The Woodbridge Writers Retreat….

This is another post in my writers workshops series, where I give you the scoop on the writers workshops/conferences I attended this year. The Woodbridge Writers Retreat was hosted by Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch, and Tom Zoellner in May 2014 in Woodbridge, Virginia. If you are a reader/writer and you don’t know about these guys yet, you’ll be very glad you read this post. (Richard is on the left, Tom in the middle, Robert on the right.)

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I met Richard Bausch when I was an English Major at George Mason University a few years, ahem, okay, decades ago. He was the professor whose words stuck with me truly for a lifetime. When I was his student, he gave the class a short story assignment. I had never written a short story before and was completely intimidated. (Yes, the class was probably called “writing short stories” or something very vague like that–thank you for understanding why I was surprised by the work we were asked to do.)

Luckily it was a small class and he must have seen the look of shear dread in my eyes. He asked what was wrong. I sheepishly told him I didn’t even know where to start. (Yes, rookie mistake. Don’t ever let other people do the dirty work for you. In order for you to be invested in it, you must own every step of the process.) So he kindly created a prompt for me. I wrote a story based on that prompt and it was horrible. Absolutely horrible.

But rather than tell me to give up on writing, he told me the truth:
“You took the easy way out on this one. You can do much better than this.”

He was right. I had very much taken the easy way out. I wrote the story quickly and put it aside as if the first version of anything is ever good enough. I never edited it. I never reconsidered optional story lines. My characters were flat. It was awful. (No,  thankfully, I do not still have a copy of it. No need for such evidence.)

I was worse than a rookie. I was lazy. And embarrassed myself.

Fast forward many years later. I had joined a writing group and we decided to attend the AWP writers conference. When planning out what sessions I wanted to attend, I realized that Richard Bausch was going to be a speaker. Squeeeee.

So like a good little groupie, I excitedly waited for him to come into the session. As soon as he sat down, I rushed over to him and gushed about how he had been my professor and how he had inspired me by telling me the truth and blah, blah, blah. I even gave him a flashdrive with a copy of my work-in-progress to show him that I was no longer “taking the easy way out.” (Yep, still rocking the rookie. Thankfully I stopped short of asking him to sign my t-shirt.)

He was very sweet and said thank you. He even accepted my facebook friend request. But I didn’t really think I would get a chance to see him, much less work with him, again.

That is, until I met his brother Robert Bausch at the Algonkian Writers Workshop in Sterling, Virginia. He was a guest speaker and there were only about 8 of us at the conference, so we all got a chance to chat with him. He had us completely engaged. There is no doubt that Bob is extremely talented with many books, short stories, and even a movie under his belt. But he is also passionate. He reads like crazy, he teaches, and he writes every day. And he is funny as hell. (Just like his twin brother Robert. Yep, twinsies. Awesome.)

What I love most about Bob is that he loves writing and teacher writing, even after doing it every day for years on end. He hasn’t lost his zeal and that makes me hopeful that I won’t either. (Richard is the same way, by the by.)

As he was walking out of the conference, I asked him to please let me know if there were any workshops he was teaching and gave him my email address. When I hadn’t heard from him after a while, I went from rookie to near-stalker and googled “Bausch” plus “workshop” and found the Woodbridge Writers Workshop. His brother was going to be there too. Both Bausch Brothers at the same conference, teaching me? I might faint. Sign.Me.Up.Now.Please.and.Thank.You.

Tom Zoellner was also a workshop leader. I had not heard of him before but that was reader error on my part. He is a fabulous non-fiction writer and journalist. He takes subjects that most people don’t think too much about – speed traps in small-town Georgia or Uranium for instance – and writes engaging, almost fictionesque prose about it. He turns facts into stories and draws the reader deeply in.

The workshop was small–only ten writers. Yes, that’s right. Ten writers and three workshop leaders. That’s damn near miraculous. All three of the leaders are teachers as well as writers. Yes, that’s even better. The workshop lasted 3 days (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday).

We spent most of the time workshopping the different submissions, but we also had craft talks and ate dinner together each night which allowed the workshop discussions to continue on well into the night. Each writer was allowed to submit up to 20 pages. Each participant was expected to submit something and read/critique everyone else’s submission.

Because the leaders are so entrenced in the teaching world, many of the attendees were also teachers, either creative writing or composition. I loved that.

The feedback from this workshop was invaluable. The leaders spent a lot of time reading and considering everyone’s work. The attendees were also smart readers and invested time in each story.

These are the wonderful writers who attended the conference.

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Some of the advice/things we learned were…

  • Write your way to the end – don’t tinker with details until you get your story down.
  • Peter Taylor is a master of having the narrator tell the reader important info without the narrator understanding its full impact.
  • Writing a one sentence summary of each chapter will allow you to see the entire book as a whole.
  • When writing character remember to write this character, not just a character.
  • You want your readers to feel surprised at the exact moment they realize the inevitability of what’s coming. It should be an “Oh” and an “Aw” moment.
  • Move the most imporant piece of dialogue to the end of the line so it has more impact.
  • Perfect is the enemy of good. Feel free to write without judgment of quality – but in editing be heartless with the delete key.
  • Don’t write to make a point. Theme is generally accidental.

Richard also has a “ten commandments” list on his website. You can read that here.

As always happens at writers conferences, several books/stories came up as recommendations to read…

So there you have it. If you ever get the chance to attend this conference. Do it!

The link to the workshop is here.

Oh and it turns out that all three of the workshop leaders have books out this year.

Here they are …

Robert Bausch

before during afer

tom zoellnerYes, you should buy them all. Right now.

 

The my writing process blog tour

If you saw my last post, you know that I’m sharing my experiences at the writers workshops I’ve attended over the past year. One of the many, many reasons that I love attending workshops is that I meet amazing writers who are also terrific people.

Jane Ward is one such writer/friend. I’m proud to say she is a front-row-seat-convert thanks to me. She has invited me to participate in a blog tour called the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I’m honored that she considered me worthy. Smooches Jane! You can read her writing process story here.

Jane Ward

Jane Ward

First, I’ll tell you a little bit about my talented friend. Jane Ward is the author of Hunger and the New York Book Festival award-winning novel The Mosaic Artist.  Yes, she rocks. She is currently at work on her third novel, The Welcome Home. A former baker and caterer, Jane now cooks on video for allfood.com, a recipe database cited on several online newspapers, and also regularly contributes articles to them. Her blog, Food and Fiction, is equal parts food memoir, cooking and baking discussion, and collection of food industry profiles and trends. (Jane’s friend Carla Panciera invited her to join the blog tour and you can find her entry here.)

Below I have answered the few questions required by the blog tour. By reading on, you’ll get to know a little bit more about what I do (and sometimes what I don’t do.)

1. What are you working on?

I spent the “Summer of Ellen,” as I affectionately call it, attending several writing workshops and not doing a ton of actual writing, just learning about writing.

The pieces I workshopped were:

– A 100-page excerpt from my novel in progress called The Alligator Purse. It’s a family saga, with a political backdrop, lots of secrets, and a fabulous purse.

– “In the Dust of Elephants” is a short story about a Somali man whose daughter is gravely ill. He participates in a hunt to get ivory dust from the tusk of an elephant because he believes it will cure his daughter.

– “The Dust in His Pocket” is a short story focused on a pre-teen boy who can’t find his grandfather. His only clue is a broken hourglass that contains dirt from all the places his grandfather has travelled.

And, yes, I seem to have an affinity for all things dust right now. I considered calling my novel The Dust in the Alligator Purse, but somehow that seemed a tad too much.

2.  How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Uhm, it’s not finished or published. Oh, besides that. Ah.

I think the fact that a woman is writing about a presidential run is a little unusual. Also, that the book has a strong political backdrop but the story isn’t about politics. It’s about mother-daughter relationships and the cycles–good and bad–that are repeated in families. And it’s about holding other people to higher standards than we hold ourselves–and how that can absolutely ruin us.

Also, an American woman writing from the voice of a Somali man–probably not a current trend in most literary works.

3.  Why do you write what you do?

I’m writing this novel because I won a contest. The prize was a consultation of the first 10 pages of a novel with a literary agent named Rachelle Gardner. I kind-of, sort-of raced off a smart-arse haiku and, holy crap, I won. Which would have been so fabulous if I actually had 10 pages written. Ahem. (Please don’t ask me WHY I entered the contest–that is still a mystery to even me.)

Getting 10 pages written was my obsession but I had no idea what to write about. None.What.So.Ever. That is, until I heard a story on the radio about a woman who had her purse stolen. She chased the thief down to get her purse back. And I thought, “what the hell was in that purse?” Angels sang, glitter spewed, and The Alligator Purse was born.

“In the Dust of Elephants” was inspired by another contest about hunger in the natural world. I didn’t want to have my characters hunger for food, so I needed something else, something more dire. My family spent some time living in India. While there, two of my children got sick with unidentifiable illnesses. Thankfully they were both fine but it was a scary time and I knew I would do anything I could to help them get well. I wanted to write a story in a foreign setting and Somalia seemed to make perfect sense because I needed an elephant to wander through the story.

“The Dust in His Pocket” is really a tribute my grandfather. The grandfather in the story is not at all who my grandfather was, but the special relationship he has with his grandson mimics our relationship.

4.  How does your writing process work?

Process. Hmmmmm, that sounds like a bad word. Can you tell I don’t really have a process? Ergh.

A lot of my story ideas/inspiration used to come from contests. The creative world is often too immense for me to come up with my own ideas. I’m a Pisces afterall and if I hold on too tightly to one idea, I fear losing all the others. Although, I am getting much better about it. Many of my earlier story ideas came from someone else saying “what about this” and me answering back, “Yea, but no, not that exactly. What about this instead?”

To keep the writing process blog chain going, here are some other writers you should know, and who will (I hope) let you know a bit more about themselves.

Virginia Pye – River of Dust
I met the talented Virginia Pye at a James Rivers Writers Workshop taught by Nancy Zafris. River of Dust is a fabulous story set in Northwest China in 1910 and chronicles the lives of a missionary couple whose young son, Wesley, is kidnapped by nomads right before their eyes.  During our workshop lunch, I squeezed myself in between them and soaked in every single word they said. I may have accidentally, on-purpose rubbed against them both in hopes of some of their tremendous talent falling off of them and onto me.

virginia pye2

M.M. Fink – Forget We Met
I also met M.M. at the James Rivers Writers Conference. (Yes, it’s a good conference. You should go. Find out about it here.) She is beautiful and asked a lot of smart questions and is super talented. At first, I didn’t think I could like her that much because, well, did you read the last sentence? But she is so talented and so kind that you can’t help but like her a lot. Her first novel  is Forget We Met is the story of a young woman who comes home to the Louisiana playhouse in which she was raised to claim her future in the theatre and the man she’s always loved, but ends up discovering lifelong betrayals, the father she never knew, and herself. She has an agent for it and the book should be coming out in the not so distant future. (Fun fact – she let her readers pick the title. For reals.) Her second novel is called Canary Falls and I think she just finished writing it.

 

And finally, I’d like you to meet

Tara Lindis-Corbell
She is an emerging writer (like me) who I met at the One Story Workshop in NYC. There are a couple of reasons I’d like you to meet her. She’s talented. She’s funny as hell. And it’s about time she updated her blog with a new post. (You’re welcome Tara.) She also inspired me. She has two young children and she still gets up  every.single.morning.before.they.do and writes. She said she does that because she’s grumpy if she doesn’t. Amen sister. Tara is working on a novel that deals with family dynamics, the trickle down effect of environmental shifts on our every day lives, and a missing cat. She also has a funny story about a voodoo doll on a bicycle. If she doesn’t tell that story, I will be forced to tell it for her. It’s hysterical. Fun fact – it’s a true story.

Tara reading at One Story

Tara reading at One Story

That’s it for now. Happy reading and writing!

The Tin House Winter Workshop……

Throughout the next few posts, I will share my experiences at the writing workshops I’ve attended this year. (Spoiler alert – they were all really good and if you are a writer, you’ll want to know about each one.) I started off the year at the fabulous Tin House Winter Workshop. It was held at the end of January 2014 in a small town called Sylvia Beach on the Oregon Coast.

Imagine going here…

The Sylvia Beach Hotel

The Sylvia Beach Hotel

Where each room is decorated for a different author…

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Dr. Seuss room

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Emily Dickenson room. I was worried the room might be haunted. But no ghosts appeared or disappeared.

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Mark Twain room. It had a fireplace and a terrific view. A workshop leader got this room. ;)

And this is your view every.single.day…

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And a super sweet cat roams the halls…and your room, if you let her (if cats are a no-go, you can just keep your door closed). But she is so smooshy and sweet…

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And learning the craft of writing from Whitney Otto (How to Make an American Quilt, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, Now You See Her), Vanessa Veselka (ZAZEN, The Truck Stop Killer in Best American Essays), and Jon Raymond (Rain Dragon, The Half-Life)…

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All hosted by the talented and gracious Tin House folks who also shared their insights on writing and publishing and karaoke…

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Lance welcoming us – not doing karaoke.

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You even get to see the Tin House office space where all the magic happens…

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Yes, you might just think you’ve done died and gone to writers heaven, where muses sprinkle glitter out of magic pencils and writers block has been abolished because it’s been deemed too cruel a punishment for the creative mind to endure. Ah, yes, heaven indeed.

Tin House accepted 18 writers for the workshop out of 200+ applications. (The great news is that this year there will be two workshops – one fiction, one non-fiction – so 36 spots.) Yes, lucky me. But the real message here is polish, polish, polish before you apply. And then maybe polish one more time. Then set it aside for 3 days, and polish again. Rinse, repeat. Then apply.

The workshop was three days – workshops in the morning, panels/craft lectures in the afternoon. Each workshop group had only 6 writers – yes, that is beyond fantastic! We critiqued two manuscripts in each session, so each writer got about an hour and a half of dedicated individual attention and every participant provided written feedback, as did the workshop leader. The writing was top-notch and the participants were careful readers who offered tremendous insight into each piece. (My workshop leader was Whitney Otto – she was a very wise choice.)

One of the real benefits of workshops is that you get to analyze writing that is not your own. I tend to learn at least as much from the discussion of other writers works as I do from the discussion of my own. I’m not invested in their writing the same way I am invested in my own story and can see it as it truly is, not as it was intended to be.

Because it happened to me (no one else, just me), I will share a little bitty lessons-learned with you. So, if you want, you can meet at the Tin House office (yes, please) and ride with the other workshop participants to the hotel. If I remember correctly, it’s just under 2 hours. You do not need a car while at the workshop so this is a really great option.

Unless, that is, unless, you are someone who might get a tad nauseous in a warmish van filled with excited writers journeying up a curvy mountain road.

Ahem.

Maybe that was me. Perhaps I should have sat in the front seat. Undoubtedly I should have taken dramamine or at least TUMS, before–yes before–I got nauseous.

I started feeling cruddy and rested my head on the seat in front of me and the other riders started to worry and asked repeatedly if I was ok, which was very nice but when I raised my head to answer…well, let’s just say that probably didn’t help. 😉 I thought I could make it–until I finally realized I simply.could.not.make.it.one.more.curvy.turn and asked the driver to pull over.

But he couldn’t do that immediately. What? I hear ya. Excuse me?

Well, you see, the road is narrow (and curvy) without much of a pull off shoulder because it happens to be on.the.side.of.a.mountain. and there.wasn’t.a.lot.of.room. Whatever. This is a case where poor planning on my part does happen to constitute an emergency on your part. So Sorry.

The good news is that the driver was able to pull over quickly enough and I was able to dash out to the back of the van and lighten my nauseous load. The bad news is that the editors from Tin House and the workshop coordinator were driving by us just as I got sick. So much for fabulous first impressions. Ergh.

The best part of the story is that we were about 2 miles from Sylvia Beach when I got sick. Two minutes longer and I could have totally saved face. Oh well. Luckily, we all laughed about it later. The Tin House folks are gracious people and let me live it down (relatively) quickly.

Back to the workshop. Did I mention it was fabulous? Well it was.

Here are a few tidbits from what we learned:

– Tin House is a top-tier literary magazine–wait, we knew that already–but they reinforced that belief over and over again. Even though they have every right to be literary snobs, the people who work there are approachable, talented, knowledgeable, and supportive.

– If you want to be published in a journal, get to know the magazine–support it by subscribing to it, reading it, and sharing it with your writing community. But most importantly, get to know what kind of stories they publish.

– Don’t worry about what the story is trying to mean – you’ll see that at the end. And if you are lucky it will mean different things to different people.

– Be careful that multiple POV characters aren’t just telling the same exact story over and over. Each POV must move the story forward and reveal something new.

– Writing should feel a little out of control and not too neat. You can write the life out of something and make it feel dead on the page.

– Most professional writers are very open to editing. Not being willing to edit something you’ve written might will make you look like an amateur.

– Authorative voice is what the writer takes with her from piece to piece. The story varies but the authority remains.

– Narrative voice is the charisma on the page.

– If a story feels stuck about 1/3 of the way through, the writer might be relying too heavily on voice.

– Fiction allows the writer to take something private and make it public.

– We also learned about the fabulous essay by Betty Flowers called Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process

At these types of workshops, books are always a big topic of discussion. Some of the book recommendations that came out of this workshop are (I’ve not read all of these, so I cannot testify to how good they are but these were some smart readers, so there you go)

Of course any of the books listed above by the workshop leaders
Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (one of my favorite books ever)
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (very good)
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton
Telling by Marion Winik
Old School by Tobias Wolff
The Tenth of December by George Saunders

So there you have it – the Tin House Winter Workshop. Information about the 2015 workshop will be on the Tin House site sometime in September.  Tin House also hosts a summer workshop. Awesomesauce!

 

 

 

 

‘The great workshop roundup…….

I’ve spent a good part of this year attending some of the best writing workshops in the country. I affectionately refer to this year as the “year of Ellen.” It’s been amazing!

Over the next few posts I will share where I have been and (some of) what I have learned. I would love to tell you every single little detail – but I won’t be able to capture all of it. There is nothing like being there in person – writing, reading, critiquing, breathing in words. Ahhhh.

One of the best things I learned was this….

You don’t have to be published to be a writer. You have to write to be a writer. Afterall, you can’t become published without writing first.

Ahhhh, that’s a refreshing reminder. Yes, you are in fact a writer, if you are writing. Boom.

The first workshop on the list is the Tin House Winter Workshop. What a fabulous way to start off the year! Look for those delicious details in the next post!

The rest of the posts can be found by clicking these links…

Woodbridge Writers Retreat
Yale Writers’ Conference, Part I
Yale Writers’ Conference, Part 2

The Art of the Story with Tom Jenks of Narrative

 

You don’t need more time or talent…

I have written about Glennon Melton from Momastery before here. She’s kind of full of awesomesauce. And I kind of heart her writing. She perfectly imperfect.

Well she’s done it again. She’s written this lovely article about why you don’t need more time or talent to write (or insert whatever your passion is). You should read it. Right now.

Five sentence short story…..

I mentioned a little while back that Hannah Tinti from One Story was teaching online short story class. It turned out to be awesome. No surprise there.

The first assignment was to create a five sentence short story. Here is mine…

Paul and Maribeth sat in the small church holding hands and praying that someone would find their daughter alive. Maribeth mentally retraced their morning, trying to find some clue as to where Elizabeth could be. Paul looked at their intertwined hands and said, “I only left her alone for a moment.” Shocked, Maribeth left the church and headed toward the center of town. She found Elizabeth at the corner of 5th and Maple buying an ice cream cone from a vendor Maribeth had never seen before. 

I’m sure this seems to neatly tied up at the end but it’s just meant to be the framework of the story, establishing the setting, characters, conflict, plot, a secret, and the resolution.

Keeping promises to myself…..

Here is what I wrote today. telescope

The telescope sat by the stained glass window in the attic. A pact with a young boy named Henriech lay below it, also broken.

The boy’s grandfather, Albert Einstein, had left on a journey to America. He wanted to meet with the American President Mr. Roosevelt.  His grandfather had learned of a new type of bomb created with nuclear fussion and wanted to alert the American President to its danger, encourage the Americans to also research the possibilities.

Henriech had the letter his grandfather had written, then crumpled after deciding an in-person meeting would have more impact. Henriech smoothed the letter with his small hands and folded it twice before putting it in his science book for safe-keeping. The boy’s grandfather left him with a kiss on each cheek and a promise to return. A trip to Anchorage to see the Northern Lights was all but guaranteed.

Henriech sat in the chair by the window with the newspaper folded on his lap. He watched the night sky. It was cloudless and starless, a blanket of nothing. Hitler had come into power and his grandfather did not feel safe returning to Germany so he remained in America sleeping in a comfortable bed. Henriech slept each night on the wooden floor near the telescope, hidden from the watchful eyes of the soldiers on the street.

Write.every.day. Write.something.every.day….

Writers hear this advice over and over again. Then we create excuses why we can’t–beautiful excuses filled with empty air and hyperbole and then promises to ourselves to do better.

Samuel Beckett says “fail better” but if you aren’t trying, you can’t fail. I guess you can fail to try but you’ll never get better at that.

Today is my promise to myself to fail better and then hopefully succeed.

If you are also a writer–or a person with a passion–come along, fail better with me.

A chance to write a story with One Story’s Hannah Tinti

In this week-long course, under the guidance of One Story’s own editor in chief Hannah Tinti, you’ll build a short story from scratch, learning the ins and outs of storytelling structure along the way. New lessons—in video or text—will be shared daily, but exercises can be done on your own time, and an active message board will allow you to communicate with fellow students and ask questions. For complete details and to register, visit www.one-story.com (look under “events” and then “online classes”).

This is an amazing opportunity to learn from one of the best editors in the business!

276 girls

I probably shouldn’t admit this but I am not a big follower of the news. It’s depressing and I never get the remote anyway.

But when I heard on the radio that 276 young girls were kidnapped during their final exams, the world seemed to stop spinning. I literary had to regain my balance and turn up the news. Did I really hear that correctly? When I realized it happened a few days before I heard about it, I wondered how that was possible.

How are we not all consumed with this? How can we be so focused on what the  the owner of the Clippers said and not be focused on the fact that  276 girls were ripped away from their families with the possible intent being to sell them into either slavery or the sex trade.

How are any of us sleeping at night?

A story on the news this morning was that they might have found Christopher Columbus’ boat. Who cares?

For weeks, we watched non-stop coverage of the missing Malaysia plane – not that coverage wasn’t important – but it was non-stop.

There are 276 girls missing in Nigeria and hardly anyone is talking about it.