Authorial Intrusion: Attending a Writing Workshop (Part 1)

I’m just coming off a terrific week. I attended a writing workshop, my first in more than a decade. I was nervous at the outset, but soon the week settled into a nice (if tiring) rhythm. It was a win all around: I received invaluable feedback on my novel-in-progress, met some great writers, and learned new techniques.

The best part? I feel invigorated, ready to tackle current and future writing projects with enthusiasm.

Here are five tips if you’re considering attending a writing workshop.

  • Think about what you want. There are so many options out there. Ask yourself what you want to take away from this experience. Be honest! Do you want:
    • feedback on your current writing project?
    • craft lectures?
    • to meet literary agents?
    • to mingle with other writers?
    • quiet writing time?

The workshop I attended offered many of the above items, but there was no set writing time. In fact, the schedule was so jam-packed, I often spent what little downtime we had in a daze. That brings me to the next point.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Desk via The Guardian

  • Know what you’re getting yourself into. You’re going to be out of your comfort zone. Plenty of people you don’t know will be reading your work. Maybe you’ve come to the workshop from out of town. There might be a (gasp!) mixer. It can be scary. Read the details about the workshop, including the fine print.
    • How are the days structured?
    • Will you have “homework,” e.g. reading workshop submissions in preparation for the next day?
    • What is expected of you? What level of participation is needed?
    • What is the participant-to-teacher ratio? Is it reasonable for this type of workshop?
    • How many participants will there be? How diverse is it?
    • Are “big name” authors/agents/editors important to you?
    • Do you want to attend a venerable workshop (read: very competitive), or are you willing to go for the scrappy upstart (read: possible bumps in the road)?

If you poke around on the workshop’s website, you should be able to find the answers to most of these questions. Be wary of vague statements and no contact info.

  • Get behind the scenes. Once you’ve narrowed your options, the best way to find out about the workshop is to ask someone who has been. Don’t rely on the blurbs posted to the workshop website. Post the question on social media and follow up privately to make sure this is the right workshop for you.
  • Understand that fellow participants and teachers are there to help you…but not coddle you. If you’re seeking a lot of one-on-one attention, it might be better to attend a formal class or hire an editor. If you’re seeking unabashed praise, it might be better to ask your mother. (Thanks, Mom!)
  • Be generous. Most workshops ask that you offer feedback to other writers. This is such an important part of the process, it is not to be taken lightly. I’d argue that you can learn as much or more by giving than receiving. If you’re not at the stage where you are ready to give thoughtful comments on another writer’s work, consider postponing to a future workshop.

Here is a link to upcoming workshops in the US and Canada. 

Next time, I’ll have some specific details on what to expect during the critique sessions. Until then, do you have any tips for attending a writing workshop? Have you attended a workshop recently?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Tourist in My Town: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a waterfront park that hugs the East River for about 1.5 miles. For decades it was absolutely derelict.The area inspired plenty of mafia films. The piers were rotted. Everything was either tagged with graffiti or rusted. Old trailers were abandoned with weeds overtaking them.

But thankfully that is a thing of the past. As if you needed one more reason to come to Brooklyn (I mean, come on people!), Brooklyn Bridge Park is now a great space for the community.

At the north end of the park is Jane’s Carousel. Jane Walentas and her team painstakingly restored the horses and chairs by hand over 20 years. I love everything about this place. If I need a pick-me-up, this is where I come. Hurricane Sandy nearly spelled the end in 2012, but luckily the water receded just in time.

Jane's Carousel

The park runs under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges along the piers lining the East River.  This is definitely an urban, mixed-use park. It’s not a space of quiet contemplation like the Conservatory Gardens.

Large pavilions provide space for organized sports. For the record, I do none of these sports, but I like the idea of someone else doing them.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Look at these intrepid young people playing beach volleyball! Good for you, young people!

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Now this is more my speed: Ample Hills Ice Cream stand. I doubt that Walt Whitman had this in mind when he wrote, “I too lived—Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” but let’s not quibble. I had a scoop of “Baby, I was churned this way,” and it was delicious.

 

Brooklyn Bridge Park

I thought this was a clever concept and design. It’s a curved wading pool in a protected alcove. Though it does beg what should have been the obvious question: who wants to wade into the East River? I wouldn’t go in even wearing a hazmat suit.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

During the warmer months, there are concerts and events at this new bandshell. What a lovely view. See the orange Staten Island Ferry docking in Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty to the left of the frame.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

The park is about 75 percent complete so construction is ongoing. The same is true of these luxury apartments being built just behind the park. A two-bedroom unit costs only $3.7 million. Who’s in?

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What a bargain! And this view is free. Sweet.

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There are quite a few art installations throughout the park. This one gets right to the point.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

I spent hours walking the park and this just scratched the surface. There are even nature walks through the park. Check out Heather Wolf’s photo blog to see the wide variety of birds that live here.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Great New Books

I think the vast majority of books I’ve read in the past few years have come to my attention through personal recommendations. I rely on their honest opinions to help me select my next read. There are too many great new books to waste time reading bad books.

One site that I have been following since its inception five years ago is Great New Books. This site is a collective of 10 bloggers who take turns recommending a new book every Wednesday. They only review books they love, and, in turn, I have been introduced to many authors and books that otherwise would have escaped my notice. They have lengthened my TBR list considerably.

Today I have the distinct pleasure of offering my recommendation over at Great New Books. This summer novel will whisk you away to an island paradise with a family whose vacation turns out to be something short of bliss. Please join me there for my recommendation and a full archive of other Great New Books!

Authorial Intrusion: Self-Doubt

Authorial intrusion usually refers to those instances when an author calls attention to the writing in such a way that the reader is pulled out of the flow of the story. Say, an historical fiction writer who wants to avail readers of every last bit of research she’s done on the Crimean War even if it’s not relevant to the story. Or an essayist who reminds readers that cell phones were not a thing when she was growing up.

But today I want to talk about a different kind of authorial intrusion—one where self-doubt creeps into the author’s mind and goes around and around like a roller coaster you can’t get off. I don’t think writers have cornered the market on self-doubt, but we sure do know a lot about it.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt. ~William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Sitting alone at your computer trying to string words together leaves lots of opportunity for nagging feelings of uncertainty and apprehension to creep in. How do we overcome self-doubt? Dani Shapiro doesn’t think it is something that should be a stumbling block.

Still Writing by Dani ShapiroFrom Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life:

I’m not sure self-doubt is an obstacle. It might even be a writer’s best ally. It seems to me that every really good writer I know is plagued by it. Confidence is highly overrated when it comes to creating literature. A writer who is overly confident will not engage in the struggle to get it exactly right on the page — but rather, will assume that she’s getting it right without the struggle. People often confuse confidence with courage. I think it takes tremendous courage to write well — because a writer has to move past the epic fear we all face, and do it anyway.

 

There. She dropped the F-bomb. Fear. Because that’s what self-doubt is, isn’t it?  Fear that our writing isn’t good enough. Fear that no one will take us seriously. Fear that we won’t fit in.  Fear that (insert your own particular bogeyman here).

Fear is scary. That’s why it’s fear, after all. But I love how Elizabeth Gilbert makes peace with it.

Big MagicFrom Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day. I’m making space for fear right this moment…It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too. In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go.

 

What does it mean to make space for fear? I didn’t know the answer to that until I saw this TED Talk by writer Lidia Luknavitch. I bet you’ll be moved, as I was, by her raw and frank discussion of how to believe in yourself even when you’re afraid.

 

How do you make space for fear? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Read: To Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go. ~Dr. Seuss

My absolute favorite books—fiction or nonfiction—are ones that transport me to another place. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans. Twain’s Mississippi. The authors brought these places to life and we remember them. It’s not only because these stories are classics. I’d venture to say that they are classics partly because they evoke the setting in a captivating way.

Setting is the Goldilocks element of any good story. It should find a nice balance between not too much, not too little, settling on just right. Selecting the right details pulls me into the characters’ world. Most readers want to find common emotional ground with the main character, and that is an important first step. But if I can imagine myself there—hiking the PCT alongside Cheryl Strayed or onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff as it sinks, I will remember specifics about that story for a long time to come.

The location informs the characters. People are not the same everywhere. The weather, landscape, architecture, foods, flora, and fauna all serve to inform the culture. It’s why you might feel comfortable in Amsterdam but not Alaska, Santa Fe, New Mexico but not Santa Fe, Argentina.

Come along as we travel at the invitation of three authors. First, Ann Patchett takes us to the Amazon in State of Wonder. 

9118135At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter [the name of a character] slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.

 

Next, we stop at a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with eleven-year-old Kim and her mother, freshly arrived from China.

7362158A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows…

The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.

Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.

I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.

Lastly let’s go to Versailles with Alain Baraton, master gardener there for forty years, as he deals with the aftermath of a terrible storm.

18339812Two young beech trees I had recently planted had been among the first to go. They were now smothered under the mass of a fallen cherry tree. My trees, once so orderly and upright, were now tangled and piled up on one another in painful chaos. They lay in agony, their roots naked and suffering, exposed to the air in a position I couldn’t help but find shocking. The laws of nature, which usually seemed so clement and productive, had been swept away in a climactic upheaval that had lasted only a few hours. Another revolution had struck the subjects of Versailles, and those “subjects” (as we often refer to individual trees in French) were going to die. They had been taken away in the space of a night and there was nothing  I could do about it. Deprived of the garden’s protection, the palace itself suddenly seemed fragile.

Heart racing, I headed to Versailles’s botanical treasure chest, the Queen’s Hamlet. The surroundings had changed so dramatically that I had trouble finding my way. Nothing familiar had survived. The trees that once guided visitors through the garden were unrecognizable. Some of them lay on the ground; others had been displaced or crushed by their neighbors. Even the road was gone. In its place lay a field of mud where my boots sank to the calf.

 

Have books brought you to any memorable places recently?

Writers: I will be teaching an online seminar on setting and description this fall. More details to come soon. 

Have a great weekend, everyone!