How to Enter Finishing School

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We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. The book Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading an article on being a better writer.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each others’ work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of Finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, foresee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We got training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” Tennis built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment by attending the school.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Finishing School begins July 19 at the Workshop.

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.

A new group of Amherst Writers & Artists leaders

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Several times each year the network of trained Amherst Writers & Artists leaders grows larger. On Sunday another nine writers and workshop leaders earned their training certificates after five days of training at The Crossings in Austin, Texas.

I was fortunate to assist in coaching these fine writers, offering advice on technique, writing alongside them in practice leading sessions, and sharing my own experiences in my year-and-a-half (so far) of leading sessions at The Writer’s Workshop. Texas gained three more leaders as a result of this training. The AWA affiliate network in the Lone Star State now numbers eight!