The following is a transcription of an afternoon seminar with Lucy Grealy, with an introduction by Professor Jeffrey Berman, Department of English, UAlbany.
Berman: On behalf of the New York State Writers Institute, the English Department at the University at Albany, and the Dibner Fund, I want to welcome you to tonight’s talk. I have the honor of introducing you to Lucy Grealy. She was born in 1963 in Dublin, Ireland and came to the United States when she was four. She grew up in Spring Valley, outside of New York, as one of five children. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence University, and a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa. She’s taught at Amherst college, Sarah Lawrence, University of Iowa, the New School, and Bennington College.
At the age of nine, Lucy Grealy was stricken with a rare form of bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, which has a survival rate of only 5%. She underwent radical surgery—involving the removal of half her jaw—endured nearly three years of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and had more than thirty operations to reconstruct her face. The psychological pain from this experience was probably worse than the physical pain. Not only did she have to worry about how others perceived her, and how she perceived herself, but she also felt responsible for the economic hardships this expensive medical treatment caused her family.
In 1994, Lucy Grealy published Autobiography of a Face. The memoir describes, with unusual power, incite, and candor, her experience with cancer and reconstructive surgery. The book has received the extraordinary praise it deserves. The New York Times reviewer observes, "Despite its unblinking stare at an excruciatingly painful subject, this is not a dour book. It is a book about many things: sickness and health, body and soul, gender and social expectation. It is importantly a book about image, about the tyranny of the image of a beautiful, or even a pleasingly average, face. In the end, this tyranny is not so much overthrown as shrugged off."
The Washington Post Book World notes that, "Grealy turns her misfortune into a book that is engaging and engrossing, a story of grace, as well as cruelty." The Times Literary Supplement reviewer comments that, "Grealy succeeds brilliantly in evoking the feelings of a young girl caught up in a painful world she does not fully understand, and which makes little effort to really understand her."
Autobiography of a Face demonstrates not only the miracles of modern cancer research and reconstructive surgery, but also the importance of survival narratives. She is part of a long tradition of what I have called—in a book on Joseph Conrad I published 25 years ago—"writing as rescue." In her memoir, she describes how she was drawn to writers who felt compelled to describe their traumatic experiences to readers. She writes, "Life in general was cruel and offered only different types of voids and chaos. The only way to tolerate it, to have any hope of escaping it, I reasoned, was to know my own strength, to defy life by surviving it. Sitting in math class I would look around and try to gauge who among my classmates could’ve lived through this trauma, certain that none of them could. I had already read a great deal about the Holocaust, but now we were reading first person accounts by Eli Wiesel, and Primo Levi, in social studies. I was completely transported by their work, and the more I absorbed their message, the more my everyday life took on a surreal quality. Now, everything—everything—seemed important."
Lucy Grealy’s most recent book is called, As Seen On TV: Provocations, a collection of essays that explore a wide range of subjects, including tango lessons, the New Testament, and friendship. She has written a book of poetry called Everyday Alibis, and has contributed essays, poems, and stories to leading journals and magazines. She has won many prestigious prizes, including the Harper’s National Magazine Award, the Times Literary Supplement Poetry Award, and two Academy of American Poets prizes.
I’m currently teaching Autobiography of a Face in a course called Literature and the Healing Arts, and I think my students will agree with me that readers find themselves transported into a different world, one in which everything takes on heightened meaning. It is a reality where nothing can be taken for granted, neither good health, nor good looks. When we close the book, we realize that we have witnessed extraordinary courage and endurance, qualities that we ourselves will need, when our own good health and good looks fade as they inevitably will. For the end of her memoir she writes, "Poetry became a religion for me. I was a fanatic. I would pull people into a corner and say, without any sense of irony, ‘you have to hear this, it will change your life.’"
Like the best storytellers, she pulls readers into a corner, and demonstrates, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, how her story will change our lives. Please join me in welcoming Lucy Grealy.
Grealy: Thank you for that introduction. I’m going to read something that’s not completely long. It comes from the book of essays, As Seen On TV. I’m going to confess to you now that this essay is probably my most personal favorite thing I’ve ever written. Not because it shows me at my smartest or my toughest, or anything, but I think it truly captures what I was like as a young adolescent. Even though my particular circumstances are different from other young adolescents I think anybody in here, all of us former young adolescents in a state of striving, will recognize. Also, this piece has nothing to do with my face. My face is there, if you know about it, you know what was going on in my life, but it’s also a piece about a different kind of intense yearning, which for me took place with horses. I’m going to read this piece called "A Brief Sketch of Myself at Fourteen," and I’m just going to clue you in so you don’t have to spend any time figuring it out, that in the first paragraph, I have just been thrown off of a horse. I’m just sort of lying halfway on a fence, and I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’m just so shocked.
[Reads "A Brief Sketch of Myself at Fourteen"]
Any questions? You can ask me anything. I may not answer it, but . . . .
Question: How did you start writing Autobiography of a Face?
Grealy: Somebody asked me to write an essay for an anthology they were doing, and they showed that essay to an agent and that agent called me and asked me if I wanted to write a book. That’s how it started.
Question: Do you own a horse now?
Grealy: My oldest friend, Stephen, is a horse trainer, and I can’t afford to own a horse but I pretend that I own horses with him. Sometimes I pay for the horse and he trains it, then sells it and we cut the cost. I think technically I do own a horse now, but I’m not entirely sure about that. He’s a horse trainer, and everything they say about horse trainers is true.
Question: You said that we can ask you anything. I think I remember from your memoir, you have a twin sister? I was just wondering where she was during all this?
Grealy: Yes, I do have a twin sister, but, alas, I neglect to mention that she is my non-identical twin. My family was absent. It was a very isolated experience when I was ill, and it really didn’t include my family very much.
Faulkner: You had said something earlier today, that one can read between the lines on a number of things. Recount, if you would, your mother’s reaction. You said that your family didn’t talk much about the book.
Grealy: My family’s never talked to me much about the book. After the book came out I was interviewed in People magazine and there was a line about how I was quoted as saying that my family wasn’t very communicative. I went to go visit my mother shortly after this and she kind of walked into the middle of the living room and she said, "I don’t know why we’re not communicative," and then she turned around and walked out. It just summed it up.
Question: Do you have any cats or dogs?
Grealy: I do. I have two cats, Fedora and Stinky. There was a thing in the paper the other day about cloning cats, anyone see that? At the very end there’s this crazy woman who wants to clone her cat Stinky, and I was so afraid that all my friends would think that was me, but it’s not. But on the whole drive up here I was with my friend Lucy and about every ten miles I felt the need to scream out, "Stinky’s in the freezer!" because this woman put her cat Stinky in the freezer, and like I said I was afraid that everyone would think, "Wait, Lucy has a cat named Stinky. She’s a little odd. She’s attached to Stinky." So, it’s not me, it’s not my Stinky. He’s not in the freezer yet. My Stinky is very alive. The last line in the thing was, "Take Stinky out of the freezer and bury it." He’s not an "it"! Stinky’s not an "it"! It was horrifying. It should have said, "Take Stinky out of the freezer and bury him." That would have brought tears to my eyes instead of outrage.
Question: How do you feel about your childhood experiences now? Are you still dealing with memories of childhood?
Grealy: I think it sucks, I’m still in therapy figuring it out. Some are just coming up. My psychiatrist keeps saying things like, "Your mother did what? Your sister did what?" It’s very gratifying. It’s great when your own psychiatrist is outraged by your mother.
Question: How long did it take you to write your memoir, and has your interest in horses come from race tracks?
Grealy: No, racetracks are abominable places. People who don’t know anything about horses reside at racetracks, and it’s a really sad place for horses to be. I still ride all the time. My friend Stephen is a hunter/jumper trainer, and like I say, racetracks are sad, sad places. 98% of those horses end up in a dog food can. The trainers aren’t really trainers, their just conditioners. They want to condition the horse to get the most amount of money out of it.
I had 18 months in my contract [to write the memoir], and I think I took 20. But I actually wrote it in about two intense bursts of six months, with maybe another two months of putzing around. So I wrote it in about eight months.
Question: Were your mother and father abusive to you verbally or physically when you were young?
Grealy: They weren’t physically, but they weren’t very nice to me, that’s for sure. I have to bring that up with my psychiatrist. They could ignore my sister, where my situation demanded that attention be paid to me, and I don’t think my mother was particularly interested in doing that, so, it’s a very boo-hoo kind of tale.
Question: Since you wrote essays and poetry before, would you have written an autobiography if they hadn’t offered to pay you for it?
Grealy: I doubt it. Maybe, I don’t know. Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. How’s that, that clear enough?
Question: I’m just wondering if you’ve become as open in your personal life as you are in your stories?
Grealy: It’s funny, I’m an intense loner, and then I’m also the most social person you’ll ever meet, you know, and it’s a true paradox. I don’t even think paradox is the right word because that implies one definition of me doesn’t suit the other. But I am an intense loner who spends a lot of the time alone and who likes to be alone, and I have more friends then you can shake a stick at at the same time.
Question: You mentioned earlier about how men perceive women and girls’ relationships with horses. I was just wondering whether that sentiment was an adult perspective that you have now or was it something you’ve thought since a child?
Grealy: Definitely an adult perspective of the person who was writing that essay. It was in the perspective of the girl who was living it out now. One of the reasons I like this essay, stylistically, is the day that I hit upon. First of all I had these girls acting out with horses, and here are these men who are willing to tell us that it means this, and the girls are kind of holding steady, and saying "No, it doesn’t mean that, it means this, and we know what it means even if we can’t articulate it to you." Then I was writing that scene where we were mistreating the horses, and I knew that it was a very sad scene in that, as a child, I had a take on it that was very different than the take I have as an adult, and to just formally think, well, what does she know? To sort of turn it to that direction was a big revelation to me when I was writing the essay.
It also opened up to me the fact that there are all these things that as children we do understand that we lose when we’re adults, and the only way to kind of get them back is to be willing to drop the adult voice, and drop the adult sense of knowing, which is what that line was about that even now, "Yeah, my adult self has all these ideas of what was going on." It’s like, "Fuck her, what does she know? This is about being a kid, and being lonely, and being in love with these horses." That’s what it was about, it wasn’t about codependence and all this other stuff.
Faulkner: Earlier you had talked about issues in nonfiction writing, and writing with the child’s perspective informed by the adult’s awareness. You were talking, in another kind of parallel way, about how, in bringing adult language to childlike insight, it is something that’s revelatory, something that makes adult life worth living. Do you try to mask some of the adult insight and try to recreate the child view?
Grealy: No. I think you have to have them both. I happened upon this technique, where at that point in writing that essay it worked. I can’t repeat that technique. That’s the sadness of form, you can’t repeat it without people saying, "She did that in her last thing." I have to figure out another way to do it, it’s not a static process, that’s for sure.
Faulkner: I think it’s a pretty resilient technique, I think you could use it again.
Grealy: We’ll see. People stole it from me. And they actually come up to me and say, "I stole this from you, is that okay?" I’m like, "No, but it’s too late, you’re going up and reading it on stage, I guess it’s okay." I won’t mention any names.
Question: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with poetry, and do you think that your poetry has hindered your writing of prose?
Grealy: I don’t think it hinders, it definitely helps. I got my MFA in poetry, and I didn’t know how to write prose when I started writing prose. I really didn’t have a clue, but everything I knew about prose I already had learned from poetry. The most important thing I learned from it as I was writing the prose was just to pay attention to every single word, and have every single word matter. That went a long way. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, that one thing went a really long way. I don’t know if that answers your question, but. . . I still read a lot of poetry.
Question: What specific poetic aspects have you applied to your prose?
Grealy: Well I use a lot of imagery. I tend to use imagery that I don’t need to explain, imagery that holds its own, as it were. That’s changing too. The more I write prose, the more I’m willing to explicate. I wasn’t willing to explicate at all when I wrote the first book, and I still believe that you have to really save your energy. Things that can be shown, information that can be given to the reader visually, should be given visually. You should never have to make a choice of "do I have to explain this or give it visually?" If you can give it visually, give it visually, which just saves you energy for those things which cannot be anything but explained. It’s kind of as simple as that, but it’s amazing how many people don’t know that, and they spend all this time trying to explain things that they can show very easily.
There’s a lot of information that you can just give in an image, and if you can pay attention to the writing of the image then all this other implicit meaning within the image comes up. You don’t have to force it, it just comes up because you’re paying attention to the writing and the language, and if you do that then the images offer up other meanings that they wouldn’t give otherwise and which you would sound like a big bore if you tried to force them into the writing. Having said that I think that there’s this tendency in workshop writing to have too much imagery, and not enough explication. People don’t think enough in their prose anymore. It’s all image image image, and we don’t get to hear people think anymore, or not very often. So, you can go too far in the other direction, too.
Question: You talk in your book about an image that you had about yourself at the time of the book, and I’m wondering if you could talk about that image and how you feel about it today.
Grealy: That was 15 years ago. I don’t have that image of myself at all anymore. So I would be pretty horrified if I were to report to you that I still have that image of myself. I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t really know how to answer that question. It’s not how I think about things, in those terms. It’s still a struggle, and one of the lines at the end of a book is the illusion that you’ve figured it all out, and I went through great pains at the end of my book to say no, I haven’t figured it all out. This is what I have figured out. It’s the same thing now. I haven’t figured everything out. I’ve figured a few more things out, but I’ve also forgotten some stuff, too, so it probably equals the same amount of knowledge. I don’t know if that disappoints you or not, but I really don’t have an answer for that.
Question: In Autobiography, you mention a poet named Rilke [Rainer Maria], who I believe was an existentialist. Do you consider yourself to be an existentialist?
Grealy: I sat in on a class at Harvard once, by a teacher named Philip Fisher. It was a huge lecture class on the passions in Shakespeare, and he said that most people start out as existentialists, and over the course of their lifetimes become stoics, and I realized that I had started out as a stoic and become an existentialist over time. Now I’m kind of moving into post-existentialism—don’t really know what that means, but it sounds good. I was a real hard-ass when I was younger. I’m less of a hard-ass now, and all I ever try to do is say what I’m genuinely thinking and feeling, which does, simply because I’m a human being and I hang around a lot and I read a lot, become more informed all the time. Every year I have more things to reference, more things to include in the dialogue of who I think I am. But it’s still essentially a pretty humane and traditional view of myself.
Question: Have you ever thought of writing a book about your family at all?
Grealy: Ew, icky. No. They’re nuts, I don’t want to deal with them. They would just get mad at me, and they’re already mad at me, so. . . I have a very bad relationship with my family.
Question: What are you reading right now, and who are your favorite authors generally?
Grealy: I’m reading a lot of history right now, a lot of Barbara Tuchman, and William Manchester. I really love a good historical late person’s account of the Medieval Ages, I’m really into the Middle Ages. William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, such a good read, really juicy. Those popes, you wouldn’t believe what they’ve been up to. Some poets I really love who had a really big influence on me were Frank Stanford, early books by Michael Burkhardt had a really big influence on me. My mind is kind of drawing a blank. Other famous people have had a big influence on me.
Question: Many people tell you how moved they were by your book, and how inspirational your writing has been. How do you feel about those kinds of comments?
Grealy: This is another long discussion I have with my psychiatrist all the time. He thinks it should be more important to me, whereas I tend to dismiss it. I do, I say, "Ah, get a life!" You know? Which is really a dismissal of myself. My thing to the other person is, you know, "You’re an idiot for taking me seriously," which is all about self effacement and deprecation which I’m getting better at not doing. Now when people tell me that, I really can listen in a way that I couldn’t seven or eight years ago. Back then, I thought it was so ridiculous that they thought I was somebody to look up to. But now I hear it very differently
Question: You said before that you didn’t start out writing the autobiography as a book. Could you talk about getting the clue that you could actually make it a longer piece?
Grealy: Of getting a clue? Well, I had to write the book, and then my editor was a big help. I watched her line-edit me, and that was a real revelation. She taught me how to edit as I was writing. I was lucky that the book didn’t require a lot of major revision. I just needed a lot of line editing. I said earlier that I wrote the book by the seat of my pants, and it was only after I wrote it that people said, "That’s so interesting how you did that or how you did this," and I always look at them like, really? Where? Now that they’ve told me that I do that, what I’ve tried to do is incorporate what people have taught me about my own writing and pointed out to me and moved on further with it. So I can see this kind of progression. When I look at my first book now I think there’s a lot of things I would have done differently. There are a lot of clunky moments in that book, and it’s not that I think it’s a bad book, I don’t. But if I were to write it now, it would be a much better book.
Faulkner: In what ways would it be different?
Grealy: I would be able to go into the kind of insight and philosophizing that I couldn’t go into in the first version of the book. And there are some really clunky moments that I don’t think people even know they’re clunky. But I know they’re clunky. I’m not going to tell you where they are, either. But I would write them more smoothly.
Faulkner: Could you give us a taste of what you mean by philosophizing, or insight?
Grealy: Well, similar to what I was saying before, that whatever you can show you show, and then you have the room left over to think out loud, and I would do more thinking out loud in the book. I’m simultaneously dissing the idea that I am philosophical and I’m also thinking, "I haven’t been philosophical enough, you want more?"
Question: How was your relationship with your dad, and did you have any brothers?
Grealy: I had two brothers. I had no relationship with them until I was older, and then one of them died. My father was very absent, too, and then he died. As I said earlier it’s always the good parent who dies. It’s very interesting phenomena, but it’s true.
Question: Could you talk a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Grealy: I’m writing out a novel, thank you very much for asking, Next question. I don’t want to talk about it because I’ll have to leave the stage and go have a triple Scotch and a Valium. I’m not talking about the novel—the n-o-v-e-l, as my friends call it, as they’re not speaking to me. It’s two-and-a-half years overdue, now that you bring it up, anything else you want to know?
Grealy: It would have been an awful book if I had done that.
Question: Do you think that your perspective changed the way you saw those issues in your childhood?
Grealy: It made me appreciate that I really did have a difficult set of circumstances when I was growing up. I came through them pretty well, considering those circumstances, which wasn’t something I was willing to admit prior to the writing of the book. I didn’t know my mother was a bad mother for a long time, I just thought that that was what mothers did. It was only after I wrote the book that I realized, wow, I had a really difficult childhood. I didn’t grow up in a concentration camp, and I didn’t have any cigarette burns on my body, but, I suffered in a lot of other ways.
Question: Since you’ve written poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, can you explain the difficulty of writing each style?
Grealy: Fiction is very hard. I’ve been working on this n-o-v-e-l, or the N-word as I like to call it, for a few years now, and I’ve only just recently figured out how to do it. It is very different from writing nonfiction, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to do it. Writing is not easy, it is not easy at all, and there’s no sure way of doing it. You really do have to figure it out every day, how you’re going to make it work.
Question: Has anyone talked to you about possibly adapting your work for film?
Grealy: Yeah, and I’ve learned a lot about Hollywood, let me tell you. Somebody’s turning it into a screenplay right now, and I’ve had a lot of offers for TV movie-of-the-week type stuff, which I’ve said no to. I think that if it gets made it will take a long time, for a couple of different reasons, the most troubling of which to filmmakers is that the narrator changes ages very dramatically. She’s ten and she’s 16. It’s very hard to have a narrator in a movie change ages like that and have it work, which I never even knew about Hollywood, but now I know. You never want your prime character to go through adolescence on camera.
Transcribed by Joseph PezzulaLucy Grealy
Writers Online Magazine Article
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The New York State Summer Writers Institute
Published in the Saratoga Living Magazine, Summer 2005, Volume 7, No 2
The first year she had enrolled in the New York State Summer Writers Conference Saratoga Springs resident Pernille Dake admitted that she was very intimidated. "I had recently enrolled as a writer in a program at Skidmore College," she said, "when I found out that I could take a four-week summer class and receive masters credit if I enrolled in the summer institute, I jumped at the opportunity. I'm a painter, and I didn't really think of myself as a writer, but I wanted to learn how to write about art so I enrolled in the class."
She found herself in a class with some very serious writers from as far away as Los Angeles and New Zealand, and she was being taught by nationally known writers such as Russell Banks, the award winning author of such books as Cloudsplitter and The Darling. "At first I may have felt a bit star-struck," said Dake, "but I soon got caught up in the enthusiasm and energy of that class and all those wonderful writers. The writers aren't just great artists, but they are also fantastic teachers who love their craft."
Dake mentioned that being in class with those struggling student writers, getting supportive feedback from the writers on the teaching faculty, and attending the evening readings given by prize winning authors gave her tremendous inspiration as a writer. "There's such a community that evolves from the experience," she said. "It can be life changing. I've kept in contact with some students I've met in the program, and this summer I will be attending for my third time."
The New York State Writers Institute was established in 1984 by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Kennedy. It was mandated by the New York governor at the time Mario Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to provide "..a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination."
Today the Writers Institute is one of America's premiere organizations for celebrating the art of the written word. Some of their programs and activities include the Visiting Writers Series, the Classic Film Series, the New York State Author-Poet Awards, workshops, the Writers Online Magazine, various conferences and symposiums, the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute, which has been held every year since 1986 at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
"It was around 1985 when Don McCormack, the Dean of Special Programs at Skidmore, called me up and asked if we wanted to join forces to put on a summer writers conference at Skidmore," said William Kennedy. "I was all for it. Saratoga has always been my summer backyard, and this was exactly what the Legislature had wanted the Writers Institute to do, to take the operation on the road and not just limit it to Albany."
In the first year no one quite knew what the summer conference would be like. "John Guare, E.L. Doctorow and I went up there and shot the breeze for a while talking about writing," said Kennedy, "and we got a huge crowd. From that beginning we just kept getting bigger and longer and now we go for four weeks, and we bring back many of the same writers year after year."
According to Kennedy in those early years the draw was to get the writers up there in early August when the track was in session. "But we don't need to do that anymore," he said. "Our group of writers have become sort of a literary family. We have a great camaraderie, and the writing quality of the students seems to go up every year as well."
This year's conference will take place from June 27th through July 22nd, and will feature creative writing courses in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Students may enroll for two weeks (June 27-July 8 or July 11-July 22) or for the entire four-week session (June 27-July 22).
The Institute offers courses for undergraduate and graduate credit, in addition to noncredit courses. Students take a three hour class three mornings a week supplemented by a discussion Tuesday and Thursday afternoon with visiting authors. A fiction writer-in-residence reads entire student novels or extensive fiction works in progress and is available to meet with students on a tutorial basis. Another distinguished writer-in-residence reads book-length poetry or nonfiction manuscripts and offers advice for revisions and eventual book submissions.
There are also free public readings by visiting and staff writers Monday through Friday evenings from 8 pm till 9:30, which usually take place in the Davis Auditorium.
More than seventy-five percent of the students choose to live on the 750-acre Skidmore College campus. They are housed in an air-conditioned, furnished residence hall, and they may take their meals in campus dining facilities. The students also have use of the college's library, swimming pool, weight and fitness rooms, lighted tennis courts, track, and North Woods hiking trails.
"Back in 1986 I made an overture to Bill Kennedy about collaborating together, the Writers Institute and Skidmore College, about having some sort of writers conference here," said Don McCormack, Skidmore's Dean of Special Programs. "From our humble beginnings this has turned into one of the finest writing conferences in the country. The ambiance created by Bill and all the other writers we've had here makes this a summer destination writers want to keep coming back to. The writers who work with us genuinely enjoy the teaching, their readings and they also enjoy each other's company."
McCormack said the summer conference is unique in that it offers both college credit and noncredit. "Students may bring their manuscripts and have them evaluated by our writers," he said, "but that's not the core of what we're all about. We're a conference that is about getting students to become the best writers they can be. We're not about getting them published, although many go on to publish their work."
McCormack is also impressed with the audiences, many from the general public, who come nightly to hear the authors read their work. "One summer Russell Banks came and read a chapter of his book in progress The Sweet Hereafter," said McCormack. "He asked the audience some questions, got plenty of feedback, and came back the next summer with a very different chapter, much of it changed from the comments the audience had given him the year before. That's one of the reasons we get such good writers year after year. They come here because they know that our students and our audiences are of the highest caliber."
This summer's conference has been flooded with even more applicants than usual. "We've had to turn some people away because we are constrained by the living conditions," said McCormack, "and we also don't want the classes to get too large. We're happy with the size of the program the way it is now, but we'd like to get more students of color."
Another writer who comes back every year is National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton University during the academic year. "The organizers Robert and Peggy Boyers, and the extraordinary staff and faculty they have gathered around them, make this summer writers conference unique," said Oates. "It's more in the way of an unusually intense, serious, and exhilarating university institute series in which ideas as well as writing technique are discussed."
Oates said that most writing programs are commercially oriented with panels on agents and TV writing. "The students and the audiences are excellent," she said. "I save most of my difficult material to be read initially at Saratoga Springs before this unique audience. Last summer I read the story Spider Boy, which subsequently appeared in The New Yorker."
Russell Banks has been a full-time member of the faculty, and some years he has come as a reader in the evening. "I was hired one of the first years back in 1987 by the director Robert Boyers," he said, "and he and his wife set the tone for this conference. They treat the writers graciously, and they treat the students the same way."
What Banks likes about this conference is its emphasis on pedagogy. "The feeling is that we're going to help you become a better writer, and if you publish that's great, but this conference isn't about publishing," he said. "It's quite competitive to get in to this conference. One year I taught a master class workshop, and it was the best class I've ever taught anywhere."
Another aspect of this conference that Russell Banks likes is the social and personal friendships he's made with many of the writers through the years. "There are some writers like Francine Prose that I only get to see once a year at Saratoga every summer," he said, "and Skidmore and their facilities are such a wonderful place to be, with the town a short walk or bike ride away."
Pernille Dake no longer feels star struck by the writers, and she can't wait for this year's summer conference to begin. "The writers challenge you to do your best work," she said, "but they always answer any question you have. They don't act like they're more important than you are. We've even gone out to The Parting Glass and had drinks with the writers. The Skidmore employees also want your time here to be perfect. They always make you feel special."
By Jack Rightmyer