You and the page alone

I had a telephone conversation with my friend Lucinda Kempe the other night. Lucinda just came back from a writers’ conference, the third one, I think, she has gone to.

We talked about that experience, which she said was disappointing. (She was way more sanguine about it than I’d have been if I’d invested a week and a couple thousand dollars and been disappointed.) Perhaps because of that disappointment, we talked about the necessity – or not – of certain qualifications, like a Master of Fine Arts in writing, or attendance at a high-profile conference.

I will not deny the pleasures of workshops, the delight of getting together with other practitioners of the craft, and the usefulness of thoughtful critique. I loved my time studying fine art at the University of Toronto, where I learned the rudiments of art history, painting, printmaking and drawing. Most importantly, I learned how to learn.

I didn’t get my B.A. to impress anyone. (A good thing, too!) I got it because I have to live in my head, and I want the space well furnished. It gave me two other important things: practice in my chosen field and the confidence of knowing I could finish a long project that I took on voluntarily. That last is a particularly valuable asset.

When I began applying for writing grants, one of the things the application required was a list of courses and workshops I’d taken. It’s a pretty short list for me, although every year I lengthen it when I attend workshops given by Stories in the North. I take whatever workshops come up, because you can always learn something. They may not apply to my writing, yet there they are; workshop credits to prove I’m serious about being a writer.

The thing is, it’s not proof. It’s – well, documentation that you attended. Did you sleep through it? (I saw one workshop attendant do this!) Was it worth attending, or should you have spent the money on pizza and dancing boys? Other applications may request that information – mine didn’t.

I’ll confess that the shortness of my workshop list troubled me at first. I thought it might count against me, brand me as someone who wasn’t committed to being a better writer. What mostly makes me a better writer is invisible. It’s that I’m willing to rewrite, revise, listen to critique and work with it. Those same qualities in Lucinda also make me admire her as a writer.

Perhaps I’m biased in thinking that the work is more important than the workshops. The work happens daily, in solitude, without a certificate of completion or a teacher’s name or workshop title to put to it, so it’s underrated, and I suppose understandably so. Where, after all, is my proof that I spent my summer writing, barring the publication of the book?

I’m not scoffing at workshops or MFAs, here. If you want them, if they matter enough to you to spend the time and money on them, if they help you or are simply a helluva good time, go for it. But go for the experience, not the paper chase, because what really counts is what you do when the workshop or conference is over and it’s just you and the page alone.

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