Monday, November 14, 2011

Tales From a Great Workshop

Workshopping. That word, I think, conjures up a visceral reaction in nearly everyone who has taken part in one, and often that reaction isn’t positive. I have been in workshops that felt petty and pointless, workshops that felt less like writers helping each another and more like crows picking apart roadkill.
When workshops are handled well, though, they can be indispensable. Because no matter how long we’ve been writing, we still can’t get enough distance from our own work to be completely objective about it. Workshopping provides that little reality check from others who are less invested, but it also can answer some BIG QUESTIONS: Is what we’re trying to say actually getting across on the page? Does our work match up with our intentions? A good workshop can show us little veins of gold shimmering in places we didn’t even know were there. But a great workshop does even more. It lets us see possibilities in our writing even when the work being discussed isn’t our own.

By way of example, I point to the Hamline Summer Writing Workshop I attended last July in Northfield, when fifteen creative nonfiction writers gathered for a week in a chilly, windowless room to work with memoirist Ira Sukrungruang. About half of our time was spent workshopping others' writing, which at first seemed like a lot to me. But what I came to appreciate that week was how spending time looking closely at other writers’ words can improve our own. Each day, Ira found ways to broaden discussion beyond the work in front of us. He found teachable moments everywhere, whether we were talking about dialogue, scene, memory or endings. While we all had a chance to have our own writing workshopped, and to talk about the writing of others, he kept us focused on bigger picture issues, and directed discussion back to what would be most helpful to the most people. At the same time, he offered specific suggestions that were dead-on. It was breathtaking, frankly, to see him turn a pretty good piece of writing into something that was truly good thanks to a couple of well-targeted, virtuoso moves.   

Ira doled out so many gems that week that I couldn’t possibly include all off them here. But here’s a random sampling:

-        In memoir, we need to mine the hot spots and cut out the rest. Look for places you use the word  “would.”  Get rid of it if you can; it describes a routine but doesn’t get concrete. Instead, pick a representational moment. Let the images pop up in the reader’s head.

-         Mining memory: Try to remember details. Try to remember how someone would talk. Try to remember historical markers.

-        Let intense scenes stand on their own. There’s no need to add drama to what’s inherently dramatic.

-        White space can forward time, but in lyric essay it also can serve as an  “interplanetary dimensional portal.” We can use white space to juggle tense and point of view.

-        Write like a metropolis, where every sense is on edge and readers are constantly kept on their toes, instead of like a suburb, where everything looks the same.

-        It’s possible in creative nonfiction to ask too many questions. Instead of questioning, we can also TRY to get at the answers, to essay, even if that entails a  “perhaps.”  And it always comes back to: Why am I trying to answer these questions now?

-        People suffer. But how we UNDERSTAND our suffering is really the story. How did it affect me then? How does it affect me now? As for whether it’s important and worth writing about, it is if we keep thinking about it.

-        Don’t feel like you have to write about something new all the time. After all, we write about the things we obsess about. And those are the things that are most worthwhile, even if we keep coming back to them again and again.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I especially love "Write like a metropolis" gem - that is one of the best analogies ever.