I can’t imagine that Margaret Atwood or Stephen King go to writers workshops. Teach them, maybe; indeed, I have Atwood’s master class queued up on my computer. Since I’m not anywhere near their league—I’m barely in A-ball compared to them—I still find ways to improve my craft. Of course, continuing to write and having a great editor helps, but learning from other writers and people who teach for MFA programs is something I relish.
Since 2012, I have attended Tinker Mountain Writers Workshops at Hollins University in Virginia. This workshop is five days of either guided critiquing of a manuscript portion or a generative workshop, where you create on the spot. I’ve done both, and I like them both, though lately I’ve tended toward the generative workshop because I’ve written little short fiction in the past few years.
The first critique workshop I went to at Tinker, I was terrified. While the instructor and the rest of the writers critiqued your manuscript, you had to sit quietly, not say a word, not defend, not explain. I sat through four days of that for the other workshop members. I was somewhat soothed that the critique, particularly from the instructor, was totally constructive, but I still wasn’t looking forward to having my manuscript gutted.
Turns out the instructor had a reason for having me go last. He liked my writing. As he spoke about not only the story and my writing, I had my Sally Field moment—you know, “You like me, you really like me.” But the instructor also gave me usable feedback on how to make my descriptions better, how to set a scene using all the POV character’s senses, not merely sight. For the first time in a while, I left that workshop with the validation I was on the right path as a writer.
But the other, rather informal aspect of this workshop is the meals and the downtime where you can have the writer equivalent of hangar flying for pilots—“There I was at 30,000 feet, one engine out, and no electrical . . .” The hours we spent talking writing, lubricated by a bit too much liquor, I suspect, formed bonds that I not only cherish but need 11 years later.
And we’ve stayed touch, beta reading and critiquing for each other, giving props to each other when we have a book coming out. We’re all each other’s peeps.
In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic kept us from having in-person workshops, so we used ZOOM. We could see and hear each other, and it was a positive experience; but we all found out we missed the informal aspects of Tinker Mountain—gathering at a table in the dining hall or in the student lounges in the dorms to do nothing more than talk about writing, its ups and downs, its highs and lows, and just how lucky we are to be able to tell stories.
And next week, we finally can get back together in person. We’re all simply giddy at the prospect. I mean, why else would I subject these aging bones to sleeping in a college dorm bed for a week if not to be among my peeps?
Why do I keep coming back?
If not for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshops, I wouldn’t be what I am today. A spy novelist.
You can find out more information about the various workshops offered by Tinker Mountain Writers Workshops at www.hollins.edu. Maybe I’ll see you there next year.