Last Friday, I and two other writers from the Writers Studio Tucson had the singular opportunity to read our fiction and poetry that we wrote in response to a spooky prompt by guest judge Ted McLoof for the third annual “Write-to-Read” contest:
“Three people wake up in a room. They have no idea how they got there. They have no idea how to get out of it. They have no idea how long they’ve been there. But they only have until midnight to get out…”
We read at Antigone Books, a great setting for such events. The staff there was fantastic, including Kate Stern who was very kind, helpful, and knowledgeable. After she and then Writers Studio Tucson Director and instructor Reneé Bibby kicked off the night with opening remarks, Ted McLoof spoke briefly about the contest prompt and the submissions he had selected.
Kay Murrens read “Where We Are Silence,” her poem about a room, the women there telling about their own experiences as women, and waiting for God. The last line was a gorgeous expansive moment about God entering the room after the other women had left.
Jennifer Makowsky read her short story “Room 6016,” a thrilling story about three people in a room who think they recognize each other but cannot recall for sure or how they got there. The details of the room were perfect, the story full of surprises, and there was a moment related to that number in the title that led me to gasp out loud.
I finished the evening by reading my poem “These Are the Animals You May Eat.” I was ridiculously nervous before I started and had to keep pinching the skin between my thumb and index finger to make sure I didn’t faint. My wonderful coworker, Sarah, brought me a cup of water, the kindness of the act helped to calm my nerves a little, and then I stood up to head toward the podium. Once I started reading, I relaxed and got into the horror and voices of my five-part poem. Another coworker, Audrie, filmed the opening minutes of my reading; I have embedded her video above.
I’m grateful to everyone who attended. It was quite the crowd, much larger than I expected. I cannot thank my coworkers enough, or my fellow writers and everyone at the Writers Studio Tucson and Antigone Books. It was a night of nerves, surprises, and appreciation for all the people who surround and support me.
It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about The Writers Studio workshops I’ve been attending regularly for the past year. It has been such a positive experience that I think I have been trying to keep it all to myself. No more. This is the real deal and writers no matter what their level of craft may find The Writers Studio helpful.
The Writers Studio was founded by the poet Philip Schultz in 1987 in New York City and the Tucson, Arizona branch by the poet Eleanor Kedney, a former Writers Studio student, in 2005. You can find out more about the history of the program here. I first heard about it from acquaintances, but it wasn’t until after I finished college in fall 2015 and started to search for local writing workshops and meet ups that I decided to give the 10-week beginners workshop a try. I immediately fell in love with the program.
What’s unique about The Writers Studio is their focus on voice. Every week we are assigned a short excerpt from a poem, short story, or novel that demonstrates the author’s unique voice and writing craft. We then try their techniques in our own page-and-a-half response, relatively short because there can be up to twelve students in a workshop and we have one 2.5 hour session a week to fit in everybody. We bring in our work, tell the rest of the class a little about our experience writing it, let someone else read it out loud, and then sit quietly while the class and instructor provide constructive criticism, particularly feedback about how our work is like and not like the assigned excerpt.
One thing I never learned or understood from my college creative writing classes is that the narrator of the story, that first, second, or third-person point of view telling the story, can be a crafted character in their own right! This personal narrator is an entity separate from the writer and in third-person stories can be quite separate from the protagonist. The personal narrator is filled with attitude and has their own distinct view of the characters and story they’re telling. It took me many months to really get this and start developing this skill in my own writing.
In workshop we also focus on the difference between tone and mood. I think I only now understand the difference: tone is the personal narrator’s tone, how they are telling the story, be it matter-of-fact or with great affection for the characters, etc., and mood is the feeling with which you want leave your reader. Pairing the right tone and mood in a story is a powerful technique. For example, a matter-of-fact tone used by a personal narrator to tell a story that horrifies the reader, or an affectionate tone toward a character who is being abused can bring out deeply felt emotion and narrative complexity that a different approach might not.
In addition to the workshops, there’s a craft class that focuses on reading like a writer. Over a nine-week session, we read and analyze short stories, poems, collections of poems, and novels. For those who live in New York City, they meet once a week for a guided discussion about what we read and the elements of craft the authors used. For the rest of us, we listen to a digital audio recording of this weekly discussion. This week we are reading “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” by Zadie Smith and “Vision” by Tiffany Briers, part of the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press anthology. I read both stories on Friday and they are excellent. I was deeply moved by the stories and by the techniques the authors used to craft them.
The Writers Studio program might not work for everyone. I love the format, but not every writer will. The program is also pretty expensive, at least by my standards and budget. I feel it is worth the investment, though, and intend to continue at least through the end of this year. In addition to everything I’m learning and the great feedback I’ve received, I’ve created quite the repository of my own stories, a few of which I have finished, revised, and sent out to potential markets. In the intermediate workshop I’m currently attending, we recently read the poem “An Oral History of Blind-Boy Liliko’i” by Garrett Hongo from his book Coral Road. I wrote in response to this wonderful poem the beginning of a short story about an artist in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t stop at a page and a half (around 470 words); I kept going and now I’m over half way through the story with about 2500 words and a clear idea of how it will end. I’m using techniques demonstrated by Hongo in his poem such as unique and local languages and color, drawing on my own life and histories, and using a first-person narrator yearning or searching or doing something interesting. I think I have crafted an interesting character on his own particular journey through the art scene in Portland. It’s been a fantastic experience crafting this story and I hope to finish the first draft this week.
The Writers Studio workshops have been extremely beneficial to my writing. I love working on the exercises, I love going to workshop each week, I love receiving and providing constructive feedback, and I love how my own voice is emerging. I’ve met many local writers and instructors who inspire me weekly. I highly recommend The Writers Studio if you find this approach to the craft of writing in any way appealing. If you are located in New York City, Tucson, San Francisco, or any of the growing number of branches, there are writing workshops available. The Writers Studio also offers online workshops for writers who live elsewhere or who prefer the online format to face-to-face classes.