What You Want To Do, And How We’re Going To Do It

The survey results are in. Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to fill it out. The long and short of it is: you want more writing retreats, more professional writers giving classes and workshops, and you’d like to have a chance to talk to agents. There are other things on the list as well: more weekend workshops, more seminars on elements of craft like the workshops we held on Saturdays in November, and a return of the BWW book club. I’ll have more specific numbers for you soon.

In general, if it’s free, we can definitely do it with volunteer facilitators, so please get in touch if you’d like to make one of these things happen.

The top priorities cost money, though, so the financial advisory committee and I have worked out a budget that’ll help us make these things happen. These things will be in addition to the things we already do. So let me start this pitch by saying:

We’re trying to raise $5,000 this month.

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It may sound big, but it’s doable. Here’s a breakdown of what your tax-deductible contribution will pay for.

Retreats: The number one priority for you was more writing retreats. You’ll get them! We’ve done a few, but more are needed, and it’s likely we’ll have to rent one or two of the venues. It’ll also be nice to not have to worry about preparing food during the retreat. After all, we’re supposed to be writing, not worrying about the little details of life! That’s what a retreat is for. They’ll be free and we’ll all have an equal shot at attending one (or more). So we’re estimating the price tag will be $1,500.

Professional Writers: You said you wanted more published authors to join us for workshops and hold classes. We can do this. However, it’s going to take some cash to bring them in. I can’t reveal in public how much we’ve budgeted for this because it will compromise our ability to negotiate fees, but I’m happy to answer your questions privately.

Agents: We decided that we can’t do this unless we raise $8,000 this month instead of $5,000. We believe this is unlikely to happen, but you never know kind of angel donors will drop down and save us. It would likely cost around $3,000 to fly agents from NYC and LA to Vermont, put them in hotels, feed them, and pay them for their time. So we’ll shelve this item unless an generous donor comes down and gifts us with an enormous sum.

These new things would be in addition to the things we normally pay for:

The Workshop Space: We rely on those automatic monthly contributions to help us pay for this space. We’re hoping you can come through and make automatic contributions of $12 or $20 a month to help keep this place open. I am very thankful for everyone who already does this, but we need more help. Can you join this team of “sustaining members” and help pay the rent?

Mud Season Review: The MSR staff is doing a great job raising funds through our “paid review” feature on Submittable, but the costs are large: AWP, Submittable, marketing, website hosting, and printing. Our goal is to make Mud Season Review one of the best literary journals in the country, and with our brilliant volunteer staff and adequate funding, we can make it happen.

So here comes my personal appeal. I spend an average of 20 hours each week on workshop-related stuff. It’s an enormous amount of work. But I love doing it. Love love love it. “Work” doesn’t seem like the right word to describe it, because it’s so much fun. You are the best bunch of people I’ve ever known: generous, thoughtful, kind, ambitious, and smart. This kind of thing couldn’t happen anywhere but Vermont, where the community spirit is unusually strong. I’m also especially grateful that when I decided to sign a lease for our workshop space, you stepped up and helped pay for it. Thank you all very much.

My hope now is that you’ll come together now and help us reach this important goal. I’ll update you regularly as we get closer to reaching our goal. Make your contribution now. Thanks very much, everyone.



A Poem for Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell. Photo by Richard Brown.

Galway Kinnell. Photo by Richard Brown.

Galway Kinnell was honored today fat the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vermont for his accomplishments as a poet. Vermont Poet Gary Margolis wrote this as a tribute to Kinnell.

Coming to the Statehouse to Honor Galway Kinnell
by Gary Margolis

Under Washington, his portrait,
in this chamber, the well
of the House, we’ve come
to honor one of ours.

Word-neighbor. Poem-maker.
Among other things, champion
of using is three times rightly
and consecutively in a verse’s

line. Here, where our state’s once
chief executive welcomes us and asks
what our state would be, if
we, wall-to-wall, poets were voted in

to caste our votes. We’re sitting
at their desks with the aye and nay
switch close at hand. And listening
to his words read back to him.

By our country’s best representatives.
I mean his writing, singing heirs.
Who, as Frost said, say his poems
into our listening air. Our poet, sitting

among us, holding his hand to his ear,
speaker-like. Although you can be sure
he can read their lips, for a scent
of bear, love-moaning from a bedroom.

a field’s lipstick of blueberries.
As well as the pause between words.
Where he lives, too. Here in our fortunate
Vermont. We can fill a well with the songs

of Galway Kinnell. Who we can’t do without.
Who’s not here to sit for his portrait.
Who still speaks in and out.
Who rises to our long standing applause.

Learn more about Gary Margolis.

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of April 28, 2014

We have an extraordinary opportunity this week to support a local organization that supports us. Phoenix Books is hosting a reading by the editors of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014 on Thursday at 7 p.m. I hope you can make it. Oh, did I mention that August First is supplying free food? They are! So, see you there.

RSVP here.

Here are the opportunities and announcements for this week. Continue reading

We’ve Found A Home

The location of our Wednesday workshops at 12 North Street in the Old North End of Burlington

The location of our Wednesday workshops at 12 North Street in the Old North End of Burlington

Since we began meeting in 2009, we’ve been a nomadic workshop. We’ve held meetings at apartments and in backyards. We’ve patronized a long list of businesses: Borders, the Block Gallery, Sapa’s/Patra’s/Levity, the Daily Planet, and Half Lounge. On sunny days, we’ve met in City Hall Park.

Thanks to The Young Writers Project, we’re shedding our nomadic ways.

Geoff Gevalt, director of the young Writers Project, has offered us the use of this space (pictured) free of charge for our Wednesday workshops. At our meeting last night, we seated 16 people comfortably, enjoyed beer, wine, and soda, and had a great conversation. There’s plenty of light (Half Lounge’s dim lighting is great for mood, not so great for actually seeing words on a page) and no background noise.

Intermission at Wednesday's meeting.

Intermission at Wednesday’s meeting.

At the Young Writers Project headquarters, there’s plenty of light, no background noise, and comfortable seating. Plus, there’s a Chinese restaurant next door, and the General Tso tofu is damn good. It’s also across the street from The Old Northender, a bar that I’ll simply call “interesting.”

We’ll still use Half Lounge on Monday nights and other evenings throughout the week as needed. But our Wednesday meetings will now happen at YWP headquarters.

Why give this space to us for free? Geoff is looking for adult writers to serve as mentors for YWP writers. Mentors would use the Young Writers Project website to read and comment on the work of young people. And he wants BWW writers to fill this role.

Why is it important for these kids to receive your thoughtful feedback? The kids who participate in YWP are bright and talented. According to Geoff, their teachers tell them “Nice work!” and move on to help kids who are having a hard time. That’s where you come in. It’s up to you, an adult writer, to challenge and inspire these intelligent and creative kids. Your encouraging and thoughtful responses will help them embrace what they’re doing well and improve what works less well.

One of Geoff Gevalt's typewriters on display at the new venue.

One of Geoff Gevalt’s typewriters on display at the new venue.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s what you do every week with your peers at BWW workshops. The only differences: the YWP mentoring is online, not in person, and you’ll be working with young people, not fellow adults.

To participate, register here. I hope you will join me in mentoring some young folk.

I’m very thankful, both for the space, and your commitment to the BWW community.

Words In Essex: “The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013” On Tour

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The Burlington Writers Workshop continued it’s book tour on Tuesday at the Essex Library. I’ve posted the audio of the readings that Caitlin Corless, Niels Rinehart, Patrick Dodge, and Lizzy Fox gave to a nearly-full library.

We’ll hold more readings this year, including at the Burlington Book Festival (details TBA). So please do join us at a meeting before then, and enjoy this podcast.

Digging Deeper Into The BWW

Photo06060834I sat down with Elsie Lynn at The Essex Reporter a few weeks ago to talk about the Burlington Writers Workshop. This conversation was longer than the one I had with Molly Smith at WCAX, and we had a chance to talk about workshop ethics, the fear of sharing too much, and my own penchant for fictional characters who screw up their lives.

I’m finding it hard to answer the question: “How would you describe the book?” These pieces are so different that I’d have to laundry list and summarize each one, and of course that’s not possible in an interview in any medium. I’m thrilled that nobody has asked me to pick a favorite piece–I’m not sure I could!

Anyway, here’s the interview. Enjoy!


WCAX was kind enough to have me on the morning show this morning. It was definitely worth ironing my shirt for. Please do check this out!

Molly Smith of WCAX and I chat about the book and the BWW.

Molly Smith of WCAX and I chat about the book and the BWW.

I’m typically the one conducting the interviews, so I’m happy to learn what it’s like to be interviewed. In a word: fun!

Tomorrow, The Essex Reporter will feature an interview with me, and it may contain a bit more than this, so Essex residents–watch out for tomorrow’s paper!

Why I Bothered To Iron My Shirt


Me to Iron: “You better not burn my shirt, Iron!”

I don’t always iron. Ironing a shirt means it’s time to look especially sharp. Ironing means it’s time to appear as if you’re a knower of important things. And at work, when I’m on the air, I have to convey all that with my voice. Nobody but my coworkers can make fun of my questionable fashion decisions because only they can see. So I don’t iron shirts often.

But tomorrow I’ll be on WCAX-TV talking about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013, which means ironing a shirt is probably necessary.

So I’ve ironed.

(Brief interruption for those turning to this website after seeing the WCAX interview: Hello! Welcome! Please do consider joining us at a meeting. We have an interesting procedure with which you should be familiar before you attend, so check it out, and let me know if you have questions.)

As I was saying: The ironing of a shirt is an obvious sign that you’re aware someone is about to be looking at you, and it makes me wonder what it is I’d like people to see when they look at me. Since I’m talking about a book by Vermont writers, it makes sense that I’d look like a writer, too. Maybe at least I’d look like an editor. But what does an editor/writer look like? And, if there’s a specific image, should one aspire to look the part while trying to play it?

It may sound like a shallow question, but it’s pretty serious, especially since social media force us to create and (in some sense) sell an image of ourselves, and that image is a huge part of how we survive in modern American society. People form opinions about you based on how you look, and writers live and die by the good opinion of the general public. So do we, as writers, put on the hipster outfit and pretend to shun everything that’s considered “cool” and then write something that also shuns whatever’s “cool”? Or do we clothe ourselves in burlap and live in a cabin in the woods (posting pictures on FB, of course) and then sell the brilliant masterpiece we’ve pulled from the depths of our loneliness? Or do we take our cues from Tom Wolfe?

Tom Wolfe, off to prom, or something.

Tom Wolfe, off to prom, or something.

I don’t have an answer here, nor would I dare tell someone else what his image should be. For what it’s worth, I take my fashion cues from my father, who is not a writer. He studied business. He never went without a tie on casual Fridays. His default in moments like these was to look professional, and so that’s what I’ll do, even though I’ll go without a tie. I’ve shined my shoes, checked the creases in my pants, and, yes, ironed. The whole outfit is  simple, unassuming, and boring.


Because I’d prefer to disappear behind what I have to say. I’m grateful people care about the book, and I want people to continue caring about it, without any intrusion from me! Perhaps that’s why I love radio so much. There’s nobody to look at–just words to listen to and absorb and think about.

And it’s the same with my fiction: I’d like people to forget that I’m there, as the author,  and enjoy the story I’m trying to tell. Nothing flashy. No tricks. No gimmicks. Just a story, just a book, just an author/reader relationship free from pretense and nonsense.

So You Want To Volunteer?

A workshop member recently asked me if I knew of any volunteer opportunities for writers/bookworms. I knew a few, but not as many as BWW members knew! So here’s a list, alphabetical by organization.

The Burlington Writers Workshop needs volunteers to help staff the BWW table at the Burlington Book Festival this fall. Please contact me if you’re free September 20-21, 2013. I’ll feed you!

Everybody Wins Vermont is looking for volunteers who can spend one hour a week (at lunch) reading aloud to a grade-school child.

King Street’s Summer Boost Reading Program matches kids one-on-one with adult reading buddies. They’re currently recruiting volunteers for this summer. Summer Boost runs Monday – Thursday from 12:45pm-1:45pm, June 24th – August 15th. Contact Gabriella by email for more information: gabriella@kingstreetcenter.org.

The League of Vermont Writers has lots of space for volunteers to help put together seasonal events (four major events annually with visiting speakers from around Vermont and New England) and daylong workshops, as well as larger events. Reach out to Pat Goudey OBrien for more information: nnobrien@gmail.com.

The Radiator is always looking for volunteers, and who doesn’t love radio?

Women Writing for (a) Change – Vermont has been offering a weekly writing circle to the incarcerated inside Vermont’s single women’s prison, now located at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, VT.

The Young Writers Project features a variety of workshops/events for young people, and its leader, Geoff Gevalt, may be able to help you find something to help out with, so contact him at ggevalt@youngwritersproject.org.

This list is likely to grow, so if you know of an opportunity that isn’t listed, please let me know!

The Bad Protagonist

Some of my favorite characters in literature and on television are the protagonists who are detestable in some fundamental way. I like them because their actions make the story more complex, and because I appreciate how difficult it is for writers to make them relatable.

Alex at the milkbar.

Alex at the milkbar.

A few examples. One of my favorite books is A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the protagonist, starts off the story as a fan of “the old ultraviolence.” In spite of his fondness for rape and random beatings, he’s a cool-headed leader to his friends, a lover of fine music (Beethoven), and he approaches life with passion and energy. By the end of the story, he’s been reprogrammed by the government to feel disgust for the things he used to love. Even though the things he did were terrible, we feel bad for him. Why?

Dr. House

Just look at those eyes. How could you not love this man?

And what about Dr. Gregory House, of House M.D.? He’s a curmudgeon, assumes the worst in everyone he meets, and can’t seem to be nice at all, ever. He’s also abusing drugs, alienating the women in his life, and manipulating people like a boss. And yet the show ran for eight seasons. Why?

And finally, there’s Walter White (a.k.a. Heisenberg) of Breaking Bad. He’s a brilliant high school chemistry teacher with virtually no money in the bank. His wife is pregnant and he has a teenage son with a disability. Then he gets lung cancer. He can’t catch a break! To provide for his family after he dies, he starts cooking and selling meth.

Walter White dressed as Heisenberg, still showing a little Walter-White-style panic.

Walter White dressed as Heisenberg, still showing a little Walter-White-style panic.

But by the time the Breaking Bad hits the fifth season, Walter White has become a meth kingpin with pallets of cash stacked in a storage unit. At what point do we stop rooting for the poor chemistry teacher and remember that the drug he’s manufacturing is a highly-addictive, life-destroying chemical?

Why am I so drawn to these kinds of characters? Perhaps it’s because they put me on a moral roller-coaster. Each time this kind of character makes a decision, my heart is conflicted: Do I still love him for his good qualities, even though he’s doing a bad thing? What’s his reason? What’s his ultimate goal? Perhaps it’s also because I simply love how human they seem when making a huge mistake.

It seems like two basic elements make these characters lovable even if they do terrible things: (1) They have some extraordinary qualities or talents and (2) they’re vulnerable in at least one key way.

Alex in A Clockwork Orange lures us in with friendly chatter. He refers to us as “friends” and “brothers” as we’re following his story. And it’s his charm that eventually leads us to his human side—his love for Beethoven. It’s a fervent, almost super-human love, something we can admire him for, and because he loves it so much, it’s also his vulnerability. When the government ruins his ability to enjoy Beethoven, we recall what it’s like to lose someone we love, and we root for Alex.

Gregory House’s vulnerability is visible: his cane. He walks with a limp and pops pills not because he just wants to get high, but because he’s hurting. And honestly, how happy are you when you’re in pain? If House were walking with a smooth and easy gait while making fun of sick patients, we wouldn’t like him at all. But House can figure things out when nobody else can. He’s sarcastic, sure, but he’s also a great doctor. I’d choose him any day of the week. And because he’s suffering and because he’s brilliant, he’s ours to admire.

And then…Heisenberg. He’s an incredibly talented chemist with the skills to make super-pure meth. He’s smarter than anyone in the room and is excellent at figuring out the politics of any given situation and calling bluffs. It’s a skill I wish I had—the politics and bluff-calling, not the meth-making. And, of course, his vulnerability is his family. Take away his family and he has nothing.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, has said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he wanted to create a show in which the good guy gradually becomes the bad guy. I’ve been waiting for the episode that turns me away from Walter White and makes me root for Hank, his DEA Agent brother-in-law who has been on his trail for more than a year. I’ve finished season four, and only in the last scene of the last episode have I felt inclined to turn away from Walter White. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the writers of this show seem to be monitoring how the audience feels about WW at every turn, with impressive results.

I’ve been working on a story for several months now, called “The Fighter” or “Fights,” depending on the draft. It’s about a man who is unceremoniously dumped by his beloved girlfriend. He learns she had been cheating on him. In his grief, he pushes down all his emotions until the only one that ever comes out is anger, and that’s when he starts picking fights with random strangers. It’s been difficult demonstrating how he’s still a good guy even though he’s beating up barflies, but perhaps I haven’t quite succeeded yet because I’ve been a little too short on his extraordinary qualities and a little too vague on his vulnerability. It’s tricky. In real life, as in fiction, people make mistakes or become jerks (or both).

But, oh my brothers, in fiction, it has to make sense.

The Book Launch

The sandwich board on Church Street.

The sandwich board on Church Street.

The Book Launch Party was a great success.

For me, this was a loyalty event, a hearty “thank you” to all of the people who have supported this project. If everyone walked away feeling like their contributions were appreciated, then I feel like we’ve succeeded.

Gabe McConkey spent his birthday reading poetry with us. Anne Averyt, Erika Nichols (our poetry editor), and Lit Tyler also gave stellar readings.

Check out this photo gallery of the evening’s events!

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We asked Twitter users to tweet with #bwwlaunch, and you can check out the tweets here. If you missed the launch, but would still like to purchase the book, please buy one here.

Our Amazon Kindle ebook is also a good way to check out these talented Vermont writers.

During the celebration, the audience was asked to write an “exquisite corpse” poem. So here’s what the audience came up with:

I saw a buzzfly when I was born–
Trepidacious, mortar, drained with lost panko bullfrog
And then they died…
Her face was aglow with happiness.
We can just be friends and take things slow.
But even as I said it, I knew it would never be true>
So I walked down to the lakeshore & searched for meaning amongst the delicately stacked rocks.
Instead, I found lizards.
Lizards with gigantic green eyes and claws that could slice up rocks.
Lights flash! Cars crash
The lantern flickered faintly in the distance, carried by a cloaked figure who ambled hurriedly down the dew covered hillside.
Gliding among filamental clouds with the starlings, a gaseous gust of helium escaped from under a sheath of oily feathers.
A heavy wood, old world ceiling in a stark space.
Happiness is subjective.
It’s comforting to write with a cardboard pen.
Oh my my. There are still no meatpies in Grimsby!
And I quit being a vegetarian a month ago.
At times I wonder if this was a mistake, waking in the night with the taste of chorizo on my tongue.
But I haven’t eaten chorizo in years. Now my tastebuds make do with blander meats on their pallate.
They fell down on their knees and begged that this cup might pass.
The man looked down at him and frowned.
His life seemed to be on the end of a blade.
So much had changed so quickly.
Change is what happens when you’re stoned too long.
I’m at a writers workshop. Very scary, since I am barely a reader, aside from Vogue. I’ll go to the library I promise.
She made a beeline for the black door.
The secret you told me spilled over the edge of my eyes.
And I said something I never thought I’d say.

Being from Fall River, I’m happy that chorizo made an appearance in this poem, but it’s spelled “chourico“!

So, in short, it was a great evening, and I’m now working with BCA to plan next year’s launch. Because there will be another “Best of” collection next year, thanks to you.

Writing About Art At Burlington City Arts

Photo 2 edited

DJ Hellerman (right) demonstrates how “The God Box” works. Virtual flies and spiders climb on the surface and a map on the wall behind DJ shows where they were born and where they die.

This week, Burlington City Arts is launching an exhibition called “User Required.” It features a variety of pieces that require user participation. One piece, for example, gives you the opportunity to squish virtual bugs on a giant iPad-like device. Another features lights that illuminate the basement when you step on them.

This exhibition will be on display at Burlington City Arts during our book launch party. And the Burlington Writers Workshop will attempt to write pieces of literary art that respond to and create conversations with the physical, interactive pieces of art on display. If we produce good work, we’ll share it with the public at the book launch party and beyond.

DJ Hellerman of BCA was gracious enough to give us all a guided tour of the artwork. As the artists worked around us, we toured the galleries, pushed buttons, scratched meowing pictures of kittens, and sent text messages to a whirling fan that’s designed to display our messages. (Send a text message to 802-373-1117 on Friday night, and whatever you write will appear on the fans for the art-loving public to see.)

Photo 1In my view, this is the perfect art to surround the launch of a book that exists because of community participation. Users are required for these pieces of art as much as the writers in the workshop are required to make this crazy thing work.

“User Required” is open to the public on Friday. If you didn’t attend our private viewing tonight but still want to attempt a poem or short piece of prose inspired by a piece at BCA, visit on Friday or Saturday and send what you’ve written to me (peterbiello @ yah0o dot c0m) by Saturday night. Your participation is required!

To Name A Character: That Is The Question

John loves with Mary, but Mary loves Bobby, who has a secret he keeps with Paul, though Bobby doesn’t know that Paul told Dave, and Dave told Dana, David, and Doug. Doug also goes by Greg, since his father’s name is Greg, and he sometimes likes to distinguish himself. Tom is Paul’s plumber and they both went to George Jeremy Sycamore High School, where Dana also went for a year before he got kicked out for selling homemade pot brownies to Mary, who fell in love with Bobby when she was high.

How many names did you just read?

You don’t have to count to know that you’ve read way too many. And that’s a simplistic way of demonstrating something that often happens in BWW workshop pieces in more subtle but nonetheless confusing ways. I’m not picking on any one writer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone in the workshop. Sometimes, when we’re writing a story, all our characters mean so much to us that the thought of leaving out their names or eliminating them as characters is unthinkable.

But too many names can transform your piece into something so confusing it’s simply not readable. When I read, my brain attaches special significance to any character with a name. A name is like a bucket that I have to fill with character traits. A character develops as that bucket fills. I can’t hold too many in short pieces (novels are sometimes better for lots of named characters) because I spend all my mental energy holding the buckets, and when that happens, I can’t enjoy what I’m reading.

So how do you know if there are too many characters? There is no right answer here, but every writer has his rule. One of my former professors liked to say that “fiction is about relationships between people.” So which relationship is the most important in your story? Figure that out, and other characters may seem less important and worth cutting.

The characters you name should be memorable. Flannery O’Connor does a wonderful of job of introducing a character and then providing a distinguishing characteristic that makes him/her easy to remember. Check out her skills on display in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.

Here we’re focusing on the grandmother. Since she’s described as the “grandmother,” we know some essential demographic information without needing her name: she’s female and probably the oldest person in the room. We also know what she wants, which is going to be the driving (no pun intended) force in this story. Then the first name hits us: Bailey. O’Connor wastes no time letting us know who he is. We know he’s probably middle-aged, since he’s the son of someone’s grandmother.  So here we are, in paragraph one: We’ve got a relationship to focus on, and one name that’s easy to hold onto, and another character defined by her position in the family.

As the story continues, we meet Bailey’s wife, who is referred to as “the mother.” And then there are the children:

The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.

O’Connor gives little John Wesley a few distinguishing characteristics. He’s stocky and wears glasses. We don’t get too far with the name “John Wesley” in our heads without also getting some information about him. And “little girl” June Star sits on the floor, and she’s got a “yellow head.” By the end of this brief exchange, we have a clear picture of these kids.

You could debate why O’Connor decided to name Bailey and not his mother, or the children and not their mother, or why O’Connor decided to refer to the killer as “The Misfit,” but the effect seems clear: without so many names, it’s easier to write a clear piece.

Can you think of any examples of stories that use a ton of names and still work? Post them here!

What Happens When We Don’t Like A Workshop Piece?

A few months ago, a group member asked me, “How do I write a response to a story I don’t like?”

Given the diversity of artistic sensibilities in the BWW, it’s pretty common that participants will read stuff they don’t like. That’s normal. In almost every case, the piece isn’t finished yet. There are plot holes. There are things that don’t make sense. There are characters that still need to blossom into real people. Typical first, second, even third draft stuff.

To me, judging a BWW workshop story/essay/poem in this way is like judging a painting that’s only half finished. Half the canvas is blank, or maybe the whole canvas is just a rough sketch, waiting for color or texture. Who would dare to judge it when it isn’t fully realized yet? For these workshop pieces, the author is likely still trying to figure out the piece. Our job as workshop participants is not to pretend to be Michiko Kakutani and decide what’s good and what isn’t. Our job is to help the author see the variety of ways her work can be interpreted. We are receiving a message when we read someone’s work. But did we receive the message the author intended? Our discussion of the piece should answer that question.

The implication here is that we should remove all judgments from our comments, which is impossible, because when you say, “This passage made me feel like I was in the room with these characters” (a helpful comment), isn’t the implication that you like it? And if you say, “I don’t get why Character X does this. It makes no sense,” aren’t you saying you didn’t like it? Perhaps, but only if we assume that feeling so close to the characters is a good thing and a lack of clarity is bad, respectively. What’s right for the piece is not up to the workshop—it’s up to the author. So if the author wanted distance from the character, she failed; if she wanted ambiguity, she succeeded.

This of course ignores the question of what the author “should” want. Let’s save that for another time!

Still, there are moments you’ll find yourself reading something in workshop that you don’t like, and for supposedly good reasons. Once, when I was a graduate student, a fellow student submitted a story in which a child molester chops off half of a child’s foot. None of us liked that. I still remember that scene today because reading it made me feel terrible. So, in the workshop, instead of saying, “This scene sucks and I really don’t like it and you should change it,” I said, “I felt sick reading this.” If the author wanted me to feel sick (and I don’t know what he wanted), then I suppose he succeeded. If he didn’t, then it’s up to him to revise. My hope is that he decided to revise, but it’s not my decision to make.

All this is to say that we’re trying to create a supportive atmosphere in our workshops, one in which participants aren’t worried about being perfect from the get-go. If you do like the piece, then everyone wins, at least for moment. Then, of course, there are usually changes to be made—there’s canvas to cover and sketches to fill in with color, texture, and depth.