Studying · Writing

Writers’ Conferences: Yale

This, for me, is the Summer of the Writing Conference. I was meant to go to Wesleyan, but circumstances conspired to keep me away. On a whim, I thought why not apply to Yale, since it’s nearby and they’re a few days apart and both on the Amtrak Northeastern train line? I didn’t expect to get in, so when I did, I had some soul searching to do. The Yale Writers’ Conference is really expensive, and they have no scholarships available at all. But it’s hard to resist the lure of Having Been Chosen. And it’s also, if you’re me, hard to resist the lure of the Ivy League campus.

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Berkeley College South Courtyard, where I stayed.

The Yale Writers’ Conference is a relatively new addition to the scene. In total, it runs over a little more than two weeks. The first ten days or so comprise Part I, “exploring broad issues of craft in nine days of workshops, individual conferences and readings”. It sounds really intense. I was very tempted, because one of the master classes was being led by Colum McCann, who is probably my greatest literary hero (his book Let the Great World Spin ranks as one of my all-time favourites) but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to part with $2600 (including accommodation) for that session. It may be money well spent, but it’s a heck of a lot of money. Part II, in any case, sounded more my thing: four days of seminars – not workshops per se, which frankly I have my fill of on my MFA course – based on a specific craft area. There’s a wide range of topics – from TV writing to children’s lit to memoir.  My first choice was food and travel, but I think that class must have been full by the time I applied so I got my second choice, “poetry for prose writers”. It sounded amazing, and right up my alley.

“In this generative workshop, we’ll explore the give-and-take that happens between lyric and story line within our prose as a means to create a compelling narrative.  Each session will include a look at a couple of models, a look at our own work, and an in class writing session based on our discussions. Given the short span of our sessions, we’ll begin by comparing some so called “prose poems,” Flash fiction” and “Flash CNF” and work in the last session towards full length prose. Along the way we will ask what all these have in common and how can we use techniques of one to help the other. We’ll use these insights to help break out of your habitual writing style and into something that’s more authentically and uniquely your own voice. This is a workshop that is also suitable for poets, too, especially those who want to make excursions into prose.”

It didn’t exactly do what it said on the tin. The first session seemed promising, but after that the format was really more of a workshop – and a poetry workshop at that. Did I “break out of my habitual writing style”? Hmm, I’m not sure. But we had some great conversations and my classmates’ writing was of a high standard, so the workshoppy discussions we had based on it was worthwhile and engaging. We were a very eclectic bunch, and over a longer or more intense time might have killed each other, but as it was, it worked, and we learned from each other’s writing.

We had one three-hour workshop a day, and that was more or less it, though we had homework every day too, which then formed the basis of our discussions the next day. We also each had a half-an-hour individual meeting with our teacher, which some people found more useful than others. (Mine, more than anything, was really encouraging – we ended up discussing where I could submit pieces of prose poetry I’d written for my translation class last autumn. I also, like everyone else, left with a long, tailor-made reading list. Definite bonus.) On the final day, we also had a really useful session with publishing professionals, and throughout the few days there was optional readings, and one night a screening of the film Midnight in Paris in the Berkeley College courtyard. The slower pace of the Session II was probably really helpful for those who had been to the more intensive Session I, though the Program’s Director told me that even so, many of the participants who had been there for both sessions were exhausted by the end – and I’m not surprised.

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Pierson College, where we ate lunch, and where I loved whiling away my time in the afternoons and evenings – often I had the courtyard all to myself.

I loved, loved, loved New Haven – it’s a bit of a crime-infested dive, apparently, once you leave the Yale bubble, but I had no desire to do that.  The weather was perfect – warm, sunny, with none of the unbearable mugginess of DC. That meant, for me, a lot of sitting around in pretty courtyards  that reminded me of my years at Cambridge, thinking about my novel and reading, which was worth every penny. The first night was a little on the hot side (31 C/high 80s F), which is where living in dorms sounds more romantic than it is, but once the temperature dipped back into the twenties centigrade (70sF), I knew I’d made the right choice. It’s my favourite kind of environment – even the window latches reminded me of the windows back at King’s College – so I willingly put up with the irritations of (perfectly fine) shared bathrooms. There is, in any case, a choice to live off campus too, though that probably makes the whole thing even more expensive. Meals were part of the deal, and we ate in the lovely Pierson College. The food was actually decent, and it was an all-you-can-eat-buffet style. I can’t vouch for the breakfast, since I just about made it to Starbucks every morning before class, but lunch was nice – if very samey. And Pierson College was one of the lovely places I found myself going back to time and again to hang out and absorb the Ivy Leagueness.

Lunch at Pierson College
Lunch at Pierson College

Would I go back? Yes, probably, especially if the weather was guaranteed to be as nice. It’s a shame they don’t have scholarships to at least aim for, because I would love to go to the whole thing.  I know now to expect lots of time to sit and think, and in that environment that is more than okay with me. I might also check more carefully with the course leader that it’s not going to be a straight forward workshop – I much prefer the model where I am explicitly taught, though that doesn’t seem to be the done thing in America or in writing classes (Gotham Writers’ Workshop, in New York, being a notable and noteworthy exception).

Would I recommend it? Yes, if you like being surrounded by Serious Literary Types, many of whom have or aspire to MFAs or PhDs in Creative Writing; if you can afford it; and (for Session II) if one of the genres offered is of particular interest to you.

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