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One Magic Mountain

July 27, 2011

Some of you may know this already, but I aspire to be a writer. Not just one of those who lays about all day, wasting countless hours on the internet while pretending to have writer’s block, but a real one, someone you can find by walking into your local bookstore’s fiction section. As dreams go, it’s less improbable than “astronaut” or “President”, but given the state of publishing today, only slightly less. I have put in countless hours at a keyboard crafting scenes and developing characters for no guarantee of financial return. I have, since January, turned out over a hundred sixty pages of original fiction, and before that I worked for three years on a novel that never quite came together but perhaps someday will. It is, by an objective standard, an unrealistic and foolish pursuit. I could spend the same hours engaged in the profession I left behind or even working for retail wages and come out far ahead on money. But I do it because I believe I am doing something of real worth, despite seeing books I know to be good go unnoticed and unsold every day, despite first encountering a new favorite author for the first time as a ninety-nine cent remainder. I do it because I must.

A few years ago, I had the idea to apply to MFA programs. I wrote a piece, ostensibly a first chapter of a novel, and submitted it. I believed it was good, in fact, I believed it was the best thing I’d ever written. I might have even been right, at the time. I was rejected by every school I applied to, and while I’d like to blame the stiff competition from other would-be writers looking to forestall real life for another two or three years, I know it was because I was wrong about what I’d submitted. For a then-thirty-five year old, I had lot of growing up to do, both as a writer and as a person.

But the director of one of the programs I applied to did something unusually cool: she gave me advice on what to do next. Keep writing. Hone your craft. And if possible, look into reputable summer workshops for both advice and connections. I hadn’t been aware of their existence, but there are many such programs all around the country, where for a few hundred dollars a would-be writer can get a manuscript critiqued and learn something new about the craft from people who are better at it than he is. It sounded like a good deal to me, beginner that I was, and so I started applying to those within driving distance for scholarships.

In one of those strokes of luck that makes you question your unbelieving ways, I found one. Not, strictly, a scholarship, but a great arrangement nonetheless – I’d applied to one that was losing its bookseller that very year, and I happened to be a bookseller. Arrangements were made, a deal was struck, and I was on my way to North Carolina’s mountains to a place called Wildacres.

I went back earlier this month, for the third straight year. I can’t get enough.

It isn’t just the beautiful setting, atop a mountain with a breathtaking view. It isn’t just the camp environment, where you wake to a bell in the morning and roll out of bed to shuffle down to a mess hall just like you did when you were a kid when you went away for a week, but your parents were the ones on vacation. It’s that you’re spending a week surrounded by people who get it, people who have the same unrealistic, irresponsible dream, and who, like you, might even be talented enough to make it happen. You are surrounded by writers, with everything that entails. Not only do people actually want to hear about your novel – a rare thing, in this lonely, solitary pursuit – but they’re inclined to give you real advice about it. They’re going through it, too, be they novelists, poets, story writers, or memoirists, and they’re glad to have your company. Plus, Wildacres isn’t just staffed by a few teachers from the local college. It has veterans, professionals, writers of real stature but also humility and grace, approachable and generous people who would rather be nowhere else but on that mountain with you.

It isn’t a week-long party, though there’s a fair bit of that going on. Writers and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly. Instead, it’s a productive week, a week in which you are forced to think about what you’ve written and about what others are doing, too, and something in the air makes you want to do right by them. It gives you perspective on what you’ve already done, and it makes the path forward clear. And best of all, it’s a place where friendships – working friendships with people whom you can trust to tell you the truth about what you’re doing – are formed and fostered.

It is entirely likely that it was the best thing I could’ve done as a writer. Since my first year there, I’ve grown fast enough to feel it happening. They say it takes many failures to make a success. In no profession is that more true than writing, where you can spend years producing unreadable crap and not even know it. For most of us – a few Cormac McCarthy types aside, who can seemingly break through to the stratosphere working in near-perfect isolation – the only hope we have is to get an honest person to tell us what we’ve done wrong and what we can do better. Up there, I got what I came for. In fact, I got what I didn’t even know I needed.

Thanks to one magic mountain, I might yet make it. If this is your path, too, you could do a lot worse than to find your way to the mountain, either this one or another.

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