Friday, June 22, 2012

Entry # 70 - "Inside a Writers Workshop"

Hollins University - June 2012 - Photos: Jan Bowman
Last week I was at the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA.  This was my fourth visit to this wonderful workshop set in the rolling hills and mountainous terrain of North Western VA, on the beautiful Hollins campus, and once again, it did not disappoint.   

Hollins University offers a wonderful setting for workshop participants to escape the modern world's distractions. Writers can devote their time and thoughts to serious writing. The workshop includes classes in poetry and prose, for nonfiction and fiction. 
Classes and Dorms Surround a Shady Quad - photo: Jan Bowman
Pinckney Benedict’s “Dreaming Fiction” class looked at ways to improve fiction, both generally and specifically, according to our need. Seven of us in our class, all able, competent, experienced “journeymen” writers read, wrote, and provided thoughtful comments and encouragement to each other, led by the insights of our instructor, writer Pinckney Benedict. I believe we’re all stronger writers this week than when we arrived last week for our workshop. 

Early Arrivals for Panel on Publishing
My friends have asked, "What happens at a week-long writers workshop?" So I thought I would give readers an overview.  A typical day at 'writers camp' - as I like to call it - begins with a walk.  After some breakfast, it's back to your room or the library to do assigned readings and writing exercises; then around eleven most workshop participants attend a one hour seminar which explores a topic in depth, presented by one of the workshop teachers.  After a break for lunch, writers go to their selected workshop class for three hours of focused work which includes readings and critiques of participants' work, as well as exercises and instruction that explore ways to strengthen the works presented by students in the class. 

After a short break writers gather for dinner and then go back for prose and poetry readings and panel discussions presented by the writing faculty.  Later - back at the dorms - writers talk about their writing and readings. Being totally submerged for a week with other writers is a great way to grow rapidly in 'writerly skills' and build confidence.  So here's a broad look at the process that duplicates the patterns and process I've experienced at summer workshops at Iowa - Summer Writing Festival, Gettysburg Review Writers Conference, and Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in recent years.

Hollins Univ. Porch Rockers Attract Writers & Readers
It's fair to say that all the workshops I've ever attended have helped me grow as a writer at a much faster rate than I would have grown on my own.  Also - while new participants are often terrified that their work will be judged harshly or misunderstood, I have always found the instructors, who are - after all - writers themselves, kind and honest and tactful in finding the strengths in each writer's work, respecting each writer and that writer's vision for the full development of the potential in each piece of writing.  And finally and perhaps, most importantly, in organizing and setting a positive tone for classroom discussions.  First time participants are usually somewhat fearful and several 'first-timers' in my class expressed reservations prior to the first day of class, but quickly realized that our instructors were intent on providing a safe and positive experience. But it is safe to say though that all workshops are not equal and all are not positive experiences, so it's a good idea to shop around.  Talk to previous participants to find a good workshop fit for your writing needs.

Here's a list of craft seminar topics at Tinker Mountain this year - just to give you an idea of the range of these presentations:  

o  Jim McKean:  "Creative Research and the Art of Facts"
o  Pinckney Benedict:  "Things Writers Can Write Besides
                                         Just Stories and Novels"
o  Thorpe Moeckel:  "Looking at You: Using Second Person - in Poetry"
o  Fred Leebron:  "From Page to Screen"
o  Dan Mueller:  "Turning to Literature for Writing Prompts: 
                               An Exercise in Reading as a Writer"
o  Akiko Busch:  "The Written and the Made: Thoughts on Ceramics and Writing" 

Publishing Panel
Next week I hope to write more specifics about the content of my workshop for those who won't get to a workshop this summer, but who might plan to look for a suitable one for next year. 

Wednesday (6/20/12) I read a New York Times Restaurant Review by Pete Wells, and the following quote, which he applied to cooking, made me laugh but then I began to think about whether it applies to the process of writing. 
 Pete Wells said, "Creative people should never explain their process to anyone except their biographers, who care, and their spouses, who have to listen.  The rest of us ought to be left guessing." 
The more I think about it - the more I think writers would be at a loss if other writers did NOT share their knowledge about process with each other.  A community of writers provides richness far beyond that which one finds in a good cream sauce.
What do you think?  Feel free to comment.    

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


  1. Hi Jan,
    I too have been to a few of these workshops and two years ago I tried the workshop at Tinker Mountain and I have good things to say about my workshop with Jim McKean. I am a poet and he helped my work improve even though he often works with nonfiction kinds of work. I wish that I could afford to go every year but I do follow what happens at this workshop. Thanks for what you do to help writers.

  2. Hi Anne,
    Thanks for your comments. Jim's readings have helped me grow as a writer - even though I write short fiction and he mostly writes nonfiction and poetry. I hope you can find a way to attend the workshop again in the future and in the meantime, I hope you continue to believe in your powers as a poet and continue to put the words on the page. You Are A Writer!
    Best to you. Jan