And no side trip to Lake Wobegon, either; I'm headed to Sauk Centre to take part in the Sinclair Lewis Writing Conference. I've lived in Minnesota pretty much all of my life, and of course I've always been aware of Lewis, Minnesota's only Nobel Prize winning writer. He lived in Duluth for a year or two in the 1940s, and when I was a child someone pointed out his house to me (my father, almost certainly). It was only a few blocks from where we lived, and every time I walked past it I imagined Lewis living there, writing "Kingsblood Royal," hosting elegant martini parties, getting a little tipsy and leading the guests downstairs to bowl a few lines. (Legend held that the house had a bowling alley in the basement.)
But I had never been to Sauk Centre, his home town. I turned down this conference last year--long drive, I was already overbooked (it was the weekend I was coming back from three days teaching in Fargo-Moorhead), and this year I tried to weasel out of it again (lazy, prefer to stay home). But in the end I said yes, and I'm glad I did. It was fun, the attendees were great--interested, smart, attentive--and all that talk about writing got me fired up again, too.
There were about 100 people there, and it looked like a sparse crowd from the vantage point of the stage in Sauk Centre High School, but that's only because they were scattered across an auditorium that holds 500. Once we broke up into smaller groups in the classrooms, it felt just right.
Three writers conducted one-hour workshops--me, a poet, and a children's author, each teaching the same session three times, so that all attendees could go to each of them. I talked so much that today I am hoarse and my throat hurts. My sessions were on writing memoir, and it was impressive to see how deeply people thought about their work and about the genre. We had lively debates over how much you can embellish or make up (me: "none") (most agreed) and what, exactly, constitutes "creative nonfiction" (me: "creative refers to structure, not content. if it's nonfiction, it must all be true"), and how to focus your story, and what the difference is between memoir and autobiography, and how to write the truth without hurting those you love.
In that last area, I referred pretty heavily to an interview I did last year with Andre Dubus III, author of "House of Sand and Fog." In his memoir, "Townie," he first tried to write only his own story, not the story of his siblings, but found it impossible. Terrible things had happened in their childhood--their father had essentially abandoned them, his sister was gang-raped, his brother tried to commit suicide. He had to figure out how to tell the story honestly and fully without hurting his mother and siblings. (If you're interested in reading my interview with him, go here.)
When the conference was over, everyone moved over to the historic Palmer House Hotel for a reception and drinks, but I was wiped out and decided to head for home. First I took a spin through town, though--I couldn't leave without seeing Main Street, could I? Or Lewis's house? (This is Main Street, taken from the intersection of Sinclair Lewis Avenue, which was, of course, not called that when he lived there. It was just Third Street.)
It does seem to be a town that an intellectual would want to see the back of as soon as possible. But it's not without its charms--the gas station, for instance, was full-service! And the cute boy also offered to wash my windshield! But I can see why there wouldn't be enough to keep Lewis there.
It was too late in the day to tour his house, but I have a feeling I'll be back. I hopped on 94 and two hours later I was home, tired, hungry, thirsty, but happy. All that talk about memoir makes me want to write.