Report from the Antioch Writers’ Workshop
Last week, I had the privilege of teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and what a wonderful teaching experience it was. I got to see some old friends while also making a number of new ones. The participants were smart, engaged, generous . . .and they even laughed at my snail jokes.
My fiction class started at 8:30 each morning, which made for an early wake-up call, but we all soldiered through and had a bit of fun while doing so. I loved sitting in on the poetry class, led by Cathy Smith Bowers, and the creative nonfiction class, led by Dinty Moore, and I loved my conversations with the afternoon workshop leaders: Sherri Wood Emmons, Roxane Gay, Jeffrey Ford, Cathy Essinger, Matthew Goodman, Greg Belliveau, and Trudy Kishner. As my small-town newspaper used to say when reporting birthday parties, family reunions, or even shopping trips to nearby cities: “A good time was had by all.”
When I gave the keynote address to kick off the workshop, I said that I’d been lucky with the conferences I’d attended when I was first starting out because they’d given me a supportive group of folks who took my work seriously, who told the truth but as delicately as they could, who provided a network of friends that continues to this day. I also benefited from the instruction of workshop leaders who were more interested in teaching than in playing the role of “famous author.” I was exposed to editors and agents. I felt like a writer, and I left with the sense that with hard work and continued practice I could be better. From what I observed at Antioch, this was the experience of most, if not all, of the participants. Kudos to the organizers of this conference. I highly recommend it.
The workshop also had a Young Writers component, a group of high school students who turned out to be bright, poised, and darned talented. I listened to some of them read at the open mic one evening, and I came away mightily impressed. It was those young writers that I was thinking about when I listened to two literary agents talk about taking their clients’ books to auction in hopes of getting the largest advance that they could. These agents also were very direct about the types of books that they were looking to represent, and most of them were genre fiction. I learned terms I hadn’t previously known. Steampunk, for instance, and other sub forms of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The agents were professional, energetic, and no doubt helpful to many in the audience. They were good writers’ conference citizens, willing to share their expertise with their listeners, and their presence demystified much about the publishing industry. So kudos to them, too. I started to wonder, though, whether the conversation about auctions and trends ran the risk of making the listeners, particularly the young writers, believe that a commercial interest was valued above any sort of literary inclinations. If we were in a cartoon, would our eyes have been flashing dollar signs?
Admittedly, my own aesthetic leans toward literary fiction and nonfiction, but still I don’t seek to diminish genre fiction or mainstream nonfiction. Every form has its place, and every book represents a writer’s individual talents and perseverance and should be celebrated. If zombies are your thing and that’s where your talents lie, then go for it. Write the best zombie book that you can write. But what if some of the people in the room, particularly those young writers, started to think, “Well, it’s clear that I have to write a steampunk-Victorian-vampire novel because that’s what sells.” What if they let what the agents were saying keep them from writing the things only they could write with authority and passion (yes, maybe even literary fiction) because they were too focused on commercial interests?
All I’m saying is this: when we start out as writers we can too easily believe that we have to write to fit current market trends. Even if we know from the git-go that we’re interested in writing literary fiction we can sometimes let the marketplace steer us away from our true material. I know I spent a long time thinking that no one would be interested in the stories that I had to tell about people in small towns and on farms in the Midwest. When I was a teenager, and on into my twenties and even some of my thirties, what I needed more than anything was the freedom to read widely and to try a number of different approaches in my writing. That’s how I began to define my aesthetic; that’s how I came to understand what world mattered most to me and how to best express it. Had I gotten the idea too early that I had to write a certain type of fiction, for example, who knows if I’d ever have become the writer I am today, one that I’m completely comfortable being, and isn’t that what we’re all after whether we be writers of literary fiction, or sci-fi, or steampunk, or any other number of genres and sub-genres? We want to spend our days doing the work that most fulfills us, writing the books that our talents lead us to write. I guess I’m saying we want a perfect match between writer, material, and form. In the final analysis, that’s what makes us the most happy.
In the afterglow of what was a fabulous workshop, I feel compelled to offer a voice to stand alongside the voices of those two agents. What I’d say to the young writers at the workshop (and to anyone still experimenting as they try to find their material, their voice, their form) is, don’t write a book to cash in on a market trend. Write the book that only you can write. Write it with all your heart. Write it for a lifetime, and be blessed.
Such important words – for the young AND old writers among us. Thank you for sharing so generously of yourself at AWW. You truly made the week memorable.
I’ve been guilty of following the lure of easy (?!) success, focusing on commercial fiction in my publication efforts, even though I’ve had better, albeit modest, success with non-fiction. And after this year’s AWW, I’ve come away feeling yet again that I need to reconsider my goals, my passion. This post (and AWW faculty Dinty Moore and Matthew Goodman) remind me of that, again and again.
Cindy, it was indeed a great pleasure to be with you all last week in Yellow Springs. As I hope I made clear in my post, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing more commercial pieces. Any piece of writing, skillfully done, is a cause for celebration. I’m just concerned about folks getting too confined by what they think the marketplace demands. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep doing the good work.
I think this is a fair assessment. Agents do give the commercial view; we always include agents because that’s part of what writers come to this (or any workshop) to learn about. But the vast majority of our emphasis is on craft, for which I am grateful. (And it’s one reason I am happy to have the job as director.) Like Cyndi, I’ve at times been lured by promises of shiny trinkets on the commercial path. But, ironically, the only times I’ve achieved any kind of commercial success have been when I’ve finally said, oh, eff it, and just written what tugs at my heart (or grabs me by the throat.) Thank you for your brilliant teaching!
Thanks for the comment, Sharon. I thought the agents’ presentations were important ones because, as I said, they demystified so much of what can be a fairly mysterious process to beginning writers. Those presentations made important contributions to a very craft-centered workshop. I love what you have to say about finding commercial success (or it finding you, I should say) after you wrote what tugged at your heart or grabbed you by the throat. That’s it exactly! That tug and grab. That’s where the real writing lies. I loved every moment of the workshop. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of it.
One of the things I have always admired about the Antioch workshop is its egalitarian approach–there is something at Antioch for everyone, whether you’re writing vampire gothic or literary fiction and poetry. They respect good writing, regardless of the genre. Great workshop!
Cathy, I certainly felt that egalitarian approach; in fact, it was one of the things that I most admired about the workshop. Good writing is good writing, yes? As I say in my post, it should be celebrated. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I really enjoyed meeting you in Yellow Springs.
Floating back to earth from the heights of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop takes a couple days, but here I am. This was my third AWW experience, and I am always amazed by the emerging themes. This year, the dual focus on abiding images and sounds were just what I needed.
As a writer who is full of quiet stories, I often become discouraged by the commercial focus in fiction writing. Last year, I left the workshop convinced that no place exists in publishing for my work. I wasted months trying to find another type of story inside me. My advisor heard my dilemma in our conversations and gently steered me back to the stories that are mine to write. This year, I left the workshop convinced that my stories have a place in publishing. Jeffrey Ford and my workshop group looked beyond current commercial trends and gave creed to my efforts. I am thankful to them, and everyone involved in AWW, for reminding me how important it is for me to stay true to the stories I am meant to share.
Hi, Joy! Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. How fortunate you were to have a wise advisor who could remind you to stay true to the stories that are yours to tell. Keep doing the good work, my friend. Remember what Emily Dickinson said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know about it. Is there any other way?” Quiet stories, well told, can do exactly that to the writer and the reader.
I enjoyed all the sessions. Every session engaged me as a writer. Cathy Smith Bowers led the poetry session with such grace and style. Bowers in depth look at poetry brought everything out. Your keynote address was inspiring and brought back memories of my own childhood. The whole workshop focused on many elements of the craft and that was important to me. There was something for everyone.
I love your last paragraph here because it sums it all up—the experience and writing.
Thank you for including me in your group and for an amazing week at Antioch University Midwest.
Thanks for reading my blog, Josie, and for taking the time to leave a comment. I was inspired by Cathy, and Dinty, as well. I learned so much from them. We were truly a village of writers for that week. Keep doing the good work, my friend!
I hope you have an amazing summer!
You, too, Josie!
This is great medicine indeed, Lee. Thank you so much for your generous encouraging words that reach writers (and this writer) in all phases of her/his career — it’s something I need to hear and strikes a chord with me. As one who makes a living as a journalist and being “part of” the market, I can see how one needs to honor the deeper calling. Love this: “Write the book that only you can write. Write it with all your heart. Write it for a lifetime, and be blessed.” That’s giving and receiving as well as writing. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Naomi. I often think everyone has something in them that they were born to write, that no one else can write quite the way that they can.
Ditto to everything said in this blog as well as the comments. This was my first experience with the AWW & I must say I was thoroughly impressed. I came in very intimidated & thinking I was going to be surrounded by super-established writers, which I was…but I thought that I would be ‘out of my league’ so to speak but I was never made to feel that way. The mentors/speakers kept it plain & simple yet challenging & thought provoking. I had too many ‘Aha!’ & ‘Well, duh!’ moments to count them all.
Lee, they couldn’t have picked a better keynote speaker to jump off the workshop. I will be honest & tell you that I was not excited about coming out to Antioch at 7 PM on a Saturday evening, but once you started talking & sharing, I was so glad that I sucked it up & made it there. It was awesome & inspiring. I went to bed that night like a kid that knew he/she were going to their favorite amusement park the next day. I was too excited to sleep! 😉
To say I enjoyed the AWW is an understatement. Though I was mentally beat every night (in a good way), I was enthused every morning about what else I was going to learn that day. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to attend this year & do believe it was the best year for me to have partaken in it because the panel of authors that were selected this year were simply amazing & have gotten me excited for next year as well as for my writing career.
Bless you, Joy. You brought a good deal of energy, enthusiasm, and talent to the workshop. Keep doing the good work, my friend.