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.
The workshop size at Vermont is small—five or six people. Some of them have completed a draft of a novel, some have written a first chapter, and some have written a short story that they sense can be the basis of a longer work. We all read 20-30 pages of each person’s work before we gather for our week-long workshop in Montpelier, VT. I also usually ask each person to read The Great Gatsby, a short novel that makes it easy to talk about structure while also providing examples of other techniques—characterization, point of view, detail/setting, and language/dialogue/tone. In other words, Gatsby gives us a way to talk about technique—a conversation that I weave into our discussion of each participant’s pages. In an ideal workshop, we think about craft by reading the work of those writers who have been thinking about it longer than we have. We use this as our basis for our critical analysis of our fellow-writers’ work as well as our own as we continue to practice our craft.
At Vermont, I might lead the people in the workshop through some writing exercises meant to address some of the weaknesses that I’ve identified in their work. And, of course, this gets extended in the craft classes that are offered alongside the workshops. Each is an invitation for people to generate new work while also practicing a technique that may need to be sharpened. The exercises may also turn out to be crucial to revision.
When we talk about the first pages in that novel workshop, we try to give the writers a good sense of what they’ve set in motion that we want to see carried through in the novels. I invite people to talk about what most engaged them, to talk about where in those pages the writing has the most heat. We also talk about interesting character relationships, what seems to be in flux as the novel opens, and what we’re dying to know more about. We also talk about the potential for interesting complications, and we think about how the main characters can be looked at as a complication of interesting contradictions. Then, after we identify the heart of the novel—that element that forms the center—Jay Gatsby trying to reclaim his lost love, Daisy, for example—we talk about how the other elements of detail/setting, point of view, language contribute to the organic whole. How does the time period and setting in Gatsby, for example, help create the storyline? How is the first-person point of view essential to the story being told? How does imagery work? How is this novel created from wise choices in all the elements of fiction?
I end our week together by asking people to bring a revised section of the novel to our last meeting. That might mean they decide to improve on something they’ve already written, or it might mean that they create something new that needs to be in the novel. Sometimes I suggest revision strategies, and sometimes, if the writer wishes, I make specific revision assignments. The key is to invite the writer to put to use something that has resonated with them from our workshop sessions.
In a nutshell, this is a writing workshop: outside reading, considerations of craft issues, writing activities, workshop discussions, and revision activities—all done in scenic Montpelier, Vermont, in mid-August. This conference is notable for its accessible faculty, its supportive atmosphere, its rigorous and yet kind workshops, its stimulating craft lessons, readings by faculty and participants alike, its grand community of writers. There’s even music and dancing! If you’re interested, or know someone who might be, feel free to have a look at: