Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sparse Space, Mighty Muse, Part I

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

Thanks to a generous scholarship I had an opportunity this past July to spend two weeks at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Describing the experience is akin to trying to express what seeing Yosemite Falls is like for the first time. Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to illustrate my point, but the enthusiasm it generated might measure similarly.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of the Writers Institute is that it is truly a writer’s colony. In the midst of life’s madness, this gathering is a place where you can forget having to make a meal or clean a dish (you eat at the university dining hall), and just dive into the writer’s life all around you--every day. I was one of more than 60 writers who stayed in the dorms on campus and participated in fiction, nonfiction or poetry workshops.

During the first week my workshop (18 to a class) was led by Danzy Senna (, author of the phenomenal Caucasia and the autobiography, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? The second week I studied under Howard Norman, whose novel, What is Left, the Daughter ( will have you eager to explore the epistolary form. We had workshop three times during the week and on the alternative days all the groups came together for an afternoon discussion with other workshop faculty and visiting writers, who included Ann Beattie, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody, nonfiction writers Jim Miller and Geoffrey O’Brien, and poets Henri Cole, Jayne Anne Philips, Mary Kinzie and Peg Boyers. In addition to small group discussions with these authors about the craft of writing, we heard them read from their latest works later that night, and then on Sunday evening, we participants held our own public reading.

As a fiction writer, I came away with ideas on how to further explore character, dialogue and story. Ann Beattie talked about how “short stories can be like plays.” She urged us to “use dialogue to create situations” as well as to expose the raw, the “unredeemable” character. Emerging writers can be timid about exposing the “imperfect” character, Joyce Carol Oates said in another session. She reminded us, however, that “all great art is based on conflict.” Simply put, she added, “If you don’t want to upset your mother or father, you won’t be a writer. You can be a nice person, but you won’t be a writer.”

Henri Cole’s reading of his poem “Black Camille” struck me with the utter significance of word choice and how I might apply the lessons of poetry to my work. “What are you now but a blood-red palanquin of plucked feathers and silk airing in the sun?” he read one night. In the hush of the auditorium, I understood then, that the words we choose are not just for their rhythm or sound, but for their absolute urgency. And, we know that takes time. But it’s worth it, isn’t it?

Stay tuned for more in Sparse Space, Mighty Muse – Part 2 next week…

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