2016 was my third time at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. We’ve all ruined things by trying to repeat them, so I keep trying to take a summer off—but the truth is that although I’ve left Kenyon each summer ready to take on the world, by late spring of the next year, my creative jalopy is sputtering again. That could be a sad thing if you wanted it to be, but I think reaping a year of work from one week of stimulus is a pretty good yield. Anyway, here’s why I keep coming back.
You write, write, write, write, write. Ask people why they’re there or what their favorite aspect of KRWW is, and the quickest and most obvious answer you’ll get is the generative nature of it. Amazingly (and why?), Kenyon seems to be on its own in this regard. The other major conferences all serve their functions, but Kenyon is unique in that you don’t bring any work with you. You create something new every day—and the next day at 8:30 a.m., you workshop it. For seven days in a row, without a break.
You check your ego at the Gambier line. Because every single piece you discuss is brand new, there are fewer disclaimers—and a lot more collaborative fluidity in the workshop process. Everyone in the room knows you wrote it last night, while tired—because they all did, too. You don’t have the time or energy to get attached to your work, so you’re more open to discussion. You come into workshop with the goal of writing and writing better, not of protecting or positioning what you’ve already written.
No one can help you. By this I mean, OK, everyone can help you: you can’t see your own pages with first-time eyes, but your workshop-mates can. They can tell you what’s on the page and what’s not. That’s an invaluable favor, and you will repay it nine times a day for seven days. What I really mean is that no one can “help” you. Meaning there are no agents to pitch, no publishers to preen for; there’s simply no reason to try to industry-climb at Kenyon. It’s about the work, not about what happens when the work is done. There’s a place and time for the latter—no one is naïve—but it’s not here and it’s not this week. You’re going to leave Kenyon with a folder full of story-starts, a huge reading list, and a dozen new Facebook friends—but not a book deal. And maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a collective sigh of relief and dropping of shoulders when that becomes clear.
This is not a frat party. This may reveal more about me than I’d like to, but a major upside of KRWW for me is that there’s precisely zero sexual tension—and, at least from what I can tell, little-to-no bed-hopping. I personally love being able to cross a room and engage a person in conversation about their reading without anyone reading into it. (Ba-dum-bum.)
Trauma bonding is the best bonding. Every time I’ve walked into the room of a new workshop, I’ve looked around, met the other 11 people (there are 10 students, 1 fellow, and 1 instructor), and thought, “Huh. This is a super random group of people. Maybe this will be the year that the workshop group just doesn’t come together.” But I think the math is this: 12 people in a room together for a couple hours a day, every day, with a common goal, have a good chance of coming together as a group. Something about the intensity of the work you do in the room brings you together. In my experience, by Day 2, you will have an inside joke, and that will just be the beginning.
The world will wait. So those people in the room with you? Not accounting for any optional/additional time you may choose to hang out with them, walking into town for a sandwich or small-talking on the way to readings—by the end of the week, you will still have spent almost 40 very intense hours with them. In the course of just a couple of days, they will go from being total strangers to you to being pretty important figures in your life. And yet, if you’re like me, on the last day, you may still be having conversations like, “So where do you live again?” You may have no idea what they do for a living or whether they have children. That may somehow all feel beside the point.
The best answer to, “So? How was your day?” I love asking people how their day was at Kenyon, because no says, “Oh, it was fine. Busy, you know.” No one mentions the weather or work or the stuff of life. Instead, they invariably pause and scrunch their foreheads, like they’re actually thinking about it. First of all, the days are long, so there’s lots to think about. And then, it’s kind of a big question when the emotional and intellectual terrain crossed in that time has been so vast. They may say good, they just figured out the missing link between WWII and the insect metaphor they’ve been hammering on all morning. Or they may say uch, you know, I’m really struggling, because I can’t get a foothold into this documentary poem prompt for tomorrow. Personally, I want to jump up and down. This is the conversation I want to be having. This is what I want to know when I ask, “How was your day?” Down with small-talk! What a mainline to the interior.
“Aaaah,” or “The collective rooting-for.” Starting on Night 1, there are readings. First, the Fellows. Next, Faculty. Then, for the remaining four nights of the workshop, the students read. I think it is technically possible to opt out, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it. The idea is that everyone reads and not only that: everyone attends. The readings aren’t optional literary fluff at the end of the day. You go. I have to tell you: the concert hall at Kenyon holds the most attentive audience I have ever witnessed. There’s no murmuring between pieces; there’s no rustling of paper. Every seat is full and every head is face-front, silent, and—get this—rooting for you. Ready to laugh, ready to cry, ready with a “poetry sigh,” the room is receptive to the try. In a way that “the real world” doesn’t always seem to, especially when you’re a writer jockeying through the lonely culture of someone-else’s-gain-is-a-strike-against-you, this room leans forward, breathes into you, and wants you to succeed. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
I just got home from KRWW ’16 yesterday and my tank is full. I wish happy and fruitful writing to all of you this year, and maybe I’ll see you in ’17.