June 18, 2008KR BlogKR

Summer in Gambier, Part I

In this series of posts, Kirsten Ogden offers her take on the Writers Workshops experience from Summer, 2008 in Gambier, Ohio.

The Kenyon Review Writers Workshops actually begins for some at the Columbus International Airport. This was where, in my first year at the workshops, nervous about my abilities and about all of the important writers I’d be around, I met 8 other workshop attendees on their way to Kenyon College to spend a week writing with, reading with, and conversing with some of the best established and emerging poets and prose writers in the country.

It was on this 45 minute ride from the airport that I learned about Kenyon College’s rich literary tradition, that I was infused with the beauty and peace of rural Ohio’s landscape, and during which I talked with several writers about writing–something I didn’t normally get in my daily life as a solitary writer plugging away. I was just learning that the rumors about The Kenyon Review Writers Workshops was true: the experience is magical and life-changing.

My arrival this summer back onto the campus of Kenyon College felt like coming home–not just for me and others who return each summer to the workshops for another round of intensified instruction, but for those coming for their first time to experience what is fondly referred to as “boot camp for writers.” I think part of that is because the workshop puts everyone on the same playing field. As KR Editor David Lynn shared, “We really try not to be hierarchal here. We’re all in this together, and sharing your fresh work is part of that process.” It’s a magical place, yes, but we do work hard here. All of the workshop participants were quite aware of what we’d be doing the next week during David’s welcome speech in beautiful Storer Hall:

“I will be very happy if, on Saturday, you can barely roll out of bed. Our job here is to exhaust you. [.. .] You will be inspired, provoked, challenged by the people in your workshop. And yes, you will write.”

The writers in the room laughed–but this was the night before boot camp was to begin.

This summer I signed up with prose writer Brad Kessler. Fiction is a new genre for me, but I heard him read last summer at the KR Writers Workshops and then finished his new novel in a fervor. After reading Birds of Fall, I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him.

Our first assignment was a story based on a prompt, to be written that night, and brought the next morning to our first workshop. This is how the next week would go: stories or prose exercises based on themes, prompts, ideas, discussions–all written overnight–with copies brought for sharing with our group the next day. New work, under the gun.

Sunday, Day One:
We meet and share a bit of personal information about ourselves. Everyone here has a different background–some MFA graduates, some housewives and mothers, students, well-published writers, university professors, former lawyers etc. It’s comforting to learn that we all have brought so much varied experience to this same room. We jump right in to sharing our pieces from the night before. Brad shares that setting up constraints for ourselves (a limited number of lines to a story, a particular locale, certain event that has to happen in a story) allows us to pay attention to every word and every sentence in the piece–to make sure that everything matters. He says, too, “when you do something unusual, it creates a sentence that’s alive to itself and alive to language.” My goal this week: something that is alive. The big question to keep thinking about though, is What is my job, as the writer? I need to think about why anyone would want to stop and read a short story, and how I can keep them reading my story. The Peter Taylor Fellows Reading tonight was amazing. Kascha Semon, Susan Hutton, Emily Moore, Sharon Rab, Lucy Turner, Tony D’Souza, Meghan Kenny, and Dustin Beale Smith. I share their names because they and their work inspired me.

Monday, Day Two:
Brad shares that David Baker told him to “talk to me when they start paying attention to syllables,” meaning that prose writers need to pay attention to prosody, rhythm, syntax, and form too–that stuff is not just for poets. Rather than writing “a loose, baggy monster” we should aim for “a tight, little purse.” I like that the instructors, like the students, are having conversations with one another about craft over this week-long period. We all really are on the same playing field. Somebody in class or at lunch said today that “working in constraints gets your problem-solving brain away from the creative brain” so that you’re not worrying ‘should I be writing about this’ because you’ve got bigger things to worry about–solving the problem you’ve set up for yourself in the story.” I like this because it reminds me to just sit in the chair and keep writing. I went to the faculty reading tonight and heard from Brad Kessler’s memoir and Nancy Zafris’s new novel. It inspires me that they are willing to share their new work and drafts with us. I talked with Susan Hutton, at the writer’s reception and spent the evening in my room reading and rereading her new book.

Tuesday, Day Three:
I’ve made it through the first night of the participants reading by sharing the piece I wrote on my first night here. I was astounded by the high quality work I heard from my peers in other workshops tonight, and I immediately felt lucky to be in their company. In today’s workshop we focused on the shape of our stories–the decisions we make that reveal character, conflict, plot, and movement in our prose. We’ve read Anton Chekov, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, James Salter, and Mavis Gallant, all just in the past three days. I am amazed at how much I am learning, and how much I still have to learn. I ended the night over drinks with Rebecca McClanahan, Geeta Kothari, Nancy Zafris, and several new and old friends from the workshops. Energized, I dive in to write my fourth story in four days.