I’ve been asked to offer some further thoughts on designing and leading a creative writing workshop, and to respond I thought I’d talk a bit about how I do the novel workshop that I’ve been teaching in the summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. This will give me a chance to talk a bit about general strategies that I think work well in any workshop while also extolling the virtues of this particular writers’ conference, which is enrolling students now for this summer.
This week’s request to talk a bit about leading a writing workshop is timely because the Spring Semester begins at Ohio State today, and this evening, I’ll be meeting with my MFA fiction workshop for the first time. Here are some things I promise to do as I lead this workshop. I offer them here for anyone who may be thinking about teaching a workshop or for those who may want to think about how to be productive members of such a workshop.
1. to set a tone of mutual respect, generous inquiry, collaboration, and good humor.
I remember on New Year’s Eve, when I was a boy, my father’s side of the family would gather for a supper of oyster soup and games of cards—usually either Pitch or Rook. This was in a day when we didn’t have cell phones that took pictures, when we didn’t live in a society that immediately documents every moment. On occasion someone would have an instamatic camera or a Polaroid, so sometimes there would be a few moments frozen in time—people sitting around a kitchen table, cards fanned before them, my cousin reaching out to gather in a trick, or my mother in the midst of conversation, her head tossed back as she laughed.
Feeling a little disorganized around the holidays? Imagine the way writers of memoirs must feel when faced with the task of giving shape and structure to the experiences that they’re trying to render on the page. I’ve had a request to talk about such things, so here goes.
This week of Christmas, I’m responding to a request to talk a bit about publishing with independent presses. This is becoming an increasingly valid form of publication with several examples of small-press books garnering critical acclaim. The small presses exist to do what many New York houses are becoming leery of doing, namely giving a home to authors whose work may not fit the current mold of what major publishers think the latest big-selling book should be, or giving a home to authors whose sales records with the big houses aren’t enough to make a publisher have confidence that they’ll be able to make money on their latest books.
Continuing to respond to your requests for blog posts about particular topics, I turn my attention this week to the question of how I’m able to write about my parents again and again while coming at that material from fresh angles.
To be honest, sometimes I worry about my returning to the story of my family over and over. I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home throughout my childhood and on into my teenage years. Then I think about what a notable writer said—maybe it was Fitzgerald, maybe it was Flaubert (some of you will surely know)—about a writer being lucky to figure out early on what his obsessions were and to spend a lifetime writing about them.
I remember a story about Yogi Berra trying to explain the fine arts of hitting a baseball to another player and then realizing that he really couldn’t explain. “Let me show you,” he said, and he proceeded to demonstrate. Yogi was also known to say at some point, “How can you hit and think at the same time?”
I’m thinking about this as I start responding to readers’ requests, the first being to discuss the flash form of creative nonfiction. Let’s say we’re talking about 750 words or fewer, the size of essays that our friends at Brevity publish. Believe me, there are plenty of folks who are smarter about this form than I, but I’ll do my best to make what I hope will be some useful points, and maybe, like Yogi, I’ll even try to show you.
I want to thank everyone who responded to last week’s invitation to submit requests for future posts. I received some really good suggestions, and I meant to respond to one of them in this post, but then I saw the sad news that Kent Haruf, author of Benediction, Eventide, Plainsong, The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged, had died, and my mind turned from issues of craft to issues of how to carry oneself as a writer. Kent was expert at both.
I’ve recently seen a Facebook post that allows you to track all of the states that you’ve visited. That got me wondering about how many states I’ve visited to do a reading or to teach a workshop. The total is twenty-eight and spans from Alaska to Florida to Vermont and a whole lot of other places in between—all thanks to the kindness of folks like you.
A brief post after a power outage on a snowy day. I’ve been thinking about the fact that teachers of creative writing often teach us something when they don’t seem to be offering much instruction at all.
When I think of all the workshops that I’ve taken, it occurs to me that what I remember most aren’t specific techniques that I learned, but how I learned to think about writing the way my teachers did.
A teacher of creative writing is someone who’s been thinking about craft much longer than his or her students have—not only thinking about it, but coming to a deeper understanding of how a piece of prose or poetry works.