April 9, 2009KR Blog

Putting The Work In Workshop

One virtue of an economic crisis is that it forces everyone to return to basic principles. Profit and loss replace financial instruments, and everyone suddenly has to consider that most fundamental of questions: What do I sell? Newspapers, it turns out, don’t sell news; they sell print advertising, and with the rise of Craig’s List, they find themselves having to weather this storm without the steady stream of classified advertising that sustained them in previous market downturns. Universities, to their surprise and dismay, have had to rediscover that they’re not institutional investors making billions every year off their endowments by speculating in those financial instruments, but institutions of tuition, a word that first means education and only by crude cause and effect the desperately needed payment one gets for it.

So as we head toward another summer of writing workshops here at KR, I’ve been asking the same basic question: What is it that workshops should offer? What’s their value in a time of economic scarcity? What do we sell?

I went to a few summer workshops back when I was getting started as a writer, and it struck me at the time that most of them were like summer camp with verbs. You got to hang out with writers, drink, flirt, seethe, and, oh yeah, get some comments on the story you wrote back in January. There was more networking than actual work, more pretentious posing than pens scratching on paper. That’s why I was surprised when I first came to Kenyon and discovered that the summer workshops run by The Kenyon Review were described by the students who returned every year as hard work, “bootcamp for writers,” a place where after a morning of workshop, an afternoon of writing and an evening of readings, you might grab a quick drink with friends, but then head back to your room to write. People stay for a week, but they leave with enough rough drafts and new directions to keep them busy for the rest of the year.

Workshops are usually sold on big names: search the websites, and you’ll see plenty of famous writers with glossy photos. There’s no question that those famous faces add glamour to a rural college campus or decommissioned- army-base-turned-arts-center for a few weeks every summer, but that glamour can actually distract from the work by getting everyone focused on the aspects of writing that are out of our control: success, fame, writing as product, rather than process. In my experience, everyone gets competitive around famous writers, anxious to see their own dream of success affirmed by their attention.

If we take the idea of a workshop seriously, it’s not a place where you display the finished work you’ve already done ??? that’s a shop window ??? or shop around for a famous mentor-lover-drinking buddy who will help to make you famous as well. Instead, it’s more like an artisan’s workshop, a place where we set shoulders to the wheel to get the hard, unglamorous work of writing done, learning our craft by doing it. When people come back year after year to the KR Writer’s Workshop, it’s not for the famous names (although we’ve got our share of glamour), but because the instructors really teach, the writers really write, and the workshop machinery runs hot both day and night.

Am I just blowing our horn? Yeah, sure, but since we’re just about full for this year, I don’t really feel that I need to sell you the goods as much as the good ??? an idea of a writer’s workshop not as vanity or luxury but as something closer to the machine shop of the creative imagination. The old clich?? that many writers use when asked to describe what makes a writer is Writers write. I’ve always been tempted to add ??? except when they’re around other writers, when they do anything but. That’s why I find it such a pleasure to be in Gambier in June, when writers really write.

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