The last month has been both restful and busy! I had a new short story published in The Lumiere Review—it’s about grief, social media (and IRL) stalking, and the ways in which the internet creates asymmetrical relationships. I also attended my first ever fiction workshops: the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and Aspen Words! It was a concentrated and enriching two weeks, and I’m excited to share more about my experiences.
Things started off with my flight getting canceled and missing the entire first day (truly the summer of flying hell). The following evening, a huge storm caused a power outage all over Ohio and lasted for twenty hours in the middle of a heat wave. Despite caffeine deprivation and Sisyphean encounters with the library printers, the entire Kenyon community was so generous. At times, it felt like some strange reality show called Extreme Writing, but in hindsight, the circumstances made for an intense bonding experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Kenyon is a generative workshop, which means you don’t need to prepare anything ahead of time. You go there to write—a lot! Each day, we had a few hours of workshop in the morning of our responses to the previous day’s prompt. Then our instructor assigned us a new prompt, which we’d have the afternoon and evening to work on. It was an intimidating start, but the benefit of a rigorous schedule was that it didn’t leave much room to second guess or procrastinate. By the end of the week, we all had adapted to some kind of writing routine and left with so much new material and feedback.
My instructor, Alexandra Kleeman, always steered our workshops in positive directions, posing questions like “What details let you into the piece?” and “What did you wish to see?” It reminded me of “useful praise,” as it gave us something to work towards. I found the positive feedback particularly helpful for first drafts because it got me excited to keep going.
Aspen Words is a more traditional format where you submit a manuscript ahead of time and workshop throughout the week. There wasn’t any homework, but there were optional craft talks, writing prompt hours, and hikes/nature excursions in the afternoons and evenings. There were also some publishing oriented opportunities like agent and editor meetings.
Lan Samantha Chang, who led my workshop, was interested in exploring short stories and novels as different forms. We workshopped short stories first, followed by novel excerpts, with each form having its own set of questions to guide the discussion. For stories, we talked about “ways the story can be/do more of what it wants to do” whereas for novels, we talked more in-depth about voice and structure.
We also had daily discussions and mini craft lectures, diving into the nitty gritty of points of view, story shapes, plot, and lines of tension. It reminded me how much I’ve missed being in a classroom.
Consider where you’re at in your writing career and what kind of workshop you’d most benefit from. Are you looking for something generative or critique-based? Are you at the querying stage and would like to get more publishing-focused feedback? What kind of environment or format are you interested in? I chose to attend in-person workshops but I’m curious to hear how remote ones have been for folks.
I personally loved Kenyon’s generative nature. Not only did it allow for more experimentation, it also helped us understand each other more as writers. Some people wrote multiple responses with the same characters while others tackled similar themes or subjects.
Return to workshop questions to guide future revision. Since I’m not in a MFA program, it was valuable to be in a more formal setting and learn how to ask the right questions of my writing and how to provide feedback. My instructors also encouraged us to be close readers, to look at stories and writers we admire to see how they accomplish things.
Community is the most important aspect of the experience. Figure out ways to stay in touch afterwards, like setting up a virtual critique group or scheduling regular writing hours. It’s a really great way to keep up the momentum from the workshop—and also to share memes and cat pics. (Shoutout to the Kenyon group chat!)
- Go in ready to socialize, but recharge your social battery when needed.
- I stressed a lot about the Aspen Words agent/editor meetings because I haven’t been working on any larger project. Someone in my workshop advised me to be honest about where I was in my writing and focus on my interests, and I felt it led to a much more useful conversation.
- If you’re staying in a dorm, bring all the dorm-related things: shower shoes, shower caddy, or bedding.
- Exchange and write down book recs (my TBR pile continues to grow). Also leave room in your suitcase for books, especially if you want to get them signed by faculty.
- For the love of God, bring a flashlight with working batteries!!!
Have you attended any workshops or writing conferences? What have been your major takeaways?
- “The Anxiety of Exclamation Points” by Lan Samantha Chang
- I’m a huge fan of Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast Song Exploder and am excited for his new podcast Book Exploder, “where authors break down a passage from their work to show us how they write.” The lineup looks incredible.
- A helpful thread of current submission opportunities for publishing contests and lit mags. Electric Literature is also open for submissions to their Both/And essay series for trans and gender non-conforming writers of color.
- Kelsey McKinney on what makes autobiographical writing good: “Everything can be art. Nothing can be. “Is it art, or is it trash?” is perhaps the defining problem for the modern art movement in general because the answer is another question: What do you think it is?”
- Register for the 2022 Kweli International Literary Festival—the hybrid event for creators of color will be held July 23-September 1.
Recent reads & other media
I read Lan Samantha Chang’s novel The Family Chao, which follows a Chinese American family and the restaurant they run in a small Wisconsin town as they reckon with the murder of their tyrannical father. It was interesting to see how Chang drew inspiration from The Brothers Karamazov in how the book’s time unfolds. My summer romance reads so far have included Christina Lauren’s The Soulmate Equation, Emily Henry’s Book Lovers, and Evie Dunmore’s A Rogue of One’s Own (devoured in two days).
I’m still reeling from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. Its depiction of a futuristic America resonates eerily well with today: drugs and wealth inequality have caused social havoc, natural resources are scarce due to global warming, and an erosion of labor laws have created a new type of corporate slavery. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and its depiction of community amidst chaos is one that will stick with me for a long time.
I watched The Bob’s Burgers Movie and Thor: Love and Thunder. Bob’s Burgers is one of my comfort shows and I enjoyed this profile of the creator, Loren Bouchard. I rewatched all of Stranger Things and ST4 Volume 2—it’s the summer of [eldritch gurgling].
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~ meme myself and i ~
Product placement in K-dramas. The guy who did the subtitles for Stranger Things: my personal favorite is [demogorgon feeds wetly]. A whole new meaning to handcrafted coffee. Me leaving book reviews. No sleeping at the table! Eating these cookies is like eating Neopets food.