The Stance of Wonder

August 12, 2010

I live in the stance of wonder.
             — Kevin McIlvoy, b. 1953, American fiction writer
                 describing himself on a social networking site

The faculty lineup for the coming August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is announced usually in late December or early January, when the application period opens. Applicants are asked to indicate four choices for their workshop leader. As I thought about my goals as a writer and what I hoped to gain from yet another sojourn on the mountain, I quickly focused on Kevin McIlvoy as the writer I most wanted to work with.

Mc (the way people on Facebook spell it — he introduces himself as what sounds like “Mack”) taught for many years at New Mexico State University. He lives in North Carolina now and teaches in the Warren Wilson College low-residency MFA program. He is known for being especially encouraging to writers who are beginning their lives as artists when they are past forty. At Bread Loaf he often attends the Blue Parlor readings, the late afternoon events at which contributors (the class of general admission attendees I fall into) have five minutes to read some snippet of their work. Twice he has stopped me afterward and commented on what I read, with not just something general (“That was an entertaining piece”) but something specific. In fact, the short scene he commented on in 2006 became the manuscript I brought to workshop in 2008. As soon as I saw his name on the Bread Loaf roster for 2010, I knew I wanted a chance to work with him.

Each workshop leader is assisted by a fellow, a writer with at least one book published, who is something of a teaching assistant. In my seven previous experiences at Bread Loaf, I’ve known fellows who were passive at best (one never spoke a word to me nor made any comment, verbal or written, on my work), ineffective (workshop participants are entitled to a private consultation with their faculty member and with the fellow — one fellow was always late for our sessions and kept saying breezily, “Oh just find me if you want to talk” but could never be found), and one who was more active, more insightful, and more of a help to me than the faculty member he was assigned to.

You usually don’t know who the fellow in your workshop will be until after you’ve been admitted (in May) and informed, near the end of July, whose workshop you’ll be in. I knew that Heidi Durrow, who had been a tuition scholar last year, had won a fellowship for this year. I’ve been acquainted with Heidi since 2007, when I Googled “Jentel artists” and discovered she’d been to Jentel twice. I wrote to her, cold and out of the blue, to ask what one thing she wished she’d known before she went there the first time. An acquaintance sprang up. When her novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was published, I bought it, and read it, and was impressed by it, in time to have her sign it for me when she gave the Dean’s Lecture at the Yale Law School in March, an event I was fortunate to be able to attend. Learning that Heidi was the fellow assigned to the McIlvoy workshop was a sign indeed to me of great things to come.

Although each workshop leader has an individual style for leading discussion and approaching a manuscript that is in draft, most don’t bring any creativity to the order in which they take the manuscripts. They just start at the front of the bound booklet, in which the manuscripts are arranged alphabetically by the writer’s last name, and take them two by two over the five sessions that we meet. Thus have I been first in almost every year I have attended.

This can be both boon and bane. On the one hand, you get your moment of scrutiny over quickly and can begin to move forward with your work. (In 2003, the Season of the Witch for me, my manuscript was addressed in the fourth session, allowing me to fully appreciate the depth of the disdain the workshop leader regarded me with and to anticipate the way she would deliver the criticisms that, while warranted, seemed designed not to make me wish I’d written the piece differently, but to wish I had never been born.) On the other hand, fellow participants may feel reluctant to say anything of substance because they don’t want to offend either the writer or the teacher.

When we assembled this afternoon in the living room of the house Mc is staying in (first workshops are often held away from what will be your regular classroom, since all groups meet on the first day, rather than on alternating days), I witnessed the kind of instant community building that I had not seen since 2004 with Wallace and Tinti.

Kevin McIlvoy’s “stance of wonder” permeates his being, the way he moves and lives in this world. He regards the opportunity to read another writer’s developing work as a great privilege and holy duty. He is utterly focused on the positive, asking “Where is everything going right in this manuscript?” To him, making art is about beauty, and the goal of the workshop is to help the writer with who she is, who she wants to become, as an artist.

That sounds like a setup for a “read and rave” session, the kind of empty discussion that you can find in any drop-in community library writers’ group, especially one where the instructor depends on repeat customers for continued income. It is testament to Kevin McIlvoy’s leadership and his ability to engage the group members’ best efforts for the task at hand that the discussion that ensued was illuminating and enlightening. He and Heidi played off each other as if they had been working together for a long time, demonstrating a rapport and a sense of when to speak and when to let the other keep going that a former teaching colleague and I didn’t have for weeks, and we’d known each other for years!

I came away from the session convinced that my classmates had read a better story than I actually wrote, and I feel challenged now to go into revision and achieve the grace and the elegance they see there.

Typically in workshops like these, the writer does not participate in the discussion, commenting only at the end. Mc ended with a question he posed to me and to the writer whose work we addressed next: What has been the most difficult aspect of writing this piece?

Keeping it to 6,000 words (the Bread Loaf limit), was my somewhat facetious response. My greatest challenge in revision? Respecting my characters, who are very real to me and whom my readers responded to with warmth and enthusiasm, and approaching them with a stance of wonder.



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