At the Mayborn: Workshopping

It wasn’t all about Nan Talese and Oprah at the Mayborn last weekend, far from it.   While the lectures and panels and discussions and networking comprise the meat of the conference, the side dishes are the workshops.

Conducted all day Friday, they follow the standard workshopping procedure of every MFA program in the country.  (Actually, I’m making a huge assumption there.  The Mayborn follows the workshopping procedure used at the Spalding MFA program, which writer-in-residence George Getschow and I both attended.)

The workshops are designed to be supportive and nurturing, but that doesn’t always happen.  I’ve been in many a workshop where personal feelings take precedence over exalting the work.  However, I have to say that this particular Mayborn workshop was one of the best ever–and it wasn’t because of me. 

It was because of my awesome group:  Michele Myers, Anita Tipping-Wheeler, Dawn Youngblood, Marilyn Brand, Anna Louise Bruner, Lane Devereux, Carol Harper, Donna Johnson, and our wonderful token male, Stephen Eric Levine.

This was a group that brought such deep respect for the work and the process to the table that we bonded quickly and were able to get right into nurturing, supportive, and constructive critiquing.  Bear in mind that several participants had written courageously intimate memoirs.  In one case, the piece was gut-wrenchingly personal, and this was the first time the author had ever submitted anything for others to read.  The bravery that takes simply awes me.

What usually happens in workshops is that several themes emerge, and this one was no different.  Thought it might be helpful to take a look at those.

  • Start Far In
  • Over and over the group pointed out how a work could be improved by starting farther into the story, or starting with a gripping scene to pull the reader in and then filling in with back story.  Remember, you don’t have to explain everything or write chronologically.  Hook the reader, and then tell us the details we need to know.
  • Know The Purpose of the Book
  • Why are you writing this manuscript?  What story does it tell?  Why does this story need to be told?  Why are you the one to tell it?  Answering these questions can help you to designate the theme of the book, and that in turn can help you with structure.
  • Complex Characters
  • Over and over again in the May born pieces I marveled at the complex characters that people had constructed.  The writers showed the characters with all their foibles, without judging them.  The writers were not afraid to deal with paradox in their characters.  For instance, a charismatic faith healer who had multiple families–yet was a stalwart advocate of Civil Rights as he wandered the south.  Or a troubled adopted daughter who was rescued by a stable family–and ended up rescuing the mother of that stabled family in return. 
  • Dialogue and Memory
  • We talked a lot about how to write dialogue when recreating scenes in non-fiction.  How does the non-fiction writer use dialogue when he or she may not be able to remember what was said years earlier?  Not sure we ever came to a consensus about it, but the gist was that some lines are so memorable you always remember them, and beyond that, creating dialogue to go with the feel of the scene is okay.

So, I’d like to thank my group again for being so wonderful.  And congratulations to our very own Donna Johnson, whose manuscript, "Holy Ghost Girl," won the grand prize of the contest!

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