Open Letter to Yale Writers’ Conference

 

To: Jotham Burrello —   Director of the Yale Writers’ Conference, Summer Session

Dear Jotham,

This letter is long overdue, but I do not want to miss the opportunity to speak up further about the experience at Yale this year

As I said before, your leadership has resulted in a noticeable improvement in the tenor and environment of the Yale Writers’ Conference. I would also like to speak more specifically about Mishka.

I was so impressed last year by the quality effort that Mishka puts into his workshop that I came back this year. This despite feeling that after five years of attending the Yale Writer’s Conference, isn’t it enough already?

This year, Mishka continued his devotion in his workshop. It was a good mix of students, one that was conducive to encouraging difficult discussions in a safe, yet provocative and challenging, setting.

I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from the YWC in the past, but I had an even more intense experience this year. I have studied shamanism for over 20 years and have attended many workshops on spirituality, indigenously healing, and personal development, including dozens of Shamanic ceremonies in Andes, rainforest, and jungles of Peru.

I have been searching for a break-through insight into myself for so long, and despite some interesting and deep experiences in South America, I have never had an “aha” moment.

Now, there is no substance-use involved in Mishka’s class — but the intensity of insight and empathy that Mishka showed to each of his students in the class was transformative, at least for me.

Mishka challenged me this year: He got onto my case for not completing my revision of the piece that I worked on in his class last year. He said I was the rare student that has what it takes to be a successful writer and that I was wasting that talent. He advised that I either take my writing seriously, or stop wasting my time and money: “Yale is happy to take your money, you can keep coming, but I see no point if you aren’t going to apply what you learn and fulfill your potential as a writer.”

I became highly activated and interactive with Mishka both in and out of the classroom, in a way that quite honestly bordered on disruptive. Misha handled me with steady calm and consistency. He refused to reassure me or placate me. He applied steady pressure until I broke. I broke down and lost my shit, in a way that was a long overdue and much needed. And I left that shit behind in that Yale Dorm Room where the oppressive and relentless humidity of the Yale jungle fostered the insight that the Amazon basin and Peruvian Jungles could not.

* * *

When I texted you on Saturday, I was planning to talk to you to explain that I had to leave the workshop early, that I had given up on writing for good. I was going to take solace that I can return to my career as a doctor. I also wanted to make sure that there was no misunderstanding or negative consequences concerning Mishka. I did not want to just disappear and become a ghost of the YWC— a topic that would be whispered about for years to come.

At that moment, Mishka reached out and wrote an email: “I see what’s going on. You sent your revision last night but changed the title the file, so I did not realize what it was.”

(He thought I was messing around with something else.” (He had offered to review a final draft of my story from last year and assumed I was messing around with another piece and I had not followed through.) “

“So I keep telling you that I am waiting for a final draft, and you had already sent it.”

(While I had assumed his continued call for a final draft was stating that what I had come up with was unacceptable as a final draft.)

I called Mishka, we sorted it out, and at that moment: POOF. I settled down and prepared myself to finish my work and read at the student reading  the next day.

* * *

I learned by the end of this workshop that I do not need reassurance: I need to embody my self and my ability to write and communicate. I do not need anyone else to tell me my writing is good, or tell me that I know what I am doing — I need to step up and do that for myself. And I did. I had the moment of insight that I have been searching for 20 years.

(It involved a lot more than that. Wait for the book.)

It’s worth noting that Mishka took it upon himself to review two of my pieces this year and give me detailed notes and suggestions on both. I got two workshops in one year.

I feel that I have transformed not only in my writing but as a person. The shift has held out for the last six weeks, so I know it isn’t just a temporary weekend workshop high. It has resulted in noticeable improvements in my relationships and my work. Everything that I dreaded at work — the difficult/angry/threatening patients, the sick and dying and hopeless, the pressure and intensity of expectations that are put on a doctor — it all has now become easy. I no longer dread difficult situations, I see them as an opportunity and challenge. I am confident that I can handle anything that might come up. My staff at work has noticed it and has been commenting. And this is in the context of me having 26 years practicing medicine and the fact that I was already functioning on a very high level,

* * *

Back to Mishka. He is not only very intelligent, dare I say a genius, but he is also unusually insightful, empathic, and emotionally connected to others and their writing. When he led the discussion of my piece in class this year; he expressed a deep understanding of what I was trying to convey and showed empathy for the ordeal that I wrote about. And he was able to lead the rest of the group into sharing his understanding of my work.

(I had written about some of the problems in my marriage, a marriage that ended 20 years ago, and circumstances that I have moved well beyond and left behind me. So much so that I was not expecting any new insight into my story as it is one I have discussed extensively and written about and moved beyond many years ago. Or so I thought.)

The events that I wrote about were not even close to the most uncomfortable parts of my marriage. But the entire room sat there and expressed concern and understanding of my story; I broke down into tears, tears of relief that others actually can understand what I went through, and they did not blame me or judge me for happened.

Now, this is all very personal, but I wanted to convey the level that Mishka is able and willing to go to with his students. He goes deep into the most emotional and uncomfortable areas, shines a light, and sets up the opportunity for healing. We learn how to better understand ourselves, and how to convey that understanding on the page.

As good as a writer as I now realize I am, I am beyond words in expressing my appreciation.

* * *

I want you to know you have a gem in Misha. I know you appreciate him, but you cannot possibly know the depth and extent of what he does without attending his workshop.

Kudos to Yale for seeing beyond Mishka’s tattoos and rugged exterior and checkered past and embracing him at Yale workshop — a feat that is doubly impressive given Yale’s concern about image and reputation. Because Mishka reflects on the best aspects of Yale’s reputation — a legacy of excellence, truth, and light.

Now that I have conveyed my thanks and appreciation, it is time to review Mishka’s noted and finish that damn story!

Sincerely and appreciatively,

Kurt