Young Writers and Workshops

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey Adams, one of IR’s wonderful interns, for south central Indiana’s NPR station, WFIU. Kelsey is an undergraduate fiction writer in her senior year at Indiana University, and she makes for an eloquent and thoughtful interview subject. (Stay tuned for a couple of follow-up talks with her in the future!)

“Here at IU is where I really began to feel as if I was a writer,” Kelsey says, and–though this didn’t make its way in to the final interview–she told me with humility and wisdom that she sees herself writing in the tradition of Lorrie Moore. What a gift, I thought, to find your writerly identity as an undergrad! A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that would always stay with me, a conversation about the importance of heroes. I think one of the great benefits of creative writing programs is that they expose young writers to older ones, allowing them to find their literary heroes. Creative writing workshops let us see our own writing as literature, just as we learn to read literature as if it were workshop writing. Only when we’re then able to locate our work in the vast landscape of literature that’s already out there, workshop wisdom tells us, can we take ourselves seriously as writers. (And only then, paradoxically, after we begin to take ourselves seriously, can we actually become ‘serious’ writers.)

They also teach us some serious rules. As anyone who’s been in a creative writing workshop knows, there are a handful of sayings that come up a lot: “Show, don’t tell!” “The ending has to be earned!” “Let your characters make their own choices!” The list goes on–and gets more and more specific. Of the story from which she reads excerpts in this interview, Kelsey says, “This one started [with my reacting to how] they always tell you, ‘Never write a cancer story.’ …I did it anyway.” Another thing you learn in a creative writing workshop is when to break workshop commandments. The premise of Kelsey’s “cancer story”? A woman discovers her cancer has been cured, but realizes she wishes it hadn’t been, wishes she were still sick.

On the excellent Web site Open Culture, there is a recent post recounting advice about writing from great writers: Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and that poster boy for grammatical correctness, William Safire. A couple of these pieces of advice stick out as particularly hypocritical–and particularly wise. Neil Gaiman advises:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And George Orwell says,

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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