Writer Camp: Tin House Writers Workshop

Every so often, I lament that I missed out on the dorm experience. I went to college 20 minutes from my mom’s house, and I lived at home until I graduated. I watch movies like Pitch Perfect and I feel like I missed something, some valuable growth experience that comes with going away to college.

I just finished a week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, an intensive writing workshop/conference housed at beautiful Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It was lush and green. And hot. I’ve grown used to my freak SoCal weather, and so 90 + degree days, with no AC in the dorms, was an experience.

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Most of us were fairly sweaty all the time, but we made it through. I stayed on the third floor (which, you know, was hot like an attic) of an old block of dorms (rightfully named The Old Dorm Block) in what looked like a nun’s cell.

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There were a few things I learned while having my mini-simulated-college-dorm experience:

  • Beware dessert. They will offer dessert at every meal in the dining hall. Even breakfast. And suddenly, on day three, as you shove a cupcake in your mouth, you’ll realize you’ve had dessert at every meal for three days. And suddenly the whole Freshman 15 thing will make total sense.
  • Beware drunk people at 3am. You may be in a dorm full of sleeping dormies, but the two drunk people who come in at 3am and want to have a loud, exuberant conversation in the hallway right outside your door, they will forget that, you know, many people are asleep at 3am. Go use the bathroom and glare at them. They deserve it.
  • Beware co-ed bathrooms. There will be a man who shaves his face over the sink and leaves all his stubble trimmings littered on the sink, the faucet, the handles. He will not be there for you to glare at. Your spirit will diminish slightly.
  • Beware the shower. One day, you will drop your bar of soap onto the shower floor, and you will curse loudly as you try, over and over, to pick it up, and all that will go through your mind is FUNGUS FUNGUS FUNGUS. You will survive, but you will continue to whisper “fungus” to yourself as you shove yet another cupcake in your mouth at breakfast.

I may not have had the “going away to college” dorm experience, but I did go to church camp every summer as a teenager. We stayed in a hotel, where you could get a new bar of soap, where boys stayed on one floor and girls stayed on another and therefore there was no stubble to contend with in the sink. It was sober people who woke you up at 3am, but you got them back by jumping on their bed at 7am and singing “Riiiiise, and shiiiiiine, and give God the glory, glory!”

And in the second half of the week at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, I realized just how much this workshop, this Writer Camp for adults, was similar to church camp. It was hot, just like church camp. We were pushed to think and talk and study, to push ourselves, just like at church camp. We wanted to gobble up as much as we could, just like at church camp, except here, we armed ourselves with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and went to lectures and craft talks and readings.

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And, just like at church camp, a curious thing happened on the final two nights. At church camp, for those who didn’t grow up zealous and evangelical, the final night or two were the big “come to Jesus” nights. Emotions ran high, sunburn was everywhere, and people felt moved by the Spirit. Usually, on those nights, you wanted to get saved again – and you began to wonder how you could take home this fire, this inspiration, this lit-up feeling that came from total immersion at camp.

Amanda called me on Thursday night, and I snuck out of a reading to chat with her. I stared at a mural of people sitting in trees, reading books, and amid all that, on the top of a window sill, someone had written “Boobs.” And I told her – gushing – how wonderful it all was, how full of goodness and ideas and motivation I was. And I mentioned that it was like church camp. That I was so inspired, so motivated, so completely buried in writing and craft and books and My People – writing people – that I was practically ready to be saved again. That I was wondering how to bring that feeling home with me. That church camp feeling.

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Now I’m home – one week, as of tomorrow – and the flame has shrunk, as it must. Life is not writer camp, the same way that living on your own isn’t really like living in a dorm. But the goodness lingers – the relationships I formed with workshop friends, all of us emailing each other, checking in, offering to read each other’s work; the journal of notes, things to think about and try; the ideas, the help, the victories – a good workshop! an encouraging meeting with an agent! – all of which are wrapped up in a beautiful, green sense memory in my brain.


8 thoughts on “Writer Camp: Tin House Writers Workshop

  1. Yay for camp! Yay for learning! Yay for sweating like a pig!

    Hang on to all that inspiration – you’ll need it in the bleak days of winter, and you’ll be so happy to have gone on this adventure…

  2. Fervor is a wonderful thing, in whatever form it takes. I tend towards the dramatic (surprise = no), so i welcome that church-camp high that workshops can bring. It’s a youthful feeling, right? I didn’t go away to college either – i did it like you did it, basically – but i can imagine i would have been swept up in the excitement of it easily.
    Your workshop week sounds amazing, for all the sweatiness and sunburn and gathering and discussion. And beard hair: there’s nothing like a fresh smattering of beard hair on the sink (i know this first hand, courtesy of Mr. Table) to cast a wee shadow on the day. 🙂

    1. Yeah, being married to a woman, I just never have to deal with, you know, facial hair. I was like, ……..??????

      But yes, Tin House was a wonderful thing, and the fervor continues, which is wonderful. I’m motivated and hungry, and I’m thankful for the fire it’s lit under me.

  3. Hi! I was so happy to find this post. I’m heading to the Tin House workshop this summer and while I’m plenty excited, I must say I’m also experiencing quite a bit of dread / anxiety about the shared co-ed bathroom situation. (Your beard hair story is terrifying.) I have so many questions, such as: Are there enough toilet stalls for everyone or are you, like, waiting in line, hoping you won’t miss breakfast? Are toilet seat covers provided? How stinky is it in there? Do they use a lot of toxic synthetic deoderizers as in most public bathrooms? Should I bring a face mask like the ones surgeons wear? How awkward is it having to socialize with people in the bathroom when all you want to do is brush your teeth? Any light / comfort you can shed would be greatly appreciated. (But be honest, I want to prepare myself like a soldier entering the battlefield.) Also, did anything ever come from that promising agent meeting?

    1. HI there, and thanks for your note! And congratulation!
      Tin House is completely wonderful. I think a little prep goes a long way in getting ready for it, so you’re smart to walk in like a soldier going to battle.
      Rest assured – the bathroom situation was really not too big a deal. I never had to wait for anyone to vacate so I could get a spot, and I found the bathrooms clean and neutral-smelling, and really, the beard hair was the only yucky moment. And actually, I rarely saw other people in the bathroom (I’m a bit of an early bird, so I got in there early and then headed to breakfast).
      I think the best thing you can do is follow their packing list/recommendations, and really focus on getting yourself ready for workshop and any agent/editor meetings. I probably over-prepared, but I really wanted to make good use of the opportunities being given to me.
      Nothing came of the agent meeting, but life sort of took me in some other directions. I started doing fertility treatments and then got pregnant and moved cross-country and then had a baby. So I hit pause for a bit. But I can tell you that the agent meeting was super useful, really encouraging, and if nothing else, excellent practice in learning to pitch my work and really learn what my story was about. So, definitely not a wasted opportunity.
      If I can answer any more questions, feel free to send them my way. I loved my experience at Tin House, I made great friends, and I would go again, hands down, no hesitation. I hope you have the best time!

      1. Thank you, Dana. That’s all really great to hear! I definitely think I’m maybe obsessing over the bathrooms in order to avoid preparing for the agent meeting. Ok, stopping now. Shifting focus. Thank you again.

      2. Haha! It was unseasonably not the year I went, and I found prepping for the heat to be a good distraction from prepping for the agent meeting. But you’ll rock it! Good luck!

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