Surviving Kenyon: A Guest-post by Lucian Childs

The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop is billed as a “boot camp” and they aren’t kidding. June 17 – 25 was a week of little sleep, of daily writing stories, attending workshops, lectures, readings. Heaven.

Heaven, too, Kenyon College. Established in 1824, the campus was named one of the world’s most beautiful by Forbes Magazine.

Each day went something like this:

1. Stumble out of bed at 6AM after staying up too late the night before writing the day’s story from a prompt our teacher gave me.

2. Grab a cup of coffee in the cafeteria and make the final tweaks to the story.

3. Wolf down breakfast in the Great Hall (a dead ringer for Hogwart’s Great Hall).

4. Make it to the seminar by 8:30AM. Be brilliant even though I already burnt my next to last brain cell. Read my story aloud. Expect to have its bones picked clean by our teacher, Nancy Zafris, and my fellow participants.

5. Slump over to lunch. Go back to my “Guantanamo Bay cell” dorm room to begin writing the next day’s story.

6. Skip the 4PM lecture and continue to write.

7. Decide whether to skip dinner. If I do, eat a bag of peanuts from the dorm vending machine.

8. At 7PM, go to the readings. If I’m lucky and don’t have to read that night, use that last remaining brain cell to concentrate on the excellent pieces. If unlucky, sit in the front row until it’s time to read one of my stories from the week. To 100 people, some whose names I’ve seen in the New York Times or who are prestigious prize winners. No pressure—everyone laughs supportively, even though I don’t realize my piece is funny.

9. Have a quick drink at the Village Inn on the way back to the dorm.

10. Stay up way too late again finishing the next day’s story.

11. Repeat until exhausted.

This year, there were 71 participants on that schedule. Astonishingly, given the workshop is in Ohio, three of us were from Anchorage: Myself, Antara Brewer and Susanna Mishler.

Participants were divided into eight sections. Fiction faculty: Nancy Zafris, Lee K. Abbott, Jane Hamilton and Geeta Kothari. Poetry faculty: David Baker and Stanley Plumly. Literary Nonfiction faculty: Dinty W. Moore and Rebecca McClanahan.

I had requested Nancy Zafris, whose work I admire. She was fiction editor for the Kenyon Review for many years and is currently the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction book series. She’s supportive, but tough and can spot a sloppy plot point or an unjustified moment a mile away. She’s also very funny, which softened the sting and enlivened the seminars.

Our fellow, Helen Hooper, has recently been selected as the Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford. She wrote alongside us and set a high bar with her funny, perceptive and beautifully crafted takes on the daily prompts.

My seminar mates—a great bunch and excellent writers. Some have MFAs in creative writing and have worked with Nancy before. Amazing how fond of people you can get after being locked in a room with them for so many hours.

I was a different writer that week. I hope I can hang on to him.

One of our first prompts had been to write a series of postcards, slowing bringing the “bottom” story to the forefront. It was fun, but unexpectedly demanding.

On the last day, we gave a little bag of these postcards as a thank you to Nancy. They were from the POV of a kid writing home from summer camp. Here’s mine. I think it sums up my feelings about the incredible week.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Summer camp is almost over. I’ve been having an awesome time. I like horseback riding best. Our riding instructor is really great. She has been teaching us how to take care of horses. She says you have to listen real close to what the horse is telling you, so you can give it what it wants.

When I get home, I’d like to take care of Pudgy like you asked me. I think I could do a good job now.

See you soon,

Your son

PS. I hope I can come back next year and ride more horses.

Lucian Childs is an Anchorage graphic designer and writer whose short story “Training Wheels” was published in the spring/summer 2011 edition of the journal Quiddity. It can be heard online here. Another story, “Hit Me Back,” was picked as an editor’s choice and can be read here, in Compass Rose Volume XI.

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