Back to School

Some people learn new ideas best by reading a book and taking careful notes. Others learn best by jumping in without a net and just doing. Some people understand triangulation abstractly, whereas others don’t really get it until their father takes them out to the backyard to measure a tree by taking heel-to-toe steps from its trunk. We know one computer scientist who, when he tackles a new programming language, always writes the same program, a language interpreter. Different undertakings or subjects can involve or encourage different ways of learning, too. For some tasks, no matter how old or smart you are (or think you are), there’s something to be said for going back to school. Teetering on the cusp that is forty and with books already under our belts, we decided to go back to school when we began our novel projects.

U of Iowa (Kevin Satoh)

Doug is fond of the ritual and camaraderie of the classroom, with learning parsed out into manageable components that create momentum. Anna, a poet, has profound respect for the pedagogy of creative writing and wanted to reap the benefits of that approach as she moved seriously into fiction writing. If you’re a burgeoning novel writer in the Midwest, as we were four or so years ago, a likely sojourn is one of the many weekend (and weeklong, if there’s time) workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Among the instructors whose workshops we took over a couple of summers were Venise Berry, Susan Taylor Chehak, Kelly Dwyer, Jim Heynen, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Sandra Scofield. Each of these instructors focused on a particular topic—plot, developing scenes, middles—which helped us tailor our back-to-school experience to the stage of our individual novel projects. And the University of Iowa’s summer program has offerings in other genres too, so it’s not just for novelists.

One of the reasons we were able to take so many weekend workshops with different instructors was that we used a divide-and-conquer approach. We never took a workshop together. At the same time, we saw each of these weekends as a joint endeavor. Individual workshops meet for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon over two days, for a total of eight hours of intense interaction. Every evening over dinner and a beer, we shared highlights, reference points (such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), conversations, and prompts from our individual workshops. On some Saturday evenings, we were also producing writing for the next day. By doing this together, we were able to brainstorm and critique each other’s work. Later, we adapted this practice for writing nights together after we returned home. (That practice of our Iowa Saturday night also has come in unexpectedly handy as we’ve composed our blog posts together.)

Iowa City—with its beautiful university campus on the river—is a place that inspires writing. You can feel the buzz. In fact UNESCO named it as a City of Literature, one of just 16 cities worldwide in its Creative Cities Network. Prairie Lights is one of the best bookstores in the country, and the town has variety of restaurants and pubs. Meals at the festival are on your own, but workshop instructors tend to arrange a lunch together and participants often gather informally for food and conversation. Of course, summer is hot in Iowa City, with a daytime average temperature of 88 degrees in July, and very humid. But for us, that made the sultry evenings all the more delectable, a kind of respite from the intensity of heat and study and a release into our own writing.

A workshop—or three—at the beginning of the novel-writing process worked for us because we were daunted by the scope of our projects, not sure exactly how to begin in a way that would lead to what has become The Undone Years (Anna’s manuscript) and The Chief and the Gadget (Doug’s manuscript). In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes, “There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no reason to wait for inspiration. Getting your words down on paper takes time.” Committing to a focused writing workshop is a decision not to wait.

On the three-plus-hour drive home to suburban Chicago on those Sundays, we talked through what we had learned and made plans. We used those weekends as benchmarks from which we could map out the next stage—the next six months or so—of our novel projects. We rethought what we’d done, set goals for the foreseeable future, and found our conversations extended the energy of the workshops. The best commitments generate momentum, too.

We’ll have more at Lofty Ambitions about other workshop and residency experiences. In the meantime, check out the Poets & Writers Conferences & Residencies Database and the Writers’ Conferences & Centers for some opportunities.

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