- Published: July 13, 2013
I once saw Arlo Guthrie at Canal Street Tavern. I had seen him many times on my television set…in particular on the 1970s PBS rebroadcast of his concert at Wolf Trap with Pete Seeger. The songs they sang together—Garden Song, This Land is Your Land, Amazing Grace—were mother’s milk: warm and sweet. That night at the tavern just a few feet away from my bench, Guthrie testified to songwriting, how it was akin to standing by a river. Reach in and land that song like a grizzly bear snagging a fish. The trick is to be ready. Guthrie then segued into a song. He wrote the words in a rustic New England cabin huddled next to a wood burning stove and across from James Taylor. With limited provisions, there were only a few sheets of paper and a single stylus to share between two people. He figured the song was intended for Taylor but, at moment of its arrival, Guthrie was the one holding the pencil.
Last month, on the encouragement of my friend and local author T.J. Turner, I signed up for the 28th Annual Antioch Writers’ Workshop, 6-12 July 2013. Interested in the mechanics of good writing as a graduate student and as avid reader, I attended the public readings offered by the workshop in the past. For many years, I secretly yearned for a turn through the week long intensive. This year, with a solid 18 months of weblogging under my belt, I could speak my desire aloud. T.J. felt no hesitation in encouraging me and, given the enforced time out of the government furlough, I figured my moment had presented itself. So last weekend I, writer Amy Magnus, paid my dues and entered the workshop gates at Antioch University Midwest.
The workshop cleaved nicely into two parts: the morning interactive sessions on general craft and the afternoon specializations. Of the options to attend morning, afternoon, or both, I chose both. From the many flavors of form—poetry, creative non-fiction, and three kinds of fiction—and the two seminars tailored for young writers and novices, I selected the just-getting-started seminar led by author Greg Belliveau.
I entered late into the weekend events straight from the road to find Greg Belliveau and the class reading Grandmother’s Victory by Maya Angelou. The story’s theme—control triumphing over chaos—is an excellent place for any author to begin, and we tuned our understanding of plot, character development, and dialogue up from there.
Our mornings brought us into the circle of three amazing writers who, to our delight, fully engaged with each other as much as they engaged the class. Lee Martin, the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, began the day by bending our brains around the clean and focused lines of a short flash fiction piece then challenged us to write similar prose on the spot. He lingered on what seemed curious details but, in kicking over these stones, touched off something in me. Twice, I had to write my “what ifs” through a slow drip of tears. The elegant poet Cathy Smith-Bowers enchanted us with stories of building up and breaking down a poem. She’d pour out a generous “mess on the page” scouring her memories for all that swirled around a single vital source, the “abiding image” as she would say. Then, she’d negotiate the transaction between memory and form, find the true gravity of the memory, and trim her lines to the essential. In the final morning session, Dinty Moore—nonfiction author, editor of the e-magazine Brevity, and former professional modern dancer—riffed off on the two sessions before…his being an edgy, funny blend of improvisation and schooled lecture on “truth, artfully arranged”.
The best part was watching the three of them react to one another. By the end of the second day, I was feeling the movement of all those words. It was not a comfortable feeling, and I began to doubt if my constitution was inclined toward writing. Plus, I was concerned…as Greg Belliveau summed it up for me…about diving into the mess, the swamp, and not making it out again.
At this juncture, Belliveau surprised me with the following advise: Don’t focus on the linear plot. Let your characters develop by revealing their needs, needling their frustrations, and working them over through concrete scenes. Their circulating actions—housed like a boat engine in your choice of verbs—will propel the narrative flow. Focus too soon, he said, and you are sunk.
Mind you, I still had trouble locating the swamp, but the midweek session with book coach Jen Violi sent up willow wisps and set me off on a mud covered path. Engine running, I really enjoyed the final days of the workshop and only had the difficulty of stopping myself from listening to the audio in my head rather than to the live feed from the front of the room. I mentioned that to Jen Violi in parting. She smiled and said, “Don’t worry. You’re among friends.”
I’d like to think that true. The best course in the last hours is to hold off on reflection and enjoy the company of these good people…our pencils casting like fishing lines…pulling in catch after catch of notion and phrase, working this wild magnetic river shoulder to shoulder, plumbing its mercurial current for soul, stories, and song.
For a limited time, you can go to the Antioch University bookstore, 900 Dayton St, and buy a book by one of the workshop’s many authors. If you do, please act on that inspiration to write and comment here. I’d love to hear what you find or what struck you at the workshop’s evening readings.