Still working...

So there we were at Portland, Oregon’s Reed College for the 2011 Tin House Writers workshop. 200 of us gathered at the feet of an assembly of top-of-the-line writers, hungry to create, to publish, to figure out what was wrong and right about the pages we carried with us. Sylvan setting, a week’s ambitious schedule before us, all at the behest of Tin House Literary Mag, a young and distinguished journal of letters. And this is how it went. Pretty much:


My group—a collection of 12 aspiring novelists led by one Luis Alberto Urrea (author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter and more than a dozen other books, many of them best sellers) teamed with wife Cindy.

The “group” (as in “Whose are  you in?”) is the s


un of the conference solar system. 2.5 hours/day poring over one another’s manuscripts. Praising, analyzing, sharing insights, sharing lives, becoming by week’s end not simply a group of individuals from hither and yon with literary interests in common, but a little community of artists cheering for one another, yet unafraid to suggest different directions for one other’s work. [Captions are at the bottom of the page–couldn’t figure out how to format them properly]


Although this was no doubt an extraordinary group—I’ve been to a few of these conferences, so I think I know a little—there’s also no doubt that it was Luis himself that set the tone and steered (gently) the course of our deliberations. So a word about him.

We already knew a sort of book-jacket bio. His new smash hit novel (see my Writer working commentary on April 27 for Hummingbird, April 23 for The Devil’s Highway), 20 years in the making, is an imagining of his own family’s history on the Mexican side. He has an Anglo

The western mind is a fever. It will pass–Linda Hogan

side as well. He was born in Tijuana—stuff like that.


However, it’s rare for a conference to offer a section devoted to novels. Most (prose-oriented) groups look at short stories, and the novelist’s chapters are just kind of thrown in the midst, and it’s hard for people not to treat them as another short story instead of part of a larger work. So the chance to work with

Your writing self–Artist=Angel


Inner Critic=Demon


others of like endeavor under the tutelage of a writer of Luis’s caliber—we jumped at it. But, I always say, just because he can write, doesn’t mean he can teach. Been burned on that one before.

Not this time.

From the first words he spoke, our exchanges with Luis had the quality of dream, myth, and magic. He read us Basho and Stafford and a host of others. He laid his own creative life before us, entered into our work on a quest to touch the


spirit that produced it in the first place. Gathered and sorted comments from others as if amazed (sometimes chagrined) he hadn’t thought of them himself. From literally dirt poor and diseased (TB) in Tijuana, he built himself a writing life and career and still is living the wonder of what ee cummings calls the “blossoming yes.”

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the power in our room came on the last day. After a closing ritual, class was, as they say, dismissed. Except nobody left. We all of us stood around, sat around, talked, didn’t talk, but we just stayed there.

It is not our task to save our characters. We should not be afraid to withhold things from them.

Maybe 20 minutes till people began to exit for lunch. No one wanted to leave the zone.


Now that, my friends, is a workshop, and we owe each other a great deal, and we owe Luis everything to do with it.


That was the sun, now for the Planets—


Spinning around the solar center of the group sessions are a number of heavenly bodies which complete the solar system of any conference—panels, lectures, readings, tutorials, and the like. Most of what happened was on a par with what I’ve seen elsewhere, except . . .

Enter Luis again. “reading” from his sequel to


The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Don’t miss Queen of the North when it arrives in December. In the meantime, know this. The author stood at the podium, gave a brief intro, picked up his copy of the novel, then tossed

Teach your spirit to eat the pain

it to the grass. He proceeded to perform a compelling section of the new book, involving many of the characters already familiar to those of us who had read Hummingbird. We were now in Arizona instead of Mexico, At a dance. The father rides in on a black horse, dressed in black leather with silver trimming, and proceeds


to perform wondrous tricks with his lasso. And bringing it all alive is Señor Urrea, dancing and spinning his not-quite-imaginary lariat. Never seen a show like it at any conference anywhere, and neither, I’ll wager has anyone else.

However, let’s not fail to mention Dorothy Allison (Bastard out of North Carolina her breakout success) reading from a new unnamed novel, salty, obscene, spiritual, funny till she brings you to your knees, then to your feet. And her lecture on dialogue (Don’t you know I’m listening to you and writing it down?)was a classic as well.

Or Ben Percy, reading from

A little bit of rage goes a long way

The Wilding in his inimitable basso profundo (I knew him not at all till Tin House, but now I do, and so will everyone soon.), and delivering a “craft” lecture that ended with a group singalong of “Sixteen Tons.”  No other conference can boast that, either.

Or Joy Williams reading some new I guess you could call them semi-linked flash


fiction pieces involving God and dogs and other hilarious and significant matters.

Or poet Kevin Young and his poem from a cabin boy on the Amistad to his master in a voice that will stop your heart.

And some other things I missed because you can’t be everywhere or always be paying attention like you should.

And then there was, finally, the dance. Dance? Haven’t

If you know where you’re going, turn left.

been to one of those since . . . and I was puzzled and a little scornful when I saw it on the schedule. But, hey, there was a decent DJ and some “numbers” (Did not partake. I choke.) and a fullish bar (Did partake, and gladly.) And I even hopped around a little to the music. Not bad for an old guy.



And thus endeth the reading and the writing, but only for an instant.


There’s a dream here somewhere, she told me,

A spirit

Which way? I asked her.

Somewhere close. That’s all I know.


I’ve looked everywhere, I told her.

Yes, she told me,

But there are still

Things closed

That need to be opened


Do that,

You will discover what you need,

And when you do

Bring it back to me

So we can both




[Pictured in order, top to bottom, Cindy and Luis, David and Madhu, Tim, Monica, Leslie, Cezarija, Eileen, Rachel, Lisa. Cheryl and I appear in the group photo.]

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts