On Writing Away ~ Choosing a Writers’ Workshop Retreat

Bolstered by coffee, cookies, and support, a group of four writers gathered together at Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin to take part in four days of writing, reading, manuscript review, and story sharing.

It was my good fortune to direct the June Writers’ Workshop at Shake Rag Alley, a community arts center founded by artists and arts enthusiasts in what looks like a Cornish mining village settled in a century passed. The participants were from a variety of backgrounds and concerns, among them an Op-ed writer from Northwestern Illinois, a mother of four (who also is a working engineer) from Iowa, an early-retired special education teacher from the Galena, Illinois area, and a high-powered business women from Boston. Their stories (the ones they are writing and the ones we shared over lunch and the occasional after-class beer) were diverse in their content and in their ways of telling. From social commentary to pieces on faith and spiritually to raising a multiracial family to fiction that explored grief and childhood in small town Louisiana, the writing done for and in the workshop was topical, funny, and moving.

It is a pleasure to work with such a group of folks who use at least part of their free time to further their own skills and talents. The seriousness of purpose these four brought to the writing table each day helped them discover new moments of story and new possibilities in the work. Pages and pages of writing was done, and since the end of the workshop just four days, and I know from notes I’ve received that the writing habit has taken hold for these writers, despite their busy lives and other obligations and interests.

Sometimes it is just the act of keeping the work going that is the hardest part of writing. Programs like this and the August Journal and Sketchbook workshop at Shake Rag Alley, as well as the upcoming Writers’ Retreat at Interlochen College of Creative Arts can help us develop on-going strategies to get the words on the page. It is so easy to move away from the writing life; why not take the steps back toward it by finding a workshop? Below are some simple steps to choosing the right workshop for you:

  1. Determine your level of commitment. Workshops run in different ways and for different lengths of time. You can spend an afternoon to two weeks or more in a writers’ workshop. How much time and effort can you afford now?
  2. Determine your budget. The cost of these workshops vary widely. Many of the tuition costs don’t include housing or transportation, so look at all of these line items together when making your plan. Housing can vary greatly as well. You can camp near Interlochen, or stay in one of the summer camp-like cabins. Shake Rag has very upscale B&B offerings in town, as well as the perfectly affordable and suitable motor courts and motels close by. Some workshops are held on campuses where you can stay in dorms and in some cases share rooms and costs.
  3. Find a place you would love to be. So many workshops are held in beautiful settings like Mineral Point, WI, and Interlochen, MI. Stonecoast Writers’ Conference is held on Casco Bay in Maine. There are workshops on remote islands and in the middle of bustling cities. What setting will inspire you? And just in case you are unhappy with the workshop itself, you want to make sure that you are in a place you enjoy and can escape to and in.
  4. Research your instructors. It is always a good idea to find out about the work of your instructors. While it is true that a good teacher is one who can respond well and helpfully to each student, you might want to at least know what sorts of things your writing teacher writes, get at least a minimal understanding of their artistic sensibilities. This of course won’t save you from a bad workshop (years ago I attended a workshop with a writer whose work I admired greatly. He was not a good teacher, however, and seemed to take a bit of pleasure in insulting his students and in some cases bringing them to tears) but it will give you some context for the work at hand.
  5. Research the workshop. Most workshops, conferences, and retreats will have quite a bit of information available for you ahead of time. What will the schedule be like? Are manuscripts to be submitted ahead of time? Is the course aimed at generating work, discovering and exploring work? Is it a critique-based course? Are there excursions and social activities embedded in the schedule? Will participants get a chance to read their work to a larger audience? Will there be craft talks and readings about and from a variety of genres? Is there time to write? To read? Not each workshop is all things to every participant, so consider what you want and make your choice based on this. Also, though, be open to a manner of working that might be different from your usual MO. Shaking things up creatively will almost always lead you to interesting work.
  6. Go with an open mind and empty pages. You’re paying for this. Try things out; get your money’s worth. Don’t be afraid.
  7. Don’t talk yourself out of it. How many times have you decided you CAN’T do the things you want to do? The writer Hubert Selby, Jr., gave students at Columbia College Chicago some very good advice a number of years ago. He said it is good practice to say “yes” before you think of all the reasons to say “no.” If you think a writers’ workshop, conference, or retreat is a good idea for your own creative practice, then sign up now.
The garden path at Smejas' Studio in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

There are still spaces left for Interlochen’s Writers’ Retreat that will start in just a couple of weeks. Check it out. For more on Shake Rag Alley, click here. To read an interview with Judith Sutcliffe, one of the founding artists’ of Shake Rag, stop by Philip Hartigan’s Praeterita. And thanks again to my Shake Rag Writers’ Workshop participants. Don’t forget to write! -PMc←

 

 

 

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