Last post I gave you an overview of my annual trip to the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop and Retreat. This week I’d like to highlight what about that experience was so uplifting.
Short Stories Galore
Dan Mueller’s Writers Retreat is based on the reading and study of short stories. Not a critical dissection of those stories, though we did some of that, but a discussion with an eye toward using those stories as prompts for our own stories. The “twist” was each one of the stories we used for prompts had themselves been inspired by other short stories.
The first story we discussed was “Safety Man” by Dan Chaon, and the focus was the use of image in narrative. This story is about a woman who’s lost her husband suddenly and how she uses a joke gift as a replacement. It’s poignant and lyrically written, and the image of safety man, a blow up doll that’s supposed to fool criminals into thinking you’re not at home alone, is woven deftly throughout. So much so, he even gets a bit of dialogue.
The prompt was to write an opening to a short story or write a piece of flash fiction where we introduce the reader to a “strange” object as viewed by a character in two diametrically opposed ways over time.
I was able to use a bit of back story I’d recently written for one of my characters, and the strange object was a tumulus or a tomb under a large mound of earth. I showed how the character had viewed it as a child and as a grown man.
The second story, “The Region of Unlikeness,” by Rivka Galchen, was about an unholy trinity of people and maybe time travel. It was that complicated and somewhat obtuse, but what it boiled down to was the age-old trope of a love triangle. Our prompt was to write a scene in a limited point of view in which three characters interact in such a way that one is made to feel left out.
As a member of no clique in high school, that was easy for me, and I came up with a full story tentatively titled, “Tennis Match.” I’ll be working on it for sure.
The third story was “The Baby Cage” by Molly McNett, a coming of age story with a bizarre twist of how a parent deals with her infant son who likes to grab other women’s breasts and how a babysitter reacts to his actions. Our prompt was to write a scene beginning with “When I was fifteen…” Again, a memory from high school, which I fictionalized, provided the beginning of another story I will flesh out.
Story four was Samantha Schweblin’s “Heads Against Concrete,” about an avant-garde artist who may or may not be on the spectrum, his bizarre art, his bursts of anger, and his search for a friend. Our prompt was to write a scene where a character’s moral code is supplied as justification for an immoral action. I was able to use the opening scene of A Perfect Hatred: Descending Spiral (which comes out in a month) to fulfill this prompt.
Last but not least was “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” by Cris Mazza. Structurally, this was an interesting read. It was two stories, running parallel from two characters’ points of view–but it was the same event. It was challenging and timely in the #MeToo era. We didn’t get a chance to discuss it, but we did get a prompt–tell the same story from two different points of view.
The workshops hold sway in the mornings, and after lunch we have craft seminars. A workshop instructor will pick a topic and give an hour-long lecture about it.
The poets among us got their day with Jim McKean’s “Ten Poems as Prompts and Possibilities.” One craft talk was a panel consisting of writers, an editor, a publisher, and an agent who discussed “Publishing Points of View.” Dan Mueller’s craft talk was, of course, about using short stories as prompts, “Inspired by ‘Spring in Fialta.'”
The craft seminar that particularly interested me was Pinckney Benedict’s “Podcasting for Fun and Profit.” Benedict’s craft talks are among some of the best I’ve had at TMWW&R. They’re quirky (he once used a clip from The Walking Dead) and frenetic (he moves about the room like a balloon losing its air) and you learn a lot, sometimes things you least expect.
For instance, I’ve listened to a few podcasts but I’m not a raging fan of them. Most of the ones on writing tell me what I already know or they’re designed to sell the narrator’s services. What Pinckney gave us was a quick, dirty, and easy way to do your own podcasts using free software and by demonstrating you don’t need an expensive sound studio to accomplish it.
So, I’m going to give it a try. Stay tuned.
And Then It Was Time to go Home
It seemed almost as if the week had only begun when it was time to pack up the dorm room, say goodbye to writer friends, and head home. But heading home with your head buzzing with ideas for short fiction and ways to enhance my publishing is a good thing. The other good thing is that feeling lasts a whole year until you get to do it again.
I’m already thinking about TMWW&R 2020!