Monday, August 5, 2013

The Napa Valley Writers' Conference

by Joan

This has been a year of movement and change. In my life, in my work, in my words. In my writer’s soul.

Last week I left stifling Dallas for northern California to attend the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. As I write this, I’m on the plane home, feeling awed and joyful for the experience. I'm re-reading my notes to ease my withdrawal from the inspiring workshops, craft talks, instructor readings, and, of course, wine tastings.

“Come armed with notebooks and pens,” the workbook instructions read. I stuffed journals in every pocket of my purse, laptop bag and suitcase. During the week, the ink ran dry in two pens.

On the plane there, I recorded my worries: Will I fit in? Will I learn what my story needs to bring it to the next level? Will my input be valuable to others? Next, I set down my goals: Listen, learn, meet writers, contribute, write a short story, continue revisions and write this blog post.

The instructors were celebrated authors and professors, award winners and directors of prestigious writing programs. The fiction faculty included Lan Samantha Chang, Peter Ho Davies, Yiyun Li and Christopher Tilghman. Heading the poetry workshops were Camille Dungy, Linda Gregerson, Jane Hirshfield and Major Jackson. Each one changed me with their words.

I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to participate in Christopher Tilghman’s workshop. Chris is Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia and the author of three award-winning novels (The Right-Hand Shore, Mason's Retreat and Roads of the Heart) and two short-story collections. His work has been featured in the New Yorker and Ploughshares, among other journals, and he earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and Whiting Writers’ Award.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated. But from the first morning, I found Chris to be a generous, encouraging, engaged and witty mentor. My classmates were gifted fiction writers, careful readers who offered valuable critique. I was wowed by their skill, humor, insight and poise. We came from various backgrounds, including the wine industry, engineering, therapy, accounting and communications; we even had among us a former Olympian. But first, we were writers.

Chris clarified my understanding of certain concepts, twisted others, tossed still others out the window.

A few gems I'd like to share:

·      A rare, “finely placed adverb is wonderful.”

·      “Narrative distance can be fluid.” Always using close POV is “a prescription for claustrophobia.”

·      “Writing is about the reader discovering, not about the writer revealing.”

·      Avoid the word “something.” Write the details. “You get paid to know what ‘something’ is.” To which some of us chuckled. “Paid?”

·      It’s okay to sometimes “tell.”

·      “Who sees and who speaks” is not necessarily the same person.

·      On dialogue: “Don’t quote someone unless it matters.”

·      When someone offers writing advice including the words “Always do this” or “never do that,” run. (It’s okay to change POV, even in the middle of a paragraph, if it works.)

·      Integrity always wins out.

We learned from other instructors as well. Author Peter Ho Davies read a captivating preview of his historical novel-in-progress. During his craft talk, he shared tips on writing historical fiction, describing posthumous irony, whereby the reader knows how historical events will turn out, but the character does not. And he very kindly forgave me for accidentally slamming the door on him at breakfast one morning. (How’s that for a finely placed adverb?)

Author Lan Samantha Chang directs the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She prefaced her reading by calling her novel-in-progress “raw.” It was anything but. Her story is compelling, funny and direct, a true study in character.

Author Yiyun Li, named by The New Yorker at one of the top 20 writers under 40, discussed how to write a story worth telling. “If you can replace one character with another, what you have is situation, not story.” She quoted Marilynne Robinson: “Everything has to have three reasons to be in a story.”

From the poets, I learned economy and grace. I learned that I have room in my life for poetry, that studying poetry will enhance my fiction toolbox.

I learned this on the first night when Major Jackson, poetry editor of the Harvard Review, read from his collections, delivering stunning and candid poems.

At the Beringer Winery reading, poet and scholar Linda Gregerson mesmerized us with several of her poems, including “Ladies Only Swimming Pond,” set in Hampstead Heath. Her voice is a poem.

At the Mondavi wine tasting, award-winning poet Camille Dungy discussed truth and the unexpected. She said, “Make sure your language is working,” and write the “moments that catch you off guard.” She reminded us to surprise and reward the reader beyond the expected. “Too much comfort breeds disinterest.” A collective gasp came from the crowd when she read her poem “One to Watch, And One to Pray.”

Renowned poet Jane Hirshfield suggested we “transform bluntness.” On why write? “We are waiting, hoping for a constellation of words to align to strike us.” Write from a place of honesty, but twist it. Both Jane and Camille shared Emily Dickinson's, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light.”

The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference is, to borrow from Jane Hirshfield, a constellation of elements that aligned to strike me. The program inspires faculty and committed writers and poets from all across the country to return year after year. It doesn’t hurt that we were nourished with splendid food prepared by the NapaValley Cooking School and surrounded by a spectacular backdrop.

In addition to the quality of instruction and camaraderie, the amazing staff kept everything running smoothly. Thank you to John Leggett, Anne Evans, Andrea Bewick, Nan Cohen, Iris Dunkle, Lakin Khan, Patrick Vogelpohl, Catherine Thorpe, Christine Palella, Kathleen Winter and Charlotte Morgan.

On the final morning as I took my coffee under a pergola and journaled my final observations, an engorged bird hopped by the stone fountain, nudging a grape with its beak. There was a thorny lemon tree, the sun and a clock.

I wrote:

·       I still, will always, have a lot to learn.

·      I might be a loner, but I love being around other writers.

·      Buying more than one raffle ticket will not guarantee you a spot at the coveted instructor dinner.

·      Which writer’s ghost visited me every afternoon and turned on the radio? (no, the alarm was not set.)

·      Californians are cool and I’m pretty sure I could subsist on earthy-crunchy food.

·      I know more than I did last week.

I highly recommend the conference for next year! Have you been to a workshop this summer? If so, tell us all about it.


  1. Joan, the conference sounded incredible. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Cindy--I'm very lucky to have had the chance to go. There's an incredible energy in the air when a bunch of writers get together!

  3. There's nothing like the right conference at exactly the right time. I've never been to the Napa Valley Conference, but it sounds wonderful. And I only live about an hour and a half away!

  4. What a gorgeous part of the country. Just one of the reasons I loved your novel, The Underside of Joy. :)
    Thanks for stopping by, Sere!

  5. Joan - come back and visit crunchy California any time -- it was great to learn with and from you at the NVWC. Love the blog.

  6. Thanks Linda! I try to get to CA a few times a year - can't stay away. Best of luck with your project and this coming year of change for you!

  7. Great write-up -- very thorough. I wish I'd been able to read something like this ahead of time :) I agree -- it was a wonderful experience and a very worthwhile conference.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience at the conference - we hope to see you again in future years!

  9. Great write up, Joan! And a pleasure to meet you as well. Best of luck with everything and hope to see you again in Napa one of these summers :)


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