March will be an exciting month for the BWW. We’ve got a ton of workshops scheduled, plus a few special events. Here are a few highlights.
Songwriters will be happy to learn that we’ve got a songwriting workshop coming up on Sunday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. Gregory Rosewell is hosting this one, and the one on February 16 at 6:30 p.m., too. (This will be an every-third-Sunday kind of thing going forward.) Continue Reading
On Saturday, January 4th, we’re meeting at the new BWW Writing Center to turn an empty space into a comfortable, welcoming place for Vermont writers.
Some kind folks have already promised us things, but there are still some things we could use. Nobody has promised us a hot tub yet, and we all know that no writing center is complete without a warm, relaxing hot tub.
Just kidding, although who wouldn’t want a hot tub to take the sting out of a tough workshop? Seriously, though, if you’d like to donate something that’s on this list (or suggest something you think we might need), please contact us.
I’ve put a * next to items that have been promised to us already.
- Lamps (2 more would work well)
- Wireless Internet router
- Tables (suitable for a workshop)*
- K-Cup machine*
- Your tea of choice
- Small side table (coffee/beverage station)
- Waste basket/trash bags
- Low-maintenance indoor plants
- Stuff for the walls*
- Pint glasses
- Coffee mugs
- Paper towels
- Lightbulbs (preferably eco-friendly)*
- Coat rack
- Welcome mat
Even if you don’t have stuff to donate, you can join us on Saturday and see what we’re putting together. This is a space for you to enjoy. RSVP to the event here.
Learn more about the BWW Writing Center.
Last week, VPR’s All Things Considered host Neal Charnoff stopped me as I was finishing up some work in one of VPR’s recording studios.
“VPR is probably the only news organization that hasn’t covered the Burlington Writers Workshop,” he said, and then he invited me to chat with him for his “Weekly Conversation on the Arts.” Listen to it here.
VPR is my job and I love it, and because I maintain a firm firewall between VPR and BWW, I had never pitched our Best of anthology or attempted to win any kind of free promotion. The fact that VPR has chosen to speak to me about this is an indication that what we’re doing is (1) newsworthy and (2) relevant to the whole state.
If you’re not from the Burlington area and would like to develop resources for a similar workshop in your city, contact me. I’m in the planning stages of building a statewide network of writing workshops, all of which would share the mission of the BWW: to provide free opportunities for writers to find and provide feedback to each other.
Let’s say you’re a fiction writer and your protagonist has a disease. How do you make sure your character is more than just a collection of symptoms? That’s the problem BWW writer Jim Gamble encountered as he wrote “Good Boy,” a story he’s had workshopped a few times.
Jim and I sat down to talk about creating a well-rounded, three-dimensional, believable character who is, to some extent, defined by his disability.
Note: The Burlington Writers Workshop podcast is now on iTunes, so pop open iTunes on whatever device you may use, search for “Burlington Writers Workshop,” and you’ll find craft conversations and a recording of our reading in Essex last July. Enjoy!
A few months ago, I posted six guidelines for workshop discussions. Folks suggested more, which I think are worth mentioning here.
7. Assume the writer meant every word. Writers are expected to make a piece as good as it can possibly be before workshop members read it. It’s not helpful to say, “I’m not sure the writer meant to do this, but…” The writer did it. It’s our job to explain what the writer did, not what we think the writer meant to do. The writer knows what s/he attempted to do and will correct later if corrections are needed.
8. For nonfiction, treat the main character as a constructed character. The character on the page is different from the one sitting in the room with us, even if this is “nonfiction” and therefore to a certain degree truthful in the literal sense. We should avoid using the word “you” (we shouldn’t be addressing the writer during discussions anyway; see Guideline #1). According to the person who commented on my original post, following this rule will help “keep the discussion focused on the narrator character on the page and not the personal life of the writer sitting across the table.” Well said!
9. For fiction, never assume the writer is writing about her/his self. Just don’t go there. It’s irrelevant, anyway.
10. Avoid tangents. It’s fine to bring up personal experience when it relates to something happening in a story, but it’s not helpful to launch into a long story.
I have a feeling that this list will continue to grow, so please do leave your comments and help us continue to improve our discussions.
How do you know when your work is ready for publication? And, if it’s ready, how do you go about publishing it? When is the right time for you? And perhaps most importantly, with a continually shrinking pool of potential readers, why bother publishing at all?
These are some of the many questions facing writers today. To help you answer them, we’ve assembled a diverse panel of folks with experience and insight. Join us on Saturday, November 16th at 5:30 at this location for a look at the publishing world and various ways to (and reasons why you should) launch your work into the world.
We’ve got an impressive line-up of presenters. In alphabetical order, they are:
Jon Clinch: Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Jon Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. His first novel, Finn—the secret history of Huckleberry Finn’s father—was named an American Library Association Notable Book and was chosen as one of the year’s best by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. His second novel, Kings of the Earth—a powerful tale of life, death, and family in rural America, based on a true story—was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine. In 2013 he surprised the publishing industry by releasing a new novel, The Thief of Auschwitz, on his own imprint. Jon lives with his wife, Wendy—founder of TheSkiDiva.com, the internet’s premier site for women who ski—in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Dede Cummings: Green Writers Press publisher and literary agent Dede Cummings went to Middlebury College back in the late 1970s. In 1991, she received an award to study with Hayden Carruth at the Bennington Writers’ Workshop. Dede has had her poetry published in Mademoiselle magazine and ConnotationPress.com. She is at work on a collection of her poetry, along with her day job in publishing. Throughout the 1980s, Dede worked in publishing at Little, Brown & Company, rising to Senior Book Designer. When the company was bought by Time/Warner and moved to New York, Dede headed north with her husband and young son to return to Vermont and start freelancing as a designer. She has designed many award-winning books by such authors as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Oliver, William Shirer, Andre Dubus, and is a five-time winner of the new England Book Award, including 2 additional awards for “best in show” for Sorochintzy Fair by Nikolai Gogol, and World Alone/Mundo a Solas by Nobel Prize Winner, Vincente Alexandro. Dede is a public radio commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and she lives next to an apple orchard on a dirt road in West Brattleboro, Vermont with her family.
Jessica Swift Eldridge: Jessica earneda degree in English literature from Smith College and has been in the publishing industry for close to a decade. Working in-house for a publishing company, she spent her time absorbing all aspects of the traditional publishing world. When she left to branch out on her own, she was the managing editor of three imprints. In 2008, Swift Ink Editorial Services, was born. Since being self-employed, she has provided editorial services for clients—both nationally and internationally—whose manuscripts have gone on to become award-winning, bestselling books. You can follow her on Twitter @SwiftInkEditor.
Jan Elizabeth Watson: Jan received her BFA from the University of Maine at Farmington and her MFA from Columbia University. She has taught college writing throughout Maine. Her critically acclaimed first novel, Asta in the Wings, was published in 2009. Her second novel, What Has Become of You, will be published worldwide by Dutton in the spring of 2014.
To help compensate the authors for their time and cover the cost of the food and beverages, we’ll ask for a $10 donation. All BWW events are free and there is no requirement to donate, so no pressure. Come and enjoy yourself, learn something about the publishing world, ask questions, and maybe even pick up a book by one of the authors. See you then!
We’re all busy people. It’s sometimes hard to squeeze discussions of writing into our daily lives. One way to do this is to listen to a podcast. There are many out there, but I wanted to share a list of the five I’ve enjoyed recently.
Write The Book. A local podcast comes first on my list. It’s hosted by BWW member Shelagh Shapiro. She’s done her homework for every interview and it shows. I know this because I listen to the podcast and because I’ve been interviewed for it.
The Drunken Odyssey. This is a gem. It features discussions of craft, live readings of short fiction and poetry, and essays on books that have changed lives.
The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. This is probably a standard on writing podcast lists, but it’s very important. In each podcast, an author sits down with New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman to discuss a short story that he/she likes. Then the author reads the story and continues the discussion. Hearing stories aloud is a brilliant way to internalize the rhyhtm of fiction. After all, wasn’t storytelling originally an oral/aural tradition?
Selected Shorts. Produced by Public Radio International, this one features short stories read aloud by actors. A simple concept and a great service to writers.
KCRW’s Bookworm. Produced in California, this public radio show hosted by Michael Silverblatt is always surprising. Silverblatt blows me away with his insights, and he often surprises the authors with how well he’s digested their novels/poems/memoirs. You will have a hard time finding a better author interview show.
These are just a few of many that appeal to and inspire writers. What are your favorites?
Erika Nichols of Burlington has written and studied poetry for many years. Whenever a poem comes up for discussion in our workshops, she has something intelligent and helpful to say about it.
She’s also attended more meetings than any other workshop member (68), so it’s fitting that she is the first guest of what I hope will be a series of BWW podcasts featuring interviews with BWW members.
Erika writes both poetry and prose. “What I love about poetry is I think that you can really focus on the language,” Erika says. “That you don’t necessarily need to develop characters and develop an entire story. You can really just sit with a beautiful image.”
What about prose? Erika says that with prose you can “really expand upon one particular moment or image or scene and really develop that into more.”
A member of the BWW since 2011, Erika says she could never have anticipated what the workshop experience has done for her. “It’s really helped me develop my work and get it to where it is now.”
We also spoke about how she went about editing the poetry submissions for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013. She gives some insight from an editor’s perspective, which I think you’ll find very encouraging, especially if you’ve been throwing your work out into the world.
Think you’d make a good interview subject? Don’t be shy. Contact me!
Sally Pollak of the Burlington Free Press published a feature piece about the Burlington Writers Workshop in today’s BFP.
Thanks to everyone who helped Sally write this article. I appreciate your kind comments.
If the response to this article is similar to the one we received for the Seven Days article back in July, we’ll gain more than just a few new members, which means it’ll be wise to schedule more meetings. I’ll do that soon.
Again, thank you everyone. Your support of this community has been really touching.
We thrive on good discussions. There’s nothing as stimulating as a debate about an element of the craft of writing. As workshop participants, we’re encouraged to talk about these elements of craft with passion and tact.
As witness to and leader of nearly 200 workshop meetings, I’ve figured out a few things that help discussions flow. Our discussions are usually stellar, but, since we’re always trying to improve ourselves and our writing, I’d like to offer these six suggestions for improving our discussions as well.
1. Talk to each other, not the writer.
It’s tempting to talk to the writer, but don’t. The writer can’t respond, so when you address your comments to the writer, you’re creating a one-sided conversation. Talk to the other workshop participants. Better yet, see #2.
2. Ask questions.
This opens the floor for a debate. For example, if you say, “I think the use of the word lamb gave the poem a religious/Christian undertone. Did anyone else think that?” Workshop members now have a chance to weigh in.
3. Challenge each other to dig deeper.
If someone says something you don’t quite understand, ask him/her to clarify. Sometimes a simple “What do you mean by that?” will expose assumptions about a text—and this kind of stuff is very helpful to writers.
4. Do not give a laundry list of your responses.
You’ve read the story/essay/poem and written a ton of comments. Great! Do not feel compelled to read them all aloud. Use one at a time. If you recite a list, nobody will listen.
5. Focus on elements of craft, not line edits.
Most of the time, line edits aren’t fun to talk about. When you discuss line edits, you run the risk of rewriting the piece for the author, and that’s not what we’ve gathered here to do. It’s usually better to talk about character development, plot, setting, dialogue, and, in the case of poetry, meter, rhythm, rhyme, form, and sound.
It’s not as easy as you think. If you’re too busy thinking about the next thing you want to say, you won’t listen. And if you’re not listening, you’re not going to ask questions or challenge the speaker or move the conversation forward. So here’s a tip: Write down the thoughts that occur to you during the discussion and save them for a moment when the conversation naturally pauses. At the very least, you’ve written it down for the author—the only person who really needs to hear it.
I’d love to hear from you about your techniques for good discussions. How should we talk about writing in the context of a writing workshop? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.
Open Letter Books is publishing some of the best novels I’ve read in years.
While at AWP in Boston in March, I stopped by the Open Letter table, stunned by the most superficial of things: the covers of their books. Simply designed and featuring bold colors, the books seemed unpretentious, focused, and inviting. The way they felt in my hands, with their soft matte covers and crisp pages, made me want to hold them longer. Sappy, I know. But the descriptions of the stories seemed interesting, so I bought four of them. And I’m so glad I did.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg is the story of a man who slowly loses his mind. Jörgen Hofmeester has lost a fortune after the September 11th attacks, and now his daughter, Tirza, is dating a man who looks, to Jorgen, a lot like Mohammad Atta, one of the September 11th hijackers. Jörgen himself is seething, but he’s barely aware of his anger, or any of his feelings, which is why, when he goes crazy and commits a horrible crime, we’re barely aware of it until long after it happens. When I discovered what Jorgen had done, I had to read that passage twice, just to be sure I understood what had just been revealed.
From Tirza, I went to 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. In this novel, the protagonist, Zachary Karabashliev, is struggling to make sense of his life after his wife Stella walks out of it. He drives from the United States to Mexico for some self-destructive debauchery and, through a few strange twists, ends up with a huge bag of marijuana. Somehow he crosses back into the United States with the marijuana and decides to take it to New York City to sell. Along the way, he takes photographs of the people (18% gray is a photography reference).
18% Gray is useful for writers because it uses what MFA programs typically advise you not to use: flashbacks. This whole novel depends on italicized flashbacks—conversations between Zachary and Stella as he takes pictures of her. As I read these flashbacks, I couldn’t help but remember the advice of a famous author I studied with: “Avoid flashbacks whenever possible.” Apparently it wasn’t possible to avoid them in 18% Gray, and thank goodness Karabashliev didn’t try to write around them, as I often do.
By the way, this novel has a twist at the end, too—but I won’t spoil it for you.
Finally, there’s Scars by Juan José Saer. This novel breaks the mold. It’s so far from the MFA model of storytelling that you may want to read it just to wash the repetitive three act structure out of your brain (although you could argue that this book has three acts, too). The story revolves around an event that we witness only in the fourth and final part of the book: a man shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun. The first part is the story of a young man who lives a troubled life with his mother and witnesses the murderer’s suicide. The second part features an attorney obsessed with baccarat. A judge creates a “superfluous” translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the third part. And then the murderer tells his story in the fourth.
Scars makes you work as a reader in ways that American novels today do not. I pushed through long passages in which the lawyer explains his baccarat strategy, searching wildly for the gleaming nugget of truth. I struggled to follow the judge as he drives to and from work, coldly describing people as “gorillas.” There is a reward for all this work—the sense that you have vicariously experienced life as another person. What else can you ask of a good novel?
I’ve yet to read the fourth and shortest of the novels I picked up at the Open Letter Books table: A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Did I mention that all these novels are translated from non-English languages? Tirza was written in Dutch; 18% Gray, Bulgarian; Scars, Spanish.
Perhaps I found these novels so refreshing because they came from so far away. These did not feel like American books. These books take risks. As writers, we gain so much by reading writers who remind us that risk-taking is more than just possible. Risk taking is desirable, because the rewards to readers, as these books demonstrate, are enormous.
Novelist Richard Russo recently spoke at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In his hour-long conversation with VCFA President and novelist Thomas Greene, he spoke about the value of formal education for writers.
In describing his MFA experience, Russo said, “What it was for me was a port in the storm, for one thing. Two or three years in which you’re in a place with other people, you’re all doing the same thing, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.”
Russo has also taught writing, and shared his thoughts on teaching the craft. “I think part of what a writing teacher’s job is to help a talented writer find out how to get that last short distance,” he said.
To explain what that “short distance” is, he offered this analogy: “You know how in a computer when you’re waiting for something to download and you follow the bar along and it goes up to 98% and sometimes it stalls at 98% and you think ‘What the hell? It took you thirty seconds to go 98% and now you’re sitting there waiting for that last two percent.’
It’s like that with writers […] It’s amazing how quickly you can learn all but the thing that you need to learn most. And that’s that last two percent.”
Russo said that “one of the things that a good writing teacher will do, in addition to the technical things, is to help the writer understand who he or she is and what’s coming between that writer and that last two percent.”
This is helpful advice, especially since, in the Burlington Writers Workshop, we’re all each other’s teachers.
What’s your “two percent”? And how are you working to travel that last short distance?
Seven Days has published a wonderful article about what The Burlington Writers Workshop has been doing. On the night of the interview, reporter Margot Harrison had originally planned to leave before 8 o’clock, but ended up staying beyond that time. If I had to guess why she decided to stay late, I’d say it’s because you’re all so awesome. Who wouldn’t want to stay late and chat with you?
To prepare for the buzz that this article will likely create, I’m launching some new meetings, which you can join for free at meetup.com. I want to make sure that if you want to attend a meeting, you can.
To that end, if you have suggestions on how I should go about scheduling meetings, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org. In fact, suggestions on ANYTHING are welcome! This is your workshop, so help me make it work better for you.
I’ve also got an idea for a three-part book-length workshop for folks who have finished manuscripts ready for review. This will probably be in October or November. More on that later.
And finally, one quick update on last night’s reading at the Essex Library. Success! I’ll post the audio and photos in the next few days. Stay tuned, and thank you for your continued dedication to reviewing each other’s work.