by: Laura Cannon
Laura is a graduate student earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She received funding from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Travel Award to travel to Oregon for the Tin House Winter Workshop.
Consider the opportunity to discuss syntax and subordinate sentences, or the meaning of place in writing, or how to navigate the world of submissions, led by accomplished novelists. Imagine hearing these conversations with a group of twenty writers from across the country while overlooking the Pacific Ocean from a forty-five-foot bluff. This was part of the experience the Tin House Winter Workshop offered in my recent January weekend on the Oregon coast.
The literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel hosted our group. It was the place we dined and traded our favorite books with each other the night before we separated into manuscript workshops. Workshopping is a standard practice in writing groups; a daunting experience to silently listen while colleagues discuss what is – but mostly what isn’t – working in our writing pieces. A month prior to the trip, each group member shared their work electronically and we individually read the manuscripts and noted feedback to improve the pieces. Then, during our weekend at the hotel, each participant was given an hour to receive constructive criticism from the group.
During the conversation about my piece, our discussion led back to the concept of the “through-line” which asks, what is the primary tension throughout the novel? What is the one theme (so to speak) that all the smaller tensions can be hung? We also discussed flashbacks versus progression of the now, and how to keep characters in conflict with one another. Another workshop discussion asked how to create multidimensional characters. Here we noted that each time a character is revisited, something new must be revealed to the reader. This deepens the character and keeps the story’s momentum moving forward. Our group had six workshops, and each one held valuable conversations about the craft of writing.
After workshops the group broke for lunch. This was an opportunity to get to know our fellow writers. Over tacos or clam chowder, we discussed what drives us to write, and what paths we hope to see our careers take. Establishing relationships with authors across the country was an invaluable part of the trip. Maintaining connection with at least a handful of these people will contribute to my own writing community post-graduation. With any luck, some of these people might be lifelong workshop partners from whom I can seek writing advice for years to come.
Being an author means publishing work. We heard from Tin House editor Michelle Wildgen about the interplay between editing and writing. Here, the concept is to constantly whittle the work until the true story is discovered. Do more in fewer pages. Michelle encouraged us to edit our work judiciously and willingly, in order to find the best version of our stories. Kevin Barry, an Irish author, then warned us against polishing a piece too much. He confided that there have been times he reverts back to his eighteenth draft from the twentieth, in order to “rough it up” a bit again. T. Geronimo Johnson challenged us to look at language on the sentence composition level, and consider whether we’re constructing our sentences with reasons of “and, and, and” or “because, because, because.” Write with intention-ality. Each author who spoke, spoke with the urgency that writing must intrigue its readers. As Michelle said, the words are always whispering “come here, come here – don’t make dinner, don’t do this or that, read instead.”
The weekend was a flourish of discussion and overwhelming activity. Nye Beach was the perfect setting for its intensity; Pacific waves crashing from just beyond the windows, the combination of rain and sunshine making rainbows each day, and the sheer expanse of the landscape humbling us as we learned.
I am so thankful to the office of the graduate school, the English department, and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences who contributed funds to make this trip a possibility. Without their generosity, I would not have been able to attend. So, to everyone involved in financial aid for this weekend – Thank You!