Bannister side, top to bottom: Liz Counihan, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, Amy Tibbetts, John Moran, Jacey Bedford;
The Milford Report 2010
An American at Milford
In September 2010, I traveled alone across the ocean to a country I had never visited, where I knew no one. Two days later, still jet-lagged, I took a train to a remote region where it rains every day, followed by a taxi to a village whose name I couldn’t pronounce. There I spent a week in isolation with a bunch of people I had never met before. Some of them had funny accents, and all of them told me about things that were wrong with my novel.
It was the best week ever!That sums up my experience at the Milford Workshop in Wales. But that doesn’t explain why I decided to make such a trek. In fact, I hadn’t been planning on traveling or attending a workshop at all that year. I was working multiple jobs and had been neglecting my writing. I had hoped to start graduate school in creative writing in the summer of 2010; but that spring, I learned my application would be delayed and I would have to re-apply for the following year.So I felt like I needed both a vacation to someplace faraway, and a workshop that would allow to me get back into the rigor of writing. Milford still had openings, and Liz Williams kindly and patiently answered my logistical questions by email. I paid my deposit and bought a plane ticket to London. Thus began my adventure!I’d never been to the UK before, although I’d dreamed many times of traipsing about the countryside that inspired most of the fantasy books I’d read as a child, and of spelling words the British way, and eating toad-in-the-hole.But I almost didn’t make it through customs at Heathrow. The official who grilled me on my reasons for visiting the UK seemed highly suspicious of my travel plans. I was going to a place in Wales so obscure I wasn’t quite sure where it was or what it was called? And I was meeting people I didn’t actually know? At a science fiction workshop? Is there such a thing? Furthermore, the customs official thought the jobs I worked in the US didn’t sound like real jobs, and she seemed to suspect I was planning to stay in the UK to live off the dole, or perhaps to hide out in the slate hills of Wales, stealing sheep and plotting science-fiction-related conspiracies.After that, surviving the critique process was easy.I’d known what to expect as far as critiquing in a professional workshop. I’m a 2004 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and I’ve done other critique groups since. So I knew to expect to read a lot of manuscripts, to spend time writing in-depth comments, and to receive helpful feedback on my own story.I did not expect to meet such a wonderful group of people—talented writers with diverse skills and styles, who also proved to be hilarious conversationalists and kind-hearted, generous friends.Still, everyone was a stranger to me when I arrived at the Trigonos retreat, jet-lagged and hungry and dragging huge piles of manuscripts in my luggage. The wonderful Trigonos staff made me feel right at home, fed me soup even though I was a few hours early, and showed me to my cozy room.Then I met my Milford cohorts. At first I was overwhelmed by all the new people and intimidated because almost everyone else seemed to know each other. But then I figured out that they were really nice, and that they did not think I was any weirder than they were.Secretly, I’d been concerned because I had fewer professional sales than the other attendees, and I feared I wouldn’t fit in. But everyone was immediately welcoming and encouraging. They loaned me a watch so I could get up on time, offered me lots of wine, and pointed out the huge raincloud that was hiding Snowdon. I soon grew fond of their adorable accents (except for Karen, my fellow bland-speaking American—but she made up for it by being funny and friendly and interesting).New attendees might want to know, what do you do all week at Milford? The first half of each day is free for reading manuscripts. If you finish your critiquing ahead of time, you can spend the morning exploring the beautiful grounds of Trigonos, walking along the lake shore, crossing slate bridges over wooded streams, following paths that twist among flower beds and secret walled gardens. The more ambitious among you can go rowing on the lake or hiking in the mountains.In the afternoons, we gather in a large room with a view of the mist-wreathed slopes of Snowdon. We sit in a circle and take turns describing the strengths and weaknesses of each story. Unlike other workshops I’ve attended, Milford is not led by one teacher, one “real” writer who guides the other student writers. At Milford, we are all peers.The critique process is amazing and exhilarating. You get to read breathtaking, fascinating stories, and you get to see that other professional writers struggle with some of the same issues you have. You get valuable feedback, and an honest discussion of your novel’s plot holes, and suggestions for new ways to approach your story line.Most importantly, you get to learn that the name of your goblin is also an unfortunate British slang term for male anatomy.And you get to take breaks for tea. Tea is served about every three hours at Trigonos, in between meals that are interesting, varied, healthy and homemade. There is an impressive selection of various types of tea in the dining room, and writers always enjoy bonding over a sweet, steaming cup. It is vitally important that you drink multiple cups of tea each day in order to acclimate yourself to the drizzly, misty weather. Actually, the weather isn’t that bad. Sure, it rains every day, but the sun also peeks out every day. The climate in September fluctuates between pleasantly warm and slightly chilly. The countryside is lush and green and dotted with sheep.What else did I do at Milford? In the evenings, we stayed up late sitting in the cozy lounge, talking about politics and books and science fiction conventions, gossiping about past Milfords and giggling like schoolgirls at a picnic.At the end of the week, we had more free time when the critiques were winding down. One morning we toured Caernarfon Castle. The last day was a free day for sight-seeing, so we saw Electric Mountain, and a copper mine, and the quaint slate-roofed town of Beddgelert.The only drawback? How quickly the week was over. No sooner had we truly gotten to know each other, when suddenly it was time to leave.What would I do differently next time? I’d plan ahead better and get my critiques done before the workshop starts. I might also just email the critiqued manuscripts back, rather than dragging a suitcase full of paper all over Britain. And I’d plan the logistics of my travel arrangements a bit better, so I don’t end up taking an expensive taxi from Bangor to Trigonos by myself again. (I was able to share on the return journey, so that worked out well).And when I got back home to the US, I had a huge pile of mail waiting for me—along with my acceptance to graduate school, the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.When I’m done with my master’s, I’ll be saving up to go back to Milford.But first, I have to think of a new name for my goblin.
Web pages by: Jacey Bedford