What is the most disturbing/humorous/interesting encounter you've had at a writer's conference/MFA program/writing workshop?Meg Tuite
I hitched down to the Hollins Literary Festival back in the late 70s and fell in love with Dara Wier. She was a whirlwind of long hair and suede boots, touching and talking to everybody. “Are you always like this?” I asked. She was such an open-minded hippie magnet. I told her I was from DC and ran a lit mag. A bearded man in a gray suit and glasses broke it up by grasping her firmly by the shoulders, spinning her slowly to the right, and saying with a chuckle, “Woman, get thee to your husband.” Her laughter was magically tolerant but she did what he said. Duh, of course a woman as cool as that was married. And then the man faced me. He stuck out a hand. “I’m Donald Barthelme,” he said. I shook automatically. Everybody knew who he was. We’d just heard him read his “Abduction from the Seraglio” story. “And you are?” Just another stray writer ready to follow Dara Wier anywhere. Barthelme was very proud of himself, so I tried the editor gambit and asked for a story. But it was obvious I was dismissed.Richard Peabody
My rite of passage into the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University (not sanctioned by the program in any way) was drunk skinny-dipping in the Puget Sound in the middle of the night. It was March, raining, about 50 degrees outside.Vic Sizemore
I gave a reading in the MFA program at Naropa. I read my story about a nude internet model whose career takes off after she develops a fetish for amputation; the story begins with a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, the one about cutting off your hand if it offends you. I have my own baggage with the Bible as an apostate evangelical Christian from a family of preachers, and it was clear that the agitated, slow-speaking young man who came up to me had his own baggage.
“What does that mean to you?” I started to reply about the story, but he interrupted. “Naw, man—what does that Bible verse mean to you?”
Oh, shit, I thought. Naturally, there were no friends nearby to rescue me. I was stuck in another one of these conversations. The young man proceeded to tell me of his conversion to Christianity while tripping on LSD. I chuckled awkwardly, and said I had experienced the opposite reaction to an acid trip. He coughed out his own awkward chuckle, and then silence. He had a dull expression, eyes that showed no spark of life. He wasn’t threatening, exactly; more like he was waiting for me to dispense some nugget of wisdom that I didn’t possess. Even as someone who frequently deals with stoners, this guy was starting to freak me out, just staring at me. I asked how his Day-Glo conversion was going, since he was visiting a Buddhist school where the creative writing program was founded by Beatniks.
“Well,” he said, “I guess I have some doubts.” I spotted a friend across the auditorium. I wished him luck. He smiled, shook my hand, then waved and said “Jesus loves you” as I walked away. Of course he ended up at Naropa.Nick Morris
The distinguished poet addressed the group.
He carried in his aura the customary tools-
sharp eyes, ironic hat, slight smirk, bad teeth.
What are you thinking right now, he barked,
pointing at the kid in the middle, going round
the circle, most people quirky, clever, funny, false.
Tangerines, hula hoops, oppression, coffee…
My turn came. fucking. I didn’t need to think
too hard, it’s where my mind always wanders,
riding escalators, driving cars, pretending
to listen to cat/kid/sister stories, I revisit,
imagine, invent, breathe deeply and live
secretly in dark dimensions, never fully present.
Fucking, he repeated, and I knew he’d hoped
the young wild haired full breasted girl might
have offered as provocative an answer, but she’d
softly whispered Puerto Rico and rolled her r’s,
and her voluptuous friend had looked thoughtful
and claimed to be thinking of the Halloween parade.
The distinguished poet tried another exercise:
What did you do last night, he asked, lounging
against the desk, challenging us to interest him,
and everyone had gone somewhere cool, or
sheepishly admitted to getting trashed, passing
out on someone’s couch, and when my turn came
I simply looked at him and everybody laughed,
even the distinguished poet, who turned out
to be more fun than he had originally appeared.
I told him so later that night, after we’d shared
cigarettes and special interests, secrets always
safe with me, I live in dark dimensions,
wherever I am, I’m somewhere else,
but present enough to know my own.
I’m a con man. An undiscovered fraud. I even managed a panel spot. I call wifey when I get to my room.
“Why are you calling?”
“I miss you.”
My weed is still in the car. I ask the valet to help me out. He returns, sweating and huffing. I’ve got nothing for tip.
Gin and tonics at the bar. Rob shows up. He edited two of my books. Rob talks basketball and I listen, barely following. Joe hobbles in. A genuine personal hero. He ignores us in favor of Ms. Davidson. Not that I blame him.
I meet Michael. We talk about jujitsu and weed. We stink up the 4th floor, blowing smoke over the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Michael pegs me as an ENTP based on my FB posts.
Next day. Panel time. I talk detective stories across various media. Next room over, same time, is a panel featuring writers more popular than myself. Why’d they book us in the big room? The empty chairs are unimpressed.
I’m supposed to have lunch with Joe. Instead, I Irish exit from the whole scene and back out of lunch with a text. Joe’s gracious, but he’ll never let me forget that I stood him up.
He still busts balls. Like a friend.
The same valet brings my car, and I’m still broke. I thank him and hand over a Barnes and Noble gift card with 50% left on it.
Authors, man.Chris Dewildt
I once taught a semester-long creative writing course early in my teaching career that was a nightmare. I’m not sure what I did to the students, but they decided sometime around the second week that I was the enemy. One student wrote a story about a horrible English professor who (surprise!) was me. Workshopping this was awkward, but everything came to a head the evening of the final. The final was a pizza party/reading. Each student would read a few minutes’ worth of work. We would clap. We would eat pizza, and all leave as friends, or so I thought.
One student, upon seeing there were only two varieties of pizza – cheese and mushroom, announced, “This it? These are our choices?” threw a slice of pizza on her paper plate, and took her seat. At the time, I was vegetarian, and I didn’t ever buy meat. I still can’t tell if this was wrong on my part, but I figured if I were paying out of pocket for pizza that students would be grateful for it. This particular student was a grandmother—so not a “college kid” by any means. She had spent the entire semester writing poetry for her three-year-old granddaughter and believed there was no way to judge art; it was about how she felt, and she told me so every time she received a grade, so our pizza differences were the least of my worries.
The evening ended when a male student wrote a story about a young man who decided he would sleep with the hottest woman he could, and if that did nothing for him, he was definitely gay. In the middle of his reading, a young woman announced in the back of the room, “That’s me! It really happened.” Then, everyone started telling everyone else who was who in each other’s works. It was something out of one of those movies or books about creative writing classes that you think could never happen—until it does.Shaindel Beers
On my second day of my first residency at my MFA program, I was approached by two women around my mother’s age who wanted to know if I could recommend a place to get tattooed. I can only guess they picked me because my tattoos are right there on my face for all to see. I’m not from LA, but Yelp found us a place close by, and I offered to accompany them. Helping a senior citizen decide on her first tattoo is hard. When you’re 20, you don’t have much life experience to encapsulate into a tattoo, so a dolphin or a rose or an arm band will do. But when you’ve had more than 60 years on the planet, suddenly trying to figure out how to express yourself via one picture, glyph, or aphorism is hard. I ended up getting an industrial piercing, one of the women got several studs along the outside of her ear, and the last of us got a fairy tattooed on her hand. It was so bonding that I went on to get a new tattoo or piercing for each residency of my MFA.Lise Quintana
Denis Johnson called Alice Monroe a chick lit writer. I threatened him with a heavy stapler. He laughed and said, “I know you want to kill me.” He smiled then and so did I, and in that moment we became friends. He taught me that it is ok to create rhythm in prose without forced line breaks. He rocked my world with his rudeness and kindness. I followed him, his cadence. He was not always perfect, yet he strove for that always. Also, Larry Brown. You gonna write a book compared to On Fire? Oh no. My heart palpitates thinking of it. You fight with a mouse in your bathroom and win, but might still show your empathy?Kate Hill Cantrill