There’s a gem of a writers’ conference in my backyard. Okay, not literally. There’s a ferry ride from Seattle involved and a scenic drive on the Kitsap Peninsula across Hood Canal and up the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula to Port Townsend, a seaport city known for its ornate Victorian architecture. The Port Townsend Writers’ Conference takes place at Fort Worden State Park, a turn-of-the century army base now home to arts festivals, artists’ residencies, and conferences provided by Centrum, a non-profit arts and education organization.
The Port Townsend Writers’ Conference is in its thirty-ninth year. I first attended in 2003. It was memorable for me in several ways. For one, an early chapter of my novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced was read and critiqued in workshop. The encouragement I received from workshop leader Bret Lott spurred me toward completion of the book. Also making the experience unforgettable were the many wonderful people I met, several of whom I continue to be in touch with to this day. One of the most striking aspects of this conference and one that inspires me to return is the setting. The stately Madrone trees, the deer grazing on the grounds, the driftwood-strewn beach along Admiralty Inlet punctuated by the lighthouse where it meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the view of Mount Baker, the acres of woods, the morning mist, the ethereal late afternoon light at once stimulate and soothe the senses. It is indeed, as the Centrum website says, “a place where the land stops, the sea begins, and the mind keeps going.”
For the first time this year, the writers’ conference expanded to two consecutive one-week sessions, each featuring a stellar faculty selected by Artistic Director Erin Belieu. Logistics, administration and overall troubleshooting is handled by the kind and capable Jordan Hartt who serves as program director. Also new this year was a session for teen writers led by Chris Crutcher. This group was a delight—articulate, bright young adults with a passion for writing and reading. Mid-week, one of the young participants received news of his first acceptance for publication and was feted with sparkling cider and chocolate bars.
This summer I opted not to take a workshop, but to spend my time writing as well as attending craft lectures and readings by faculty during week one. Midge Raymond read “The Ecstatic Cry,” my favorite story from her collection Forgetting English; Jennine Capó Crucet was completely engaging in her presentation of the opening story from her award-winning collection How to Leave Hialeah; Erin Belieu read both published and new poems from her powerful arsenal; Judith Kitchen treated us to short pieces that incorporated photos as part of the narrative; Dinah Lenney captivated with humor and grace with her essay; Diane Roberts delighted with her southern wit; Sam Ligon energized with the bite and kick of his prose; and Chris Crutcher shared a hilarious piece about his hapless tendency while growing up to fall for his older brother’s baited question, “Do you want to do something neat?”
As for the craft lectures, here are a few nuggets I gleaned.
Poet Ashley Capps spoke about the need to de-familiarize what has become so familiar that we live automatically without really experiencing the world. She urged us to think about things not as things but as processes, such as the process of a chair or a sidewalk. We should consider their history, functions, ingredients, smell, and sound. The process of perception, Capps said, is an end in itself and should be prolonged.
Jennine Capó Crucet used examples of work by Thackeray, Manual Muñoz, Lorrie Moore and George Saunders to illustrate how humor complicates or deepens a story, ultimately exposing more serious truths. Capó Crucet pointed to Thackeray’s use of irony to lend humor to a situation in Vanity Fair. She showed how Muñoz used humor to offset perceived foreignness of subject matter or characters in “The Comeuppance of Lupe Rivera,” how Moore used it to soften reader discomfort and avoid sentimentality in “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” and how Saunders used tone or voice inappropriate to the subject matter as the source of humor in “Sea Oak.”
As someone who lives and writes on the border, Benjamin Alire Saenz advised us is to write to put our vision of the world and our position in the world into words. Take risks, he said. “If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter.” Gary Copeland Lilly, whose work is steeped in the oral tradition, discussed the persona poem and the necessity of creating a credible voice using Patricia Smith’s work as examples. Erin Belieu examined the oppositional friction between language and form, between meaning and rhythm, and between other poetic elements in “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy.
It was a full and rich week.