Over the years, I have led dozens of workshops for writers, and I am always interested in teaching more. Here is a sampling of topics I have covered, though I am glad to venture into new areas.
Formed by Family: Writing About Those Who Shape Us
When we write memoirs or personal essays, we inevitably find ourselves depicting those who have had the most influence in our lives—our family members. To understand the self, we must understand them. Take a look at a shelf of memoirs, and you will see just how vital those relationships are—in Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception or Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. However, writing about family is risky, and there are legendary stories of family members who stopped talking after a memoir was published. As a result, we don’t want to get it wrong. In this workshop, we will practice ways to write more freely and honestly while still honoring those we care about. We will discuss how other authors have handled writing about mothers, fathers, spouses, and children, and we will generate new stories, getting feedback on how we portray the central relationships. The class welcomes nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers who are trying to decide whether to “tell it like it is.” If you are developing a longer manuscript, bring it along. There will be time for sharing. In this workshop we will generate new writing through guided exercises and prompts, and we will provide feedback on writing you bring from home.
An Enormous Eye: Writing the Contemplative Essay
According to art critic Herbert Read, “True art persists as an object of contemplation.” One of the reasons that it has this capacity to hold our attention—like the note of a tuning fork after it has been struck—is that it has been created out of contemplation. The contemplative essay, also called the reflective essay, is characterized by an intense and concentrated focus. The author tends to circle a subject, spiraling away and dropping back to describe it from all angles and to plumb it for further meaning. Contemplative essays may seem almost “spiritual” as a result, since they are written out of extreme awareness. They may explore an explicitly religious experience or turn toward nature. They may circle some quite-quirky subjects: a dying moth, a surgeon’s knife, a horse rider in a circus. We will read from a range of essays, looking for contemplative techniques and searching for our own possible “objects of contemplation.” Writers of all levels are welcome. Our aim is to generate new material that can be workshopped during the time together.
Here and Now: Writing about Place in Creative Nonfiction Nonfiction stories, like their fictional counterparts, have to take place somewhere or they don’t take place at all. Sometimes, the selected place serves as a backdrop for the characters and action, like the revolutionary Rhodesia behind Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight, but sometimes the place moves into the forefront like a lead character. Consider, for example, the creek in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or the suburban housing development in D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, each described so meaningfully that it carries the book’s main themes. In this course we will look at shorter nonfiction models that explore a range of unusual sites: the Los Angeles airport, an Indian burial mound, a Rambler station wagon, a greenhouse, the clock display in an Iowa museum. Then we will re-visit our own significant places, practicing how to employ them more meaningfully, as background or foreground. We will particularly consider places that have archetypal energy—childhood refuges, places of discomfort, and places that seem somehow sacred. Writers of all levels are welcome. Our aim is to generate new material, developing it through the workshop process.
Larger than Life: Memoirs that Shed Light on More than the Self
The most common criticism of today’s memoirs is that they are too self-centered, even narcissistic. However, the best memoirs tend to reveal as much about the world as the self. For example, James Carroll’s personal story sheds light on the rift between youth and parents during the Vietnam war (An American Requiem), and Vivian Gornick captures the sexual politics of the same period by telling her individual story (Fierce Attachments). Such revelations are possible because the narrator becomes a lens the reader looks through, turning personal experience into a kind of portal, a window that opens on a particular time and place in history. We will practice strategies for making our life experiences meaningful in this broader sense: connecting private memories to public events, enriching remembered moments through deeper research, and situating the self in a clearly defined culture. This course is for any writer who would like to tell a personal story but make it as universally engaging as possible. We will primarily generate new material, but there will be opportunities for feedback on older material.
Truth Be Told: Writing the Essay of Social Witness
Some essays look inward; others look out, drawing attention to disturbing social concerns, often concerns that get overlooked. Through the act of writing, the author gives witness to an injustice, bringing it to light so that readers will become more aware and more likely to respond. In the 1930’s George Orwell described a Burmese man being hung, exposing the failure of the colonial British system that he had briefly reinforced as an imperial policeman. In the 1990’s Terry Tempest Williams wrote about cancer in her Utah family as a way to expose the damages of U.S. nuclear testing. In 2009 Eula Biss wrote about white looters after a tornado in Iowa so that she could throw light on the double standard used with black looters in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. Whether you are concerned about racial profiling, gender politics, health issues, body image, environmental degradation, gun violence, refugee treatment, dwindling resources, the cost of health care, or something entirely different, this workshop is your chance to act as a witness, drawing attention to what matters. Of course, the best essays of this sort come from genuine eye-witnesses, involving a degree of direct experience, but in all cases they shine the light outward onto what needs exposure. This is an intermediate workshop. We will critique one essay in progress, and we will begin at least one new essay of witness. Participants are invited to bring a draft of a social witness essay.
Art and Soul: Writing in Response to the Other Arts
Painting, music, dance, theater, these all play a pivotal role for creative writers, since writers find inspiration in other forms of creativity. In fact, writing about visual art has become so established that it has spawned its own literary term and genre: ekphrasis. Today, essayists lay claim to that term as much as poets, pointing to essays such as Didion’s profile on the painter Georgia O’Keeffe or Julia Ortiz Cofer’s quirky reflection on a home film—“Silent Dancing.” Contemporary nonfiction writers, drawn to a range of art forms, may write about a David Lynch movie or may explore the impact of James Brown on modern music. In this course, you are invited to explore your own unique relationship to the arts, particularly visual art and music. We will generate two new ekphrastic pieces based on shared prompts and an artistic inspiration of your own choosing. We will piggyback toward new realizations. All you need is a love of the arts!
Words on The Word: A Spiritual Writing Retreat
The canon of poetry is full of striking meditations on the scriptures, usually taking a contrary stance that sheds new light on old stories. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a classic example that reinvestigates Satan’s fall and the subsequent fall of Eve and Adam. T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” gives a new twist to the birth of Christ. However, other scripture-based poems abound written by contemporary poets such as Pattian Rogers, Jeanine Hathaway, Richard Wilbur, Mary Karr, and Eric Pankey. During this retreat, we will write in response to vital or thorny passages in scripture, taking our cue from the Psalmist, a poet who dared to talk back to God. Whether re-imagining the near sacrifice of Isaac or wrestling with Paul’s injunction for women to stay silent, we will write our own words in response to scriptural words. The boundaries are open. You may write lyrical nonfiction rather than poetry, and there is latitude for you to write about religious figures and events that came after the closing of the biblical canon.
The Journey Within: Travel Writing and Transcendence
There is a reason that many travelers go on pilgrimages. Travel dislocates us. It awakens our senses in the process, making us hyper-alert. Disoriented, we start to see anew, whether we have crossed an ocean or driven fifty miles to an unfamiliar town. For a while we may feel “alive” in a spiritual way. After cataloguing our own journeys, both literal and figurative, we will write about several that seem to have emotional or spiritual heat. We will also read from the rich traditions of travel literature that have a spiritual or internal dimension, giving attention to authors as diverse as Peter Matthiessen and Joan Didion, Viktor Frankl and Algazali, Scott Russell Sanders and Jack Kerouac. And in the process we will look for ways to express transcendent experience without becoming predictable, clichéd, or dogmatic. Bring a work in progress and we will try to start another.