Last week was the one week I look forward to all year. Well, in truth, I look forward to next year as I’m driving away from the last day of workshop.
Followers of this blog know that for the past eight years I’ve attended the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshops and Retreats at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The workshops and retreats are modeled after the residency portion of a low-res MFA seminar. Intense and very satisfying. A few years back, the founders of TMWW&R added retreats where you don’t bring anything to have critiqued. Rather, you study specific short stories or poems in depth, which then become a prompt for you to write a scene or a full story. I’ve done that retreat for fiction for the past three years.
But what’s it like at a writers workshop/retreat?
A Busy Schedule
There is something to be said about having your meals prepared for you by someone else; namely, that you tend to eat whatever is on the buffet. I mean, you wouldn’t want to hurt the cafeteria ladies’ and gentlemen’s feelings, would you? One writer muttered on the second day, “We’re going to gain the Freshman Fifteen in one week.”
Unlike what I remember from my own college days so long ago, your meals during the workshop/retreat are at set times, and the cafeteria is only open during those hours for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All we seemed to be doing was eating and writing or eating and learning about writing, but that’s the point.
So here’s a typical day:
0915 – 1215 Workshop
1330 Craft Seminar
1430 – 1730 Homework (reading and writing)
1900 Faculty, student, or alumni open mic readings
Of course, the hours spent in the dorm lounge after the end of the day talking writing aren’t on the official schedule, but they’re a must.
You do this everyday for five days, and when you’re done on Friday you’re eager to get home but sad to leave.
A Writer’s Retreat
Led by the incomparable Dan Mueller of the University of New Mexico’s writing program, our retreat started with some reflection and philosophy. For the reflection we had to read over a selection of “Words by Writers” compiled by Dan and select the one that spoke to each of us. And, of course, we had to share that.
I selected a quote from John Irving:
“If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feet that you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
And because the workshop/retreat is conducted as if part of a graduate degree program, we had to discuss why we selected that quote, why it resonated.
I explained that since I write about spies but was never one, I’m always concerned someone will call me out for that. Some call it imposter syndrome, but I am a writer, not am imposter. I’ve never claimed to know more about the intelligence community than someone from it. Also, I write about difficult topics: genocide, terrorism, white supremacy, ruthless politics, etc. I do feel if I’m going to write about these things, I need to go all out, to be in over my head on occasion.
Then came the philosophy, which is simply, be kind to each other. We were going to be reading newly drafted, unedited material, and our first order of business when we discussed that as a group was to focus on what we liked, what engaged us. Lucky for us, everyone in the workshop/retreat was a talented writer. It was easy to find something to like in everyone’s work.
Dan’s words to us about his philosophy set the tone for the week:
“As a writer I’m never entirely sure whether I’ll be equal to the particular challenges something I’m writing will require of me, and yet I have faith that the piece will impart to me what it wants to be…. We have the opportunity to be the voice of works-in-progress, to not only enter their worlds but to listen to what they have to tell us about themselves and about what they ultimately want to be. I’m looking forward to working with each and all of you. Thank you for trusting me and one another.”
Next Post: Some engaging short stories, some rough drafts, and a craft seminar that inspired me to try something new.