Monday, October 29, 2018

My First Time: Jenn Stroud Rossmann

The First Time I Took Myself Seriously

The first time I went to a weeklong writers’ workshop I was still in grad school, before jobs and kids and various responsibilities kicked in. Since I was working toward my PhD in mechanical engineering, a week at Squaw Valley felt like a glorious moment of finding my people while visiting a land where words were the currency. I felt instantly at home. There’s a reason they call it the Squaw Valley “Community of Writers.” But, because I was still in the suspended half-reality of grad school, I didn’t yet know how special, wondrous, and rare this experience was. Also, there were hot tubs and mountains and wine. It was late-90s northern California, in the middle of another gold rush (several of my lab-mates had side hustles daytrading), and we were invincible.

After Squaw Valley, I buckled down and finished my thesis; I got a job teaching engineering with the marvelously clever students at Harvey Mudd College. I had wonderful colleagues and a little bungalow in Pasadena, and I was trying to get tenure. I wrote on the weekends, or late at night after finishing my grading. But I was very much an engineering professor whose “hobby” was writing fiction. (And reading it: I subscribed to several litmags, and read a few novels a month.) In the meantime, the veins of gold dried up, and several California universities froze hiring. So my husband’s faculty job, when it came, was across the country, in New Jersey. We moved, I found a new position, and I was back at the starting line of the tenure track. Then, we had children.

This is how some novels get written: after the “real work” is done; at naptime; in the car while you’re waiting for ballet class to get out; when your husband sees you getting twitchy and takes the kids to the park for a canoe. I wrote stories and novels this way, on the side and in the margins, and I sent them out. I got some useful feedback, and some not-so-useful. I slid a lot of manuscripts into the drawer. My children grew, and I started to feel more confident about my odds of earning tenure.

I had been automatically deleting those emails from Squaw Valley about each summer’s re-convening of the Community of Writers, and—after a wistful sigh, and a little wave of ennui, those about other conferences and residencies. (I never took the step of unsubscribing. I may be a bit of a masochist when it comes to ennui.)

Then, twelve years after Squaw Valley, I decided to apply to Tin House’s summer workshop. It would be in July, in Portland, Oregon; in August, I would compile and submit my tenure file. I made a pro-and-con list. I shopped for daycamps that my young daughters could attend while I was gone. Here’s what cinched it: my capable husband said, We got this. My best friend back in California said, I’ll meet you there. My mother said, Use my frequent flier miles. My in-laws said, What took you so long.

The week of workshops with the legendary Jim Shepard was transformative. The craft talks and readings were edge-of-seat, can’t-take-notes-fast-enough terrific. (This must be what it feels like to get an MFA, I thought.) My fellow writers were generous, subversive, hilarious. And not all of them were shockingly young, with jetpacks strapped to their backs as they counted down to career rocket-launches. Some, like me, had other lives, other jobs. (I called home each night to hear my daughters’ sweet, vulnerable voices, usually during happy hour.) We called it wordcamp, recognizing the ephemerality of our time together.

All of us recognized each other as fellow citizens of this world of words. The work of both workshoppers and faculty was dauntingly excellent, so the week didn’t exactly build my confidence in my own writing. But it was a homecoming. The week reminded me how alive I felt in this world: performing a close reading of a story; discussing stories and novels; hearing lyrical poetry read aloud; watching as Luis Alberto Urrea dropped his new novel to the ground and performed the first chapter from memory, in character(s).

I soaked it all in, sat marinating on the plane ride home, then faced a week of agonizing detox on re-entry to Real Life. I resolved to figure out how to bring writing out of the margins. A slow learner, I realized only gradually that if I could visit this country of Wordland again—whether it was in Oregon, or Brooklyn, or California, or Chicago—I could reconnect with my people, practice my conjugations in the native language, cobble together something like a DIY MFA, and eventually learn how to conjure this feeling at my very own desk: I belong here, I’ve knit something of words, and I believe I may be able to strengthen it, today.

Jenn Stroud Rossmann is the author of the new novel The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, set in Silicon Valley in 2002. Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody, says it is “acutely observed, full of wit, keen insight, and compassion.” Rossmann writes the essay series “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Tahoma Literary Review, failbetter, and other magazines. Her work has been a finalist for honors including the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, the Disquiet Literary Prize, and Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize. She earned her BS and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. You can find her online at

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

No comments:

Post a Comment