Chautauqua Writers

This past week I had the unforgettable experience of heading off to upstate New York’s Chautauqua Institute with a group of nine other writers. This is an interesting place. It has always had a history of being a market of intellect where brains crammed together in a relatively small area even before there were houses there. Before the houses were tents, and Mark Twain, after a visit, said it was so crowded that “you could hear the women changing their minds.” Now there are houses, and it’s still used by lecturers and learners in the summer months, but in the winter it’s almost entirely a ghost town.

Let me give you an image: picture Twain’s hemmed in rows of tents, now a cluster of old Victorian-esque houses equally squeezed, subtract the people, add a foot or two of snow, and—the last touch—add the massive sheets of canvas that folks cover those houses with in the winter to keep the…I dunno, winter out. A ghost town covered in white sheets. It was a little unnerving how often the few locals jokingly referenced Stephan King’s horror The Shining.

So we were there to write—none of us being Stephen King. And from 1:00 to 5:30 each day we wrote. I’ve never sat in a room with other writers, all silent, frowning down at the brain-sucking computer light, all spilling out their imaginations in front of the gas fireplace (It was a decidedly un-hipster event). We weren’t working on the same project, but we were working together, doing what we were made to do and helping each other complain about it. I can’t tell you how therapeutic it was to collectively groan. And I can’t tell you how amazing it was to write together and share our craft with one another.

What struck me the most, being a part of a community of writers and not just working alone, was the realization that writing can be a community orientated activity. The image I had before the trip was more or less individualistic—each of us heading off to coffee shops or separate rooms. Sometimes that’s what happened. But one of the best moments of the trip involved a fireplace, a couch, a collection of mismatched chairs, and five or six writers hard at work.

We were in our own worlds, but every time I drifted far enough back into our warm, shared world, I’d see them doing what I was doing. We had an unspoken connection. It was a connection of furrowed brows and mugs of hot tea (sometimes two mugs at the same time). A connection of slippers and craned necks and journals and thoughts, and, ultimately, of a gift.

Most of us had never shared that gift with other people before. Writing can be an odd, private thing if we let it become that. If we wish, we can set ourselves apart and keep our gifts close and hidden. We can fret over what people think and worry about how we look sharing something that we do well.

But I’m of the opinion that gifts are made to be shared.

I learned more from the feedback, and from the time spent with other authors than I thought possible. And the best thing of all…we avoided all Chautauqua chainsaw massacres.

A good time in my book!

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