Friday, May 26, 2006

Confessions of a Workshop Fellow, Part 1

Rational Technology for May 28, 2006

Three weeks ago I received an unexpected call telling me that I had been accepted as a fellow to the 45th National Writers Workshop. I was giddy at the honor but I didn't quite know what to expect. Today, the workshop came to a close and I find myself looking back to see how much I've changed.

At some point in my initial excitement, I resolved to blog daily about the workshop. It was a decision I quickly dropped on the first day, opting instead to listen, participate, and reflect. A workshop, especially one as venerable as the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop, is akin to a spiritual retreat for a writer and therefore very extremely personal. That needed a bit of distance before setting anything down for public consumption.

If I approached it with a reverence that seems excessive, it's because of a background that harkens back 20 years. Fresh out of high school, I wanted to be a writer but unceremoniously ended up in engineering. It was just as well because I didn't actually write very well, and I eventually fell in love with math and technology. But those writerly frustrations kept simmering underneath until they found an outlet only recently in the pages of Metro Post, computer journals, and blogs.

And then, the workshop fellowship falls on my lap. It's at once a validation of ambition, an opportunity to learn from the masters of the craft, and a challenge to do more. Excited? Yes. Apprehensive? You bet. Clueless? That, too.

Now, this is an embarrassing admission but up until the event I really had no idea what they did in a writers workshop. I applied with the notion that we would go through writing exercises in the course of the three weeks. I thought that the writing samples we sent were really just a gauge of skill. As it turns out, those samples were actually the works that would be discussed, scrutinized, and taken apart. Horrors! If I had known, I would have been more careful about the material I submitted.

In a way, calling it the writers workshop is a bit of a misnomer. It ought to be called a reading workshop because that's the primary skill that the participants pick up. Yes, the workshop does help the fellows become better writers, but it does so by turning them into better readers first. This was for me the most important transformation during those three weeks. One can't write if one can't read; and one can't write well if one can't read well.

What do I mean? Avid but untrained readers intuitively know whether a poem or story they are reading is good or bad. But what, specifically, makes that piece good, and what it makes it bad? What are the parts that work, and what are the parts that don't? More importantly, how can it be made better? This is the critical eye that one begins to pick up at a workshop, a skill that's essential to any writer.

And not just one general skill for reading, either, but three. Poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, the three areas of the workshop, each call for a slightly different approach. Poetry emphasizes imagery and metaphor; fiction emphasizes character and dramatic tension; and nonfiction emphasizes author's insight. They are almost distinct disciplines, though each can borrow the strengths of the others. Having all three in the workshop is a wonderful cross-training exercise.

It was a pleasant three-pronged irony, then: I submitted works of fiction although I work primarily in creative nonfiction, but I ended up enamored with poetry. Ah, but that's just the workshop working its magic.

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