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.
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.
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.
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.
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.