Reading for a Writerly Life

Rose Eggert, BWW sustaining member and member of the retreat committee

I have to be honest. I’ve never been much of a joiner. As I writer, my idea of a good day is writing a good sentence, followed by reading a good book, but the Burlington Writers Workshop has been a wonderful way to meet other writers who are as passionate about their work as I am. I’ve learned as much from reading and commenting on the works of others as I have from getting feedback.

But one of the most compelling ways I enrich my writerly life is BWW’s Literature Reading Series on Tuesday nights. Our most recent selection was Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. As you probably know, Faulkner can be quite challenging, but reading and discussing a chapter or two each week with a brilliant, thought provoking and very welcoming group of literature lovers has stimulated my writing more than anything else I know.

In the words of William Faulkner, in order to write you must,

“Read, read, read! Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

The BWW Literature Reading Series is one of the great pleasures of BWW membership for me. I am a sustaining member.

Rose Eggert

If you’d like to help keep programs like the BWW Literature Reading Series going, please consider becoming a sustaining member (at $12/month) or making a one-time donation of any amount today.

Being allowed to give


Eva Gumprecht, BWW Montpelier workshop coordinator

Eva Gumprecht, Montpelier workshop coordinator

Coordinating a BWW workshop is sort of like herding cats. And it just so happens that I love cats. But I didn’t set out to be a cat herder. About 2 years ago, I innocently asked Peter [Biello, founder of the BWW] if the BWW had ever thought of holding workshops in Montpelier so that those of us from the hinterlands wouldn’t have to repeatedly risk our lives in the Bolton Flats. He responded, “We’ve thought about it, but didn’t have anyone willing to coordinate them.” The rest is history.

The thing I’ve appreciated most about the BWW has not been what I’ve gotten from it, but what I’ve been allowed to give. How many places do you know of, in this increasingly disconnected and regulated world of ours, where one is allowed to give what one has to offer? And to have what one gives treated as precious.

At its best BWW is not an “organization”—it is a living, breathing communal organism. Most organizations, including most writing programs, are basically service stations. You pay your money, you get services or goods in return, and you leave. At the BWW, there really and truly isn’t anyone here but us chickens (mixed metaphor between cats and chickens, but you get the point). There is the potential for something much more vibrant and rare than an “organization.” There is the rare chance here for a vast interdependent web that we will continue to weave together.

We think so much about what we want to get, to have, from life.  But really, in terms of what makes life worth living, what creates health and a sense of purpose, it’s what we get to give that counts. And to have our talents, our attempts, our energies, our generous and compassionate impulses, even our failures, received with appreciation and care.

I thought, when I attended my first workshops, that I would learn from having my work critiqued. But over these years I have learned far, far more from offering feedback to others. I’ve been blown away by the incredible variety of minds and the courage it takes to expose one’s private world and work to others. There are pieces to which I would never have given a second look if I saw them elsewhere….genres I thought I didn’t like, subject matter which I thought bored me. But the commitment we make to each other, when we sign up to attend a workshop, is to treat each piece the way we hope ours would be received.

It is an honor to be handed someone’s work. And so I expand my world.  I learn to practice patience, to find the gems in the sometimes very roughly hewn rock, to enter into someone else’s mind and heart and ask myself how I can help them to get where they want to go. People achieve things I would never have even attempted. It is an exercise in exchanging minds and souls.

It is this exchange that I support when I give to the BWW. I hope you will too.

—Eva Gumprecht, BWW Montpelier workshop coordinator

Donate to the Burlington Writers Workshop >



The BWW changed my life

Deena Frankel, leader of the BWW oral storytelling workshop

Deena Frankel, leader of the BWW’s oral storytelling workshop

The BWW changed my life. Really.

I’d been to a bunch of workshops, but never submitted work, as I struggled to transition from the dry writing in my day job to creative nonfiction. Then one idle Thursday night, I went to an oral storytelling workshop for want of a better plan, and I went home with a draft of my first “Moth-style” story. This new medium turned a key in my creative life. I’ve been telling oral stories ever since AND for me those oral stories became the gateway to the writing I’d been striving for. [Editor’s note: To see how far Deena’s storytelling has taken her, come hear her weave her storytelling magic on the Flynn MainStage for The Vermont Moth GrandSLAM II, Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 8:00 p.m.]

Workshopping member writing is surely the heart of the BWW—for writers and readers alike. But the BWW is so much more. A place of continuous learning about the art, craft, and business of storytelling in its many forms. A community of colleagues and friends. Rich opportunities to try on new professional roles, whether staffing Mud Season Review or The Best of the BWW, or leading a workshop.

And all for one low price of admission: nothing. But of course it isn’t really free; it’s just on the honor system. We may operate on a staff-less shoestring, but you’ve still got to buy the shoestring.

What we provide and produce together at BWW is quite an extraordinary feat of community. I feel honor bound to do my part for that community by donating my money, as well as my time. I hope you will too.

Deena Frankel, leader of the BWW’s oral storytelling workshop, design editor of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016, and senior nonfiction reader for Mud Season Review

**Become a sustaining member at $12/month or a one-time donation of $150 and we’ll thank you with a pair of BWW pint glasses! Donate now >

Are you hungry?

BWW member Darlene Witte-Townsend

BWW member Darlene Witte- Townsend

Are you a writer? I am.

I checked out the Burlington Writers Workshop on a warm Wednesday night in June of 2013. I was part of other writer’s groups in the distant past and I hoped to find a nurturing community here in Vermont. Was it even possible?

The address written on my hand was 136 1/2 Church Street. I set out. Where was Church Street? How can an address be 1/2 of something? I needed a map. The map Google showed me was dated 1822. Really? I trudged up and down.

Eventually, I found Church Street but not the address I was looking for. Was it hidden? Why? I searched the crowd for the helper whom I knew was likely to appear, the ingenue, the innocent who would hold the key. Soon I noticed a young woman walking alone and asked if she knew how to get to 136 1/2 Church Street. She eyed me with surprise and said, “I’m looking for it too.” Ah.

I followed her through the twilight until she pulled open a heavy old lead-paned street door near the Red Onion Cafe. I too stepped carefully inside.

We crept through dim light down lumpy stone stairs into a long narrow room. There were five small tables with thirteen people seated around, all of them chomping. Biting. Savoring. Devouring. Sipping. Masticating. Sampling. Smacking their lips. Picking their teeth. Swirling new and old flavors in their mouths. It was not everyday food that focused their attention, however, but chunks of original writing. Poems. Stories.


BWW writers gathered in One-Half Lounge

Writers gathered in One-Half Lounge, one of the BWW’s meeting places before securing our own Burlington space


With this company I fed on strong words and left satisfied. Thank you BWW. I have a place at the table. I have a place to be at home.

Are you hungry? Are you ready?

Darlene Witte-Townsend, BWW member since 2013

Support the Burlington Writers Workshop to help us keep this great thing going. And join us for a workshop in our new space at 110 Main Street, Studio 3C.

Perchance to Read

JD Fox, Mud Season Review editor

JD Fox, co-editor of fiction and consulting poetry editor for Mud Season Review

Most likely, anyone coming to this site has the writing bug, either actively writing (yay!) or thinking about doing so (yay to you, too!). After all, the site is called the Burlington Writers Workshop.

But there is a hidden word in its title. One that should go without saying. So, of course, I’m going to say it and talk about it. Though before I do, can you guess what it is?

Actually it’s two words, to be all Strunk-and-White proper. However, the other one is “and,” which is a great word, but isn’t the one I’m looking for.

Did you guess it now?

This organization could be called Burlington Writers (and Readers) Workshop.

Writers, in general, tend to be voracious readers. Which is a good thing. Not only does reading improve your own writingit also makes other writers happy. Especially when reading leads to publication, which leads to their work being read by a larger audience than, say, just the staff at Mud Season Review.

As fiction co-editor at MSR, I read a lot of submissions. Not all of them, of course, get published. But did you know that not all of the ones I like get published either?

So how do we decide?

Lots of readers, lots of discussion, and lots of coin tossing.

Just kidding about the coin tossing.

But nothing gets rejected based on only one set of eyes. And by the time something makes it all the way to publication, it has had a great number of eyes upon it and has been read and reread. There is often story advocacy involved and more than a little persuasion.

After all, we’re human. Maybe I didn’t get the symbolism of the rocking chair during my read and need to have it pointed out. Or maybe I need to make the case that a story isn’t scant, but brilliantly minimalistic.

We all have our biases, thoughts of what makes a good story, and reasons for liking or disliking something. I know for myself, dialogue is one of the more important elements. I have a lot of flaws as a writer, but I tend to write strong dialogue. So when it isn’t done well, it’s difficult for me to take a work seriously, even one with otherwise cool rocking chair symbolism.

The diversity of our fiction team helps us ensure that what ends up on our site is the best that we can find. We are currently looking for more readers to join our staff. If you are a Burlington Writers Workshop member and you’re interested in reading for us, please send an e-mail to

—JD Fox, co-editor of fiction and consulting poetry editor, Mud Season Review

A Commentary on ‘The Secret’ by Charles Bukowski

By Jimmy Tee, BWW member

photo by Jimmy Tee from the documentary ‘Bukowski’

photo by Jimmy Tee from the documentary ‘Bukowski’

The Secret
          by Charles Bukowski 

don’t worry, nobody has the
beautiful lady, not really, and 

nobody has the strange and
hidden power, nobody is
exceptional or wonderful or
magic, they only seem to be
it’s all a trick, an in, a con,
don’t buy it, don’t believe it.
the world is packed with
billions of people whose lives
and deaths are useless and
when one of these jumps up
and the light of history shines
upon them, forget it, it’s not
what it seems, it’s just
another act to fool the fools

there are no strong men, there
are no beautiful women.
at least, you can die knowing
and you will have
the only possible victory

What a sense of comfort Bukowski offers us in these lines, as if he had comfort to spare, sharing his view through simple words and phrases from a beat-up Southern California apartment overflowing with empty beer cans. To know his life through his poetry sends the reader past the drudgery of the bottom rung of society to visit his straightforward version of the truths that govern existence.

Charles Bukowski suffered the pain of abuse from a father who beat him as regularly as daily Mass. The strap found hanging prominently in the hallway, the welts that never had time to heal. A father who, despite losing his job, still prepared and left for work daily, so strong was the need for pretense, until the day came when both father and son knew the abuse was over and the young man escaped to the street and all it has to offer. These acts witnessed by his mother who silently allowed the assaults to occur.

If great art has its source in great pain, (and who’s to argue against that fact), his childhood would have been sufficient, but shortly after the beatings ended he was afflicted with painful boils on his face and neck, the aptly named acne vulgaris. Emotionally devastated and horribly scarred, he turned to his typewriter, gallons of fortified wine, and a string of flop houses. He delivered mail and drifted from one woman to another. He suffered inane Post Office efficiency games, followed by rotgut bars glowing in neon in the Los Angeles rains, ending spread-eagle on soiled sheets, only to be interrupted by the sameness of the rising sun.

When you read Bukowski, you leave the common area of our fat lives and enter thinness. Truly, the human soul is unbreakable, but oh how it can bend.

Bukowski, by mentioning history, seems to aim the poem at ‘famous’ men or women whom we allow to commit the horrible crimes present in our nature, crimes of a grand scale that repeat themselves despite our enlightenment. The final lines can also be seen as a barb against the tabloid description of the celebrity worship that is a part of our popular culture. The profusion of hairstyled, airbrushed, pancaked skin as a goal we can all achieve is foolish since we all share the same fate and no team of publicists can change that.

Bukowski writes with a mandate that should appear in every poet’s work. It is very tough to agree with Bukowski’s outlook on life just as it is tough to agree with any author. His words contain authority, an accounting of his personal discovery. He mistrusted the fame that found him in his later years, unapologetic as he chugged wine before the audiences at his readings. ‘The Secret’ contains the look behind his eyes.

He is sharing his discovery by keeping his ego in suspect check and allowing his view of a very large subject in a matter-of-fact, almost condescending manner. He writes how my father spoke to me as he taught me the ropes as best he could and left the final education to others. Dont let yourself be fooled by anyone and you are most suspect.

I have lived a fat life. I bet you could say the same thing. Thinness is unappealing in this modern age. Thank heaven for poets. Poetry is concerned with significance and its absence. Analyze ‘The Secret’ as you would a fellow workshop member’s work and it would fail most of the guidelines that we are forced to follow. But his message is clear, important and instructive, for meaning trumps structure and truth contains its own evidence.

A Writing Paradox

image of open notebook with pen

JD Fox on starting a writing conversation

One of the best ways to think of something to write is to write.

You may be familiar with this scenario:

Teacher: Okay, class, today I want you to spend five minutes freewriting.

Student: But teacher, I can’t think of anything to write.

Teacher: Then write about not being able to think of anything to write.

Student (starting to write and grumbling): I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write…

Ideally, sometime before the five minutes are up, the student will go on to write about something that spontaneously occurs to them and run with it.

You may also be familiar with some riff or another about why such advice works: the mind likes to busy itself with thinking and frequently will go on wonderfully serendipitous tangents regardless of our starting-place thoughts.

But I’d like to explain it a different way here, one that might make it seem less like tricking your mind into being creative and more like simply leveraging one of the ways our minds work.

To do that, I’m going to first step away from the act of writing and ask a question:

What is your favorite band and why?

Now that you’re thinking about that band, I’ll ask another question:

Were you thinking about the band before I asked you the question?

Chances are my original question prompted the thought and subsequent answer. If we continued from that point, your answer would generate more questions from me. Or maybe encourage me to comment on my own favorite band. Either way, my response would likely generate additional thoughts and responses from you followed by responses from me and so on…

In common talk, we’d be having a conversation.

Writing is a conversation with yourself.

Sure, you can plan out what you’re going to say or write, but so much of the true substance of both comes out only after you become engaged in the act itself. Beyond being a gifted wordsmith inspired by God or a legendary raconteur born with inherent eloquence, there’s no other way than to simply start typing—or start talking—and see where it leads.

My Workshop Experience

Cathy Beaudoin (left) at a BWW meeting in 2014.

Cathy Beaudoin (left) at a BWW meeting in 2014.

I primarily consider myself a reader of other writers’ work. In that role, I just read a piece and provide simple feedback about what works in the piece and what can be expanded or improved upon.

But I recently presented a short story I wrote at the Burlington Writers Workshop. I have been attending workshops on and off for about a year and a half. I’d previously presented one other short story, as well as its revision.

As a writer receiving feedback, I was struck by the efficiency of the workshop process. The workshop had seven attendees, not including myself. My story was approximately 2,100 words, and my sense was that it was just a bit too short. At the beginning of the review of my work, I was asked what I wanted the group to discuss.

My answer was simple, “I want to know what parts of the work might need to be expanded on.”

As is the process with all of these workshops, I then went into a magical “box” while the readers talked about my work amongst each other. When you’re in the “box,” the trick as the writer is to understand you are not part of the conversation and are not there to defend or explain your work. Instead, your job is to listen carefully.

In most cases, including mine, common themes about how people react to a story will emerge. It is then up to the writer to determine how, if at all, to revise his/her work based on the sentiment expressed during the readers discussion. In this particular workshop session, readers did a fantastic job of focusing on my request and gave me solid feedback about where to expand the work.

I am grateful for receiving such valuable feedback from people I either have never met, or barely know at all. If you are a writer, new or seasoned, and would like to receive feedback on your writing, or if you would like to be a reader graciously giving your time to help others, you may find the writing workshop experience a meaningful one. I know I do.

To join the Burlington Writers Workshop (it’s free!), click here.

Time for Words

Image of clock

How do you use your writing time?

I meant to write this post about time last week, but I didn’t have the time.

Or is it I didn’t make the time?

Have and make often battle each other for reigning current excuse by us writers who do not have the luxury of writing full or even part time in a way that feels adequate to our goals.

But regardless of which one is used or which one is closer to the truth, they are equally useless: the writing is still not there, which is really the only thing that matters in our writing lives.

So how do we approach our sometimes somewhat acrimonious relationship with time?

A two-fold way that might be beneficial is to consider first how we use time and then secondly, what we get from that use.


How do you use time?

For the first consideration, I don’t mean how we think we should use time and aspiring towards that goal; instead, I’m thinking about how we actually do use it when we are at our writing best. A temporal reality check.

For myself, I know I need at least an hour. I like the idea of being able to make full use of the 5 minutes waiting in line at the store by jotting down notes or scribbling out a paragraph or two while the pasta water is boiling. I’ve read about stories being written while riding subways to work and other similar feats of here-and-there time grabbing that have produced phenomenal works.

But my brain takes 15 minutes just to get warmed up. It also prefers solitude. Though I totally love the idea of being able to write in coffee houses, the din of conversation confuses the voices in my head.

Sometimes I fancy that I’ll write at night. That is, I will get all my non-writing tasks out of the way during the day, so that afterwards I will be free to write. But reality finds that once I get into task mode, it is hard for me to get out and there is always one more task.

I am at my most productive when I write first thing in the morning, preferably for 2 or 3 or 4 hours, but at least one. Probably not more than 4, even if I have that generous of an amount. Again, here I like the idea of being able to type for 6, 8, or 10 hours or more at a stretch, but if I am being honest with myself, such marathons would likely burn me out rather than produce consistent work.

Of course, circumstances don’t always allow writing first thing in the morning or offer up my desired amount of time. Sometimes I do have to write simply when time is available; for example, this post is being written at 11:26 PM. But knowing—and accepting—my own personal best practices encourages me to try to create such favorable circumstances of Morning Time when possible rather than beating myself up for not being able to live up to the time management ideal of making every spare minute count.

The reverse of this may or may not be true for you. You may like the idea of getting up every morning and writing for 3 or 4 hours, but reality finds your own best practices would have you write in fits and starts and random moments of inspired bursts of creativity throughout the day. You may like the idea of being the kind of writer who composes a novel during an intense weekend retreat of enforced societal detachment, but in your heart you know your writing is best when it comes out amidst the invigorating-for-you chatter of the masses.


What do you get from the time you use?

For the second consideration, let’s think about time as accumulation rather than days going by. For the passage of time itself is irrelevant whether it is 2 hours in the morning or a half-hour in the evening. It is the value we add—accumulate—during that time which is important.

Now you might think I’m going to launch into some riff about word quotas. And in a way I am, but maybe not quite in the way that you’re thinking.

Forget 5 pages a day. Forget 1000 words a day. Let’s go smaller. Much smaller.

What if you wrote 10 words a day on the same story and did that for a year? At the end of the year, you would have a 3650 word story or 3650 words towards a larger story. Having spent a year of writing to produce just one short story may sound absurd. But let’s phrase it another way and see if it sounds less absurd.

If you spent that same year writing zero words a day, how many short stories would you have written after that year had ended?

Regardless of whether you write or don’t write, time will pass and that year will be gone. Sure, I’d love to be consistently prolific, always producing so many words a day without fail. And I have been engaged in some projects where I was regularly writing 1000 or more words daily. But other days I write far less and still other days not at all.

Those not-at-all days are horrible. The far-less days can be pretty bad too. But the larger, more important, goal is that of accumulation whenever and wherever it occurs.

Sure, aim for 1000, 2000, or 3000 words a day if you have such inclination and work as hard as you can to achieve it. But keep in mind that if less is created, it is still more than nothing. And if nothing is created, then the next day you can try again, aiming again for 1000, 2000, or 3000.

Or to write 100, 50, or just 10 words.

At Starbucks.

At night.


—JD Fox, poet and guest blogger


Free Your Verse


JD Fox, poet and guest blogger.

Hi, there. I’m JD Fox. And I’m a poet.

Now you try saying that, with your name instead of mine. Because you are. Even if you have never written what you consider a poem before.

You’re a poet, though maybe you justand yes, you bet your sweet literary muse I’m gonna say itdon’t know it.

Feel free to groan or roll your eyes at the line above. That’s a perfectly acceptable part of the creative process. Or chuckle. Or go, “huh?” Those are fine responses, too. Or, even better, stop reading and just go write…

Oh, you’re still reading?

Okay, then, let’s talk a little more about writing, which is what the Burlington Writers Workshop is all about and is what this blog will strive to be about: delving into both the elements of the craft and the writing life. That’s a much broader topic, of course, than just verse, but poetry is a good place to start in light of the month, which I’m sure you already know is National Poetry Month.

And if you didn’t, well now you do.

Montpelier, in particular, embraces this month of verse, becoming PoemCity with over 300 poems by Vermonters posted in various businesses and other venues throughout the city. April is chock full of readings to kindle appreciation of the form and workshops to release your inner poet.

Poetry is contagious. It has spread to PoemTown Randolph, PoemTown St Johnsbury, and PoemCampus Norwich, each with writer- and reader-friendly events of their own.

So consider walking around these towns participating and creating. You’ll likely find yourself infected with the writing bug, if you’re not already.

Then come back around and we’ll take it from there. It should be said upfront that there is no cure. But who would want it any other way?

Recommendation: Peter Roy Clark’s WRITING TOOLS

writingtoolsPeter Roy Clark’s book Writing Tools answers writing questions I never thought to ask. When should I list just one item versus two, three, or more? When is passive voice useful? What’s the most powerful placement in a sentence or paragraph for a given word?

Starting with the smallest details and expanding to ever broader ideas, Clark’s fifty writing tools struck me in the head like an unexpected apple from a very insightful tree. Opening with “Begin sentences with subjects and verbs” and wrapping up with “Own the tools of your craft,” Writing Tools offers unambiguous, concise, practical recommendations for all varieties of writing, starting each of of its fifty sections with an explanation of the point, then driving it home with illuminating examples.

Clark uses these tools as he explains them. For example, in summarizing “Tool 20: Choose the number of elements with the purpose in mind,” Clark says

  • Use one for power.
  • Use two for comparison, contrast.
  • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
  • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.

Along with pointing out ways to optimize writing, Clark trots out metaphors that show effective ways to accomplish key writing tasks, like keeping the reader happy (with gold coins left here and there in your piece) and explaining difficult concepts (by climbing up and down the Ladder of Abstraction).

Many of the good habits Clark describes can gradually develop without ever registering as specific techniques, as when an untrained but skilled singer uses vibrato and grace notes to add more feeling to a song. Certainly some of Clark’s points felt validating to me because I had already figured them out intuitively. Even then, though, Clark often sheds new light. Writing Tools adds, clarifies, and completes what we already understand about writing.

You may not agree with every one of Clark’s suggested techniques, and some of them may not be entirely applicable to your writing, but regardless of who you are or how long and well you’ve been writing, I’d be amazed if you didn’t come away from reading Writing Tools without at least a few insights that will be worth many times the price of the book.

Note: For a little more discussion of the “gold coins” tool, see my blog post.

The Art of Writing and the Presence of Truth


Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, in his essay The Decay of Lying, famously claimed that “life imitates art.” This thesis stands in opposition to the Aristotelian idea of mimesis, which holds that our greatest art—in all artistic forms—attempts to describe and represent the real. Wilde’s statement defies this, as does his believe that life and nature are “uncomfortable” and that human creation is a defiance of nature. In this way, he argues that life, our lives, is an imitation of the art we see all around us. Continue reading

Mothers, Daughters, and Writing

motherdaughterIf you’ve attend just a handful of writing workshops,  you’ve realized that many writers are working with ideas that originate from a topic they know best: family.

On Mother’s Day, I was reminded of the first time I wrote anything that I thought was worthy of sharing with others. When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote a poem about the passing of my mother. I did not keep the poem and I only remember the first line: “My lips brushed her warm skin.”  That line memorialized my last moment with her. Continue reading

Writing Workshops: Six Guidelines for Cultivating Trust

Meg Stout

Meg Stout

Writing workshops are a pretty amazing thing. People, often strangers, come together to share pieces that express their artistic visions and, sometimes, intimate details of their lives. It can be scary to submit your work for review, but in return for your bravery, you receive valuable feedback, encouragement, and a sense of community. Participating in a writing workshop can be a powerful and even transformative experience. Continue Reading

Public Speaking and the Writing Process

Lizzy Fox at a public reading in Essex, Vermont in July 2013.

I began acting classes around the same time I started writing poetry—in elementary school.

While I eventually came to terms with the fact that I can’t act to save my life, it has always felt natural for me to read my writing for audiences. (Note that this does not mean I was always good at it. It took years for my hands to stop shaking.) Continue Reading