At Sewanee, the workshop is almost a side-show. It happens for about two and a half hours every other day. The main events are breakfast, lunch, the afternoon reception, dinner, the evening reception, and nights at the French House. In any given day, at least two of these events (and more probably three) will include alcohol. On a sidenote, the food here is amazing. Every meal is well-themed. Not in a hokey cafeteria sort of way, but in a “my friend invited me over for a dinner party” kind of way. And everything is prepared in a fairly healthy fashion. Today, the lunch was Mexican food, but it wasn’t at all greasy or heavy.
There are about 150-200 people here and really all you do is talk to them. Every event, you can either talk to the people you’ve already talked or go and find some people you haven’t talked to. And there’s a kind of inherent tension in that, because it’s easier to walk up to the people you’ve already talked to and say stuff to them, but you’ve also kind of talked them out. In normal social situations, the well of small talk is periodically replenished by shared experience (which is why it’s so hard to communicate regularly with people who are geographically removed from you). You can talk about what happened at work, what movies you’ve seen or books you’ve enjoyed, or about the live of shared acquaintances. But at Sewanee, that’s difficult because nothing happens. For awhile, I was kind of hoping that a bus would crash nearby, so there’d be some kind of current event to anchor discussion.
This means that if you talk to someone you’ve already talked to, then you need to, in some way, progress past small talk and increase the level of intimacy in the conversation. I think this is the reason that friendships you make at camp (or online) can be so intense. If you don’t talk about more important things, you eventually run out of things to say.
However, talking about more important things is not only exhausting, it can also, at times, be vaguely distasteful.
But the only other option is to go out and introduce yourself to new people (to whom you can still ask the small-talky “Where are you from?” type of question). And that becomes more and more troublesome over time, because people have sort of settled into their groups.
This means that in the past four days I’ve spent way more time breaking into other peoples’ conversations than I ever would’ve thought was possible or appropriate. I’ve only found two ways to do it and both are a little unsatisfactory. Both begin with hovering on the edge of an existing conversation and working one’s way into the circle. From there, one can either just break in and say something like, “Hi, I’m Rahul”. (One person at Sewanee has told me that he says, “Hi, can I break into your conversation?”). Or you can just slowly start entering their conversation by interjecting your own comments.
Even more annoying is that once you’ve entered into someone’s conversation, you also need to participate in it! If you introduce yourself and then just continue to stand there and listen, people will turn away from you and you’ll gradually be forced out. Nor can you do any kind of small-talky things (unless the conversation lulls). No, you actually have to periodically comment upon the topic at hand.
We all know how to do these things, of course, but it’s one thing to know them and to be able to do them maybe once a night…and it’s another thing to do them again and again and again and again.
I haven’t learned much about writing here. And I’ve only learned slightly more about the writing industry. What I _have_ learned, though, is a ton about how to talk to strangers. And, in the end, that’s a way more important skill.