he will, of course, welcome your suggestions about how to make it better. The take-away: read the work of your peers with both gratitude and hope.
I have passed on to generations of aspiring writers Tony Earley's succinct summation of Hemingway's theory that every story should be about two things—in Tony's words: "the thing and the other thing."
Ernest Gaines began our class with this necessary and quotable news: "No one can tell you how to write your stories." And after the workshop I taught with Claire Messud, a participant told us, "you two are like the world's nicest prosecuting attorneys." (I quote him, too.)
But if leading a workshop is a performance, or a trial, a manuscript conference is more akin to writing itself. It is an exercise in both seeing what you've got on the page and imagining what's not yet there. It requires attentiveness, patience, intuition, doggedness, courage. I know many of us try to avoid the colonizing phrase, "If it were my story …," but in truth, this is the unspoken understanding: your search for the heart of your tale becomes, in this hour together, my search as well. Another kind of duet.
Few experiences can replicate for a writer the satisfaction of a good day—or a good hour, a good few minutes—of productive work, but there have been times when I've felt such satisfaction at [End Page 737] the end of a manuscript conference. Something the writer hadn't seen in the story before has made itself known...