Rarely had I broken bread in such an idyllic dining hall as that of Pembroke College, one of the older constituents of Cambridge University. I’d come across the pond to participate in the second year of the Pembroke College-National Academy of Writing (NAW) Summer Programme. About forty of us convened on the first night for a Formal Hall—a multi-course meal enlivened by pinot grigio and a Latinate prayer reading courtesy of a College Fellow. Near the end of the dinner, Richard Beard (director of the NAW) tapped his glass, rose, and told a story.
He had known a writer who, in order to wrench her muse from its silence, maintained beside her a purple shoe covered in the toenail clippings of friends. Another author would fill a bucket with water and simulate drowning because the protagonist of her novel had experienced something similarly nightmarish. These anecdotes, Richard said, were to demonstrate the variety (and strangeness) of the writing process. The NAW was envisioned as a blood-brother to musical and acting conservatoires, wherein the mysteries of great writing could be disrobed, scrutinized, and replicated. Each guest lecturer was asked the same question: “How do you do it?”
David Almond, the acclaimed author best known for his novel Skellig, cannot understand how mind-maps work. Instead, he doodles and sits in his rural shed, staring out of the window. (Of course, he also does the work, but that’s unromantic). A.L. Kennedy, whose sometimes somber fiction is in odd agreement with her sense of humor, refers to films for their attention to narrative structure. Deborah Moggach, screenwriter of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, has trained herself to think in terms of imagery—what can furniture and estate size suggest about Elizabeth Bennet that perhaps her own words cannot? After noting the idiosyncrasies of each lecturer, I felt more able to dispel conventional writerly advice in favor of my own methods (writing in a dark room, alternating between bed and desk, using 12 pt. Baskerville Old Face).
Our bi-weekly supervisions, modeled after the “Oxbridge” tutorial system, paired published authors with small groups of five to six people. This instructional method worked well because it allowed the participants to become familiar with the work of their peers while also letting everyone contribute more than a scant, “I liked this” or “This didn’t quite work.” We focused on different elements of writing each week. Everyone was here for our seminars on generating ideas, structure, POV, and voice. Those that stayed for the four-week program (as opposed to three weeks) heard from two additional speakers. Philip Gwyn Jones is a long-time publisher who has worked with such authors as Karl Knausgard, Joan Didion, and winner of last year’s Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton. Though he had some foreboding remarks about the publishing industry’s financial status, I think his message was essentially hopeful: the best way to convince risk-averse publishers to promote your work is, in fact, to take risks. Terence Blacker, author of Kill Your Darlings and Michael Caine look-alike, may have been my favorite. He spoke about the usefulness of humor in writing, especially that which the author intends as solemn. Writing can be serious without being indulgently bleak. That’s something many young writers (myself included) should tack on their walls.
My peers undoubtedly elevated this experience from a traditional workshop into a crucible of collaboration. While eventually the author must excuse herself to a place of solitude (whether when writing a draft, editing, or awaiting the first round of reviews), speaking with like-minded individuals has so far proven invigorating. I am thinking of the nights on which my friends and I would gather in my room to write, share our work, and drink whiskey. One amiable fellow from Tennessee would read a selection from Pound or Berryman before launching into a lyric of his own. My friend from Mexico had a knack for reciting uproarious limericks. I’m thinking of our visit to Ely Cathedral, where we serendipitously encountered its choir rehearsing in the Lady Chapel. I am thinking of our foosball tournaments and the old man who became the subject of my poetry. We would often see him sitting in the campus orchard, smoking and drinking coffee. While the workshop environment provided a necessary space for concentration and practice, it also allowed me to meet people whose company helped fuel my writing, however obliquely. Consider this my declaration of love and gratitude.
My stint at Cambridge made me consider the kinds of stories I love reading. I think what makes good writing such a challenge is that it requires the author to be simultaneously self-abjuring and self-aware. The writer has to know what makes a story effective—not only what’s in the toolbox, but when it’s best to use one tool over another—and she must trick herself into believing that her stories are the result of intuition. The writer willfully ignores that the muse is no angel in a dress, but a vast machine waiting for its face, its arms, its legs. And the most fortunate among us will arrange these parts in such a way that the machine acquires something like a beating heart. I was lucky enough to find a program whose instructors de-romanticized an activity that intimidates so many people. But workshops are rarely enough. Especially alluring about this program was the international makeup of its participants. From the harmony of many cultures, we tend to distinguish not only the loveliest chords but, in this instance, the most instructive as well.