Summer Camp: The West Virginia Writers’ Workshop

Absolute Blank

By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Writing can be a lonely job. It takes place in basements and attics during the gray months, on dining room tables littered with bills or breezy park benches with only bare trees to witness the verbal assaults. Warm weather returns and some writers emerge from their dens. They grimace at the sunlight, stretch, and begin their yearly migration to a summer escape. This year, I joined the herd. The question was: Where to go?

A quick web search and perusal of a popular writing magazine gave me a hundred possibilities scattered across the country and the world. Read the fine print to be sure you are getting what you want. Of course, all generalizations are wrong (including this one), but there a few guidelines. University-sponsored events will focus on literary fiction and poetry, while those backed by a journal will deal with works it would likely publish. Genre conferences are available and while some believe they are full of romance, to others they are a mystery. There are writing retreats—bucolic escapes that provide time alone to focus on your work, which are usually self-directed. If your daily writing life is made up of stolen minutes between meetings and/or loads of laundry, you may want to try a retreat. Personally, I’d had enough navel-gazing to last until autumn and I was looking for classes, workshops, and readings. Then I had to narrow the focus further: choosing craft over publishing, accessibility over mega-stars. It is entirely possible to attend a huge conference where your favorite best-selling author reads and your dream agent haunts the bar. Getting to talk to them, however, may be another story.

Background Image: Mike McBride/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I hit Morgantown on a day late in July to attend the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop (WVWW), a conference held on the campus of West Virginia University. The humidity slapped me like a wet towel as soon as I open the car door. Morgantown, like most of occupied West Virginia, is built in a steep river valley and the three available acres of flat land were developed long ago. I tried to count the steps up to the dorm where conference attendees were housed, but I lost track (and briefly, consciousness) at 117. I dropped a quarter on the way up and it rolled to Cincinnati.

After checking in to my blessedly air-conditioned dorm room, I headed off to the first item on the agenda: a welcome lunch. Fifty writers sat around tables, eyeing the buffet. We were welcomed by the Director of the workshop, James Harms, a dead ringer for Harry Anderson of “Night Court” fame. Professor Harms also doubles as the head of the Creative Writing program at WVU. Emboldened by his resemblance to a TV judge, I cornered him for a few questions and he laid out the bare facts. The Workshop seems to ebb and flow with the economy, but has grown steadily to its current level. The pull is regional: Ohio, West Virginia and a few souls from the Mid-Atlantic States. The main draws seem to be the price (underwritten by WVU), and the fact that it only runs for a long weekend. Those two factors definitely affected my decision. A few of the conferences I considered would have required a home equity loan for financing, and a note from the Centers for Disease Control to explain my sick time away from work. The WVWW is aimed at beginning to mid-level writers, but several published professionals return year after year for the camaraderie. For its investment the University gets a recruiting bump for undergrad and MFA programs, and Morgantown gets the cachet of being a place where poets and writers gather.

The afternoon set the pattern for the next three days: a reading from a faculty member, in this case Mark Brazaitis, the winner of the both the Iowa Short Fiction award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Then a craft class, followed by the title event: the workshops. Brazaitis was my workshop leader, and I was sweating. I’d read his stuff before attending, and he’s good. My last workshop was many moons ago in college. I have a thick skin, but I was more concerned about saying something stupid than getting shot full of arrows myself. We’d received the fiction submissions in advance, and they covered the gamut of genre and ability. Mark laid out the ground rules for the workshop, which were straightforward. The author read a page or so to refresh memories, someone else summarized the entire piece, Mark would ask a few pointed questions, then we were off—chiming in and attempting to balance negative comments with positives. The class was kept small: ten participants.

The time flew by as we discussed the work in front of us. I should have realized that the quality of the discussion would be strong. Writers who leave their homes and use personal funds and vacation time to improve their craft are already driven to succeed. They may not be household names yet, but they are careful readers with insight into the writing process, and therefore excellent workshop members. I got more good commentary in a half-hour than I could shake a stick at, and took home ten sets of their personal notes on my work. As an added bonus, I didn’t say anything stupid.

Dinner was followed by more readings, then socializing. There was imbibing. On we went: sleep, classes, workshop, readings. Rinse and repeat. The classes covered submitting work to journals, starting and maintaining a writing group and how-tos on writing nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews. If you’ve ever wanted to ask editors questions point-blank about the submission process, this is a place to do it. One of them handed out cover letters received (sanitized of names) as examples of what not to do. I was pleased not to find any that I recognized. Apparently, borderline psychotic handwritten notes on a cocktail napkin are unacceptable. Who knew?

While the structured events were excellent, I may (as in college) have learned more outside of class. All of the faculty members were approachable and available for questions and comments. They moved easily from podium to desk, attending each other’s classes and blurring the line between teacher and student. I learned that there are other people out there working in rural voids, without much chance for feedback beyond what’s offered on the internet. There are also healthy, disciplined writing groups in towns small and large. We’re all re-writing and submitting, trying to improve our work and tell our stories. It’s comforting to know. It may not make us sane, but at least we’re not alone. Contact with that sort of group energy also recharges the writer batteries. Now when I am getting lazy and start to think “good enough,” I consider putting that work in front of the workshop group and it makes me take one more hard look before sealing the envelope.

The final event of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop was an open mike reading. I’ve never read from my own work before. It was a rewarding experience, but even better was hearing the work of the other participants. It was a reminder that writing does not have to be serious, just as truthful as possible.

I’ll be going back next year, to West Virginia or perhaps somewhere new. Summer camp was a lot of fun this year, and it was well worth the investment of money and time. I didn’t come home with a macramé ashtray or a canoeing badge, but I do have new friends, dedicated writers who will look at work via email. I saw a poet dance to the music of her own words. I sweated on the steps and at the workshop table, and I trimmed a little fat in both places. I wouldn’t want to go to camp year-round, but my short stint in the summer made me eager to climb back into my basement for another few months.


West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.

Next year, maybe Sewanee if I can swing the $$$ and time.

Something in between at Hollins

I would also suggest the Speakeasy message forum at Poets & Writers. It requires registration and a login, but along with other good writing message boards it has one devoted to conferences, workshops and retreats.

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