What AWA stands for

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The Amherst Writers & Artists practices form the foundation for what we do in the Writer’s Workshop. The AWA group trained me in leadership, then sent me back into Texas to found my own personalized practices.

Whether you participate in our community as a monthly manuscript member, or one of our weekly Tuesday night series writers, the AWA foundations still serve all of us who gather around the Workshop’s table. Pat Schneider is the guru of the AWA, and here’s what she reminded us this month:

If you have lived, you have a story. If you can speak your story, you can write it. It doesn’t matter who you are; you have been using language since you were an infant, and you already know how to use it to move those close to you. Everybody has a life, everybody has a story, everybody has a natural, internal understanding of craft.

This is a nurturing message no matter where you are in your writing life — learning how to speak out on paper, or polishing craft for submissions to publishers, or searching for the right story to start to tell in your own words. Everybody can write. We enjoy a mix of skill and experience levels among our members, including those who always hoped and knew they could write.

What merits come from critique?

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A little while back I offered up an opinion about whether a Master’s degree in writing will produce that book a writer pursues. It will not, and I have two comments to that post which concur.

But the second post from anonymous (we’d love to know who our readers are, by the way) says that

I fail to understand why a writer would develop better critique habits outside of an MFA program than inside one. I’ve taken many workshops with non-MFA writers, and plenty of them have no idea how to critique work. And there are enough MFA programs out there to conclude that there is diversity to the workshop experience and no monolithic approach to critiquing.

The ideal of developing “critique habits” is at the heart of this failure to understand. In fact, developing better critique habits is just the opposite of what my workshops do — and any workshops based on the Amherst Writers & Artists methods. (That’s what Cary Tennis of Salon uses to lead, as do I.) The practices state that our workshops handle revised, second-draft work offered as a manuscript this way:

A thorough critique is offered only when a writer asks for it — after the work has been distributed in manuscript form. Critique is balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.

Many MFA graduates share stories of the painful sessions when “my writing was up.” Just as many, perhaps, as writers in critique groups which meet with no clear process for how to suggest changes to writing. Balance in these sometimes-grim classrooms proves to be a scant commodity. In “Narrative Design,” Madison Smart Bell tells the story of being a visiting teacher for two semesters in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, known as the bellwether of critique-based workshops.

Within the limits of law and propriety, we were free to do what we pleased… However, there were enormous, crushing pressures to conform in those Iowa fiction workshops. The pressure came not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It was a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink, and in many aspects it really was quite frightening… Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success.

We always ask in our workshops, “What was working well in that writing?” And we ask it before we move on to suggestions for change.

Bell’s comments that will not hearten many an MFA applicant. Only one point of view, yes, but maybe being driven by critique is the highway to revision hell. Bell goes on to say that when he was a student in such a program, he considered 90 percent of the critique he received on his writing to be worthless. He would still be noodling a first draft if he considered matters of detail. Now, he tells his students in workshops to consider themselves fortunate if just one workshop member understands what the writer intends. “Your job,” he says, “is to become the best judge of your own work.”

Our anonymous commenter reports they are aiming at an exclusive MFA program, adding that “I have to produce that work, and it will be much easier for me to do so with mentors and peers, the resources of a large university, and fellowship money that will free me from the household drudgery and round-the-clock childcare that take up most of my time now.”

That’s a good course for the 2 percent of applicants who can clear the walls of these elite programs. For the rest of the world’s hopeful writers, including some MFA aspirants, we offer practice toward publication, dedication, and community without an emphasis on the need to polish critique habits. We suggest, based on our individual reading of the writing. Our goal is to recognize the best in a writer’s authentic voice, and then suggest how they might follow their own practiced voice when they succeed.

Elimination of household time and childcare can be an option for some, but the line for these fellowships is long and filled with talented writers. Yes, apply to win such money. Send your best work. Hope for the best — but remember in the meantime that art does not spring from critique, but in your expression of voice, mentored by suggestions for change. I believe everyone can write, and together we can be better.

Headed west for vivid words

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This weekend I’m heading 400 miles west of the Workshop, to do some work of my own on my writing. The Writer’s League of Texas is hosting its first Summer Writing Academy, where about two dozen of us will learn about writing novels, screenplays, or in my case, Making Fiction Come Alive.

My instructor is Jodi Thomas, a USA Today bestselling author of romances who’s also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M University. I figured that with teaching experience in her background and more than a dozen books in print, Jodi would be a good choice to learn the language of vivid love. I bought a copy of her novel The Texan’s Wager. It starts strong, with our heroine stranded in the middle of nowhere, kicked out of a wagon train with no weapons in 19th Century Texas.

Trouble right away, the cardinal rule of how to kick off a compelling story. I’m looking forward to being a little more kicked out in the week to come, too, kind of a retreat away from the life that supports me and my family.

Alpine, of course, will be beautiful, in the summertime cool of the Davis Mountains. I’m especially keen to drive to Ft. Davis soon, to visit Dayton’s birthplace and the spot he fell in love with his wife. There’s nothing like being an eyewitness to detail to make the writing come alive.

Pick a path that’s more personal

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In The Writer’s Path, by Todd Walton and Mindy Toomay, writers get a few exercises (among many in the book) that use the letter form. Letters are more intimate, a way to get at style and voice that might be escaping you in third person writing, or the constraints of writing a novel, or a story, instead of simply telling a tale.

The book says that “the difference between stories written for publication and [those] written as a letter to a friend… may have no technical difference whatsoever. But the difference in our sense of love and trust for the people who might see or hear our words is enormous.”

So in one exercise we practiced tonight in the Writer’s Workshop, we wrote a letter to a friend about an interesting person in our lives, or in our stories. The writing came out with extra voice, compressed detail that did not seem forced, vivid images, and no affectation. On a revision, you might be able to use this writing inside a story or novel itself. At the least, it gives you a grip on voice for a narrator, as well as character details that are most important.

Letting voice lead your body out of block

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John Lee tells us in Writing from the Body that our throats can bottle up what we want to say in our writing. He has an exercise he suggests to clear our throats, so they are not “knotted with unspoken dreams and uncried tears.”

Yell and shout from deep in your belly into a pillow, Lee says, sending all that blocked energy out of your throat. After you rest your voice an hour, you’ll notice your voice has dropped a register.

He says by repeating this exercise you can clear the unspoken words from your throat and find your voice and writing are both deeper, and with more power. It reminds me of the mornings after I’ve been to a great game, basketball or baseball, shouting out loud among a crowd for several hours. I interview people the next day and tape the conversations, then play them back later and notice how much deeper my voice has gone. And yes, so goes the writing for that day.

Lee adds that “our greater voice in writing occurs naturally, when we are off guard, writing with a certain simplicity of mind.” That’s what we work to create in our meetings at the Writer’s Workshop, using our AWA exercises to switch off the left brain and get to the heart of the words we were born to voice.

Lifting stories off a floor plan

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Here’s an exercise designed to get a writer thinking about history, daring prose and point of view. Draw out the floor plan for a house in your life. Simple, not complex drawing, but include every room you can recall.

Now that you have your floor plan, take 20 minutes to write a story about an event that took place in that house. Positive, negative, scary, surprising. Something significant that happened in that floor plan.

Write the story from the point of view of the house. Let the house speak as if it knows what’s happening only from what it can hear the occupants say, or see what they do.

If this is a house from your childhood, so much the better. The writing has a chance to be more daring, truthful. Don’t worry about what your parents or your siblings will say about your writing. Everything that has happened in your life is your story to tell. Your version is just as truthful as anyone else’s.

In the safe environment we create in The Writer’s Workshop, following the AWA methods, you can push down into the deepest part of your memories, the writing that is not therapy, but theraputic. It can begin with a sketch of a building, one that has stories to tell over many years. The exercise is a way of making the old adage come alive: If these walls could talk…

First off, find out what to write about

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Journals can act as a good tool for writers, keeping your pen moving like lifting weights in the gym. The best kind of journaling, according to Robert Ohlen Butler, is a description of the sensations during an emotional moment of your day before you sit down to write. First thing in the morning, if you can.

This kind of prep writing is vital to knowing what makes your writing’s heart beat. This morning I practiced a journaling exercise from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She says that the essential thing to writing is to write about something you really care about. How to know? Make some lists.

Pick big emotions, according to playwright Claudia Johnson, who Burroway quotes in the chapter “Whatever Works” (Humor me here, while I share my own answers)

What makes you angry? Bullying, elitism, being shut out, cruel criticism, injustice.

What are you afraid of? Being abandoned, becoming irrelevant, loss of my mental and physical faculties, heights.

What do you want? Love and acceptance of who I am, supportive relationships with friends, peace and beauty from nature, the reward of service, unexpected joy, to lead, teach and nurture

What hurts? Being excluded, dashed expectations, disrespect for my aspirations, watching someone I love endure pain, being distrusted

What really changed you? My Army service, Dad’s suicide, drugs and then arrest, becoming a father, divorce from Lisa, then leaving my son’s home when he was 6, finding a partner for the rest of my life.

Who really changed you? Jim Lindsey, my first real community newspaper editor. Shawn Hare, an actor in the Melodrama Theatre. My son Nick. John Wilson, magazine owner. Jim Hoadley, my counsellor and “provisional governor.” My wife Abby.

If all this sounds theraputic, confessional, intimate, it should. “Those will be areas to look to for stories, whether or not the stories are autobiographical,” Burroway says. Some time back I wrote a short story called “Two Guys,” about partners in a New York City hot dog cart business. They were breaking up. Underneath the drama and the characters was the reality of seeing my collaboration with my wife in business start to unravel. I wanted a literary journal. She wanted yoga. I never ran a hot dog cart, but the emotions of a dissolving partnership felt the same.

Burroway reminds us that novelist Ron Carlson says

“I always write from my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

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