Why does a writer attend a writers’ conference? It’s a question I asked myself this year when I applied to the Oxford American Summit for Ambitious Writers. The quick and easy answer for me was the Oxford American itself. I’ve admired that magazine for years, I’m drawn to the work of Southern writers, and wanted to meet the people who so obviously value Southern culture.
But I was never comfortable with the conference title—at least the “ambitious” part. At the negative end of the spectrum (which Webster’s Ninth Collegiate chooses as it’s first definition), ambition may be defined as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” In that context, it seems a secret ego indulgence best reserved for revenge fantasies. Not that I haven’t had them…and still do. But these are not thoughts I readily admit, or share. Even a more benign definition—that suggests ambition as simply “wanting something”— made me nervous. What if I wasn’t clear about what I wanted? What if I didn’t get it?
The OA Summit was held at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain, just outside Morrilton, Arkansas. It’s the former headquarters of Winrock Farms, the mountaintop home of the late Governor Rockefeller. After his death, and in partnership with the University of Arkansas, the site was converted to an educational institute and conference center. The manicured grounds—located amid a rural setting and adjacent to a state park— include an orchard, ponds, gardens, and a series of buildings that house meeting spaces, single rooms and furnished apartments. Mr. Rockefeller’s story is everywhere: books in the gift shop and in our welcome bags, a film (available online and shown at our welcome dinner), a museum, on explanatory signs posted throughout the grounds. There’s a good bit of emphasis on his attempts to forge his own path in the shadow of his famous family. One brochure describes him as a rebel, innovator, reformer and catalyst. There’s even more emphasis on his legacy. Although he accomplished a good deal in his lifetime, one gets the feeling that he always struggled to “prove” the value of his chosen path. Judging from the reading material, the issue hasn’t been put to rest, even in death. It’s an interesting parallel to what many writers feel—minus the millions of course.
Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, opened the conference by generously stating that the writers in attendance had been chosen; that not everyone who applied was accepted. He stressed that the OA Summit was not the place to work connections, trade phone numbers for an end run to publishing, or pitch to agents. Hearing those words, I felt I’d been given a reprieve by the governor. I still wasn’t sure why I’d come, but I knew I hadn’t come for competitive networking.
The fiction faculty at the conference included Heidi Julavits, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Christina Henriquez, and Wells Tower. Jay Jennings and Scott Huler represented non-fiction. In addition, Marc Smirnoff conducted special interviews with William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, the non-fiction writer Pico Iyer and David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. It was a dazzling line-up of talent and perspective. I’m ashamed to admit that many of the faculty names were new to me. I did, however, read at least one book from each person before I arrived in Arkansas. Their work covers everything from baseball to Communism, the darkly murderous actions of Vikings or the “little murders” that can decimate a contemporary marriage. These voices are strong and assured, and I would have been so much the poorer for not having read them.
I was assigned to Tom Franklin’s workshop and there I found myself among a group of really talented writers who were also careful and perceptive readers. It’s been years since I put a story in a workshop, and I wasn’t really interested in going through that process again. However, I was delighted to rediscover the pleasures of close reading. I learned as much from discussions of other people’s work as from my own. I also got some terrific suggestions on how to fix a problem story that I liked, but that just wasn’t working. The rewrite is the next thing on my agenda.
In addition to workshops and riotous Southern cooking at every meal, the Summit offered softball, an archeology tour, cooking demonstrations, swimming, yoga and hikes. There were poetry readings at lunch, a radio play and quiz show at night, music, cocktail receptions and book signings. The celebrated chef, Lee Richardson, prepared our farewell dinner. On our last day, Marc Smirnoff also facilitated a panel discussion about writing with the assembled faculty, which proved to be a highlight in a week of first-rate experiences. Imagine a gathering of writers whose work you admire…then discover they’re talking openly about their worse experiences with editors, as well as their best; the questions they most hate hearing from readers and other writers; their (none too sympathetic) views of how family commitments impact their time for writing, and how they feel about bloggers. The revelations felt like inhaling pure, cool oxygen on a red air quality day.
The other writers at the conference—attendees like myself—were a fascinating bunch. They came from places as far away as Australia, or as close as Arkansas. They ranged in age, background and personality. Some, like myself, had a book and more to their credit, while others had committed to writing only in the last few years. A few told me they viewed the Summit as “a week at writers’ camp” while others bristled at the idea that we were there for anything short of serious work. Although most of the other writers were warm and welcoming, a few filled in at the extremes: I had lunch with one man who started talking the moment I sat down…didn’t ask my name or input…and never stopped his monologue, even after I had eaten my lunch, excused myself and stepped away. Another, I learned, spent the week mostly mute.
Two days before I left for the OA Summit, I treated myself to lunch at Pei Wei. I received the following fortune in the cookie at the end of my meal: “A visit to a strange place will bring you renewed perspective.”
I’ve been home for a week, and for reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ve been dreaming about my experience in Arkansas every night since my return. I’m still sorting it all out. But one thing I know: the cookie was right.