Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Learning and Teaching (and all That's In Between) by Carla Damron

Imagine a small college campus in Montpelier, Vermont. You arrive from South Carolina to be joined by writers from all over the country. You are there for one week, and during that time, you will immerse yourself in writing—your own projects, works by others, and works by the masters. You attend classes and readings done by incredible poets, short story authors, memoirists, and novelists.

Vermont College of Fine Arts

You begin each day (after a sad, sad breakfast) with a writing exercise to get your creative blood awake and flowing. Then you join the others in your small writing workshop—people who write what you write-- and are ready to engage in in-depth analysis and critiques.

You have prepared for this, or at least, you hope you have. You’ve received twenty-five pages of fiction from each of the five other workshop participants. You’ve read and reread these works and prepared your comments. As a group, you will spend several hours discussing each submission. Yours, too, will be fodder for critique.

The instructor for your workshop is Connie May Fowler. You had heard of her, and read one of her books in preparation. You’ve already decided she’s freaking brilliant and NOW YOU GET TO WORK WITH HER.

Connie sets up workshop in a very different way than you’ve experienced before. She uses a whiteboard, and asks the writer being critiqued to read a little to the group.  Then she says, “What questions do you have for the readers?” she writes these down, then the critiquers offer their questions or issues they wish to discuss about the work, which also go on the whiteboard.

You then go through this list and discuss the work. This sets a wonderful tone for the critique process. Nobody dominates. Everyone has a spirit of helpfulness and enthusiasm. Nobody is there to skewer and attack. The group only wants to help the writer create the best work they can.

And it’s FUN. You eat chocolate and love the energy of this gathering. When it’s your turn to be critiqued, you listen, and absorb, and realize, A) your work has potential, B) these characters have more to tell you and C) you really, absolutely, positively, have to work on your openings.

Each Participant Does Formal Reading. Thanks, Beth Johnson, for photo! 

This was my life, ladies and gentlemen, in the middle of August.  I could go on and on about the brilliant faculty (Matthew Dickman, Jamaal May and Patricia Smith are deities). I could tell you about how I’m too old for dorm life (who decided that bricks make good mattresses?) and how I developed friendships that I hope last for eternity. But instead, I want to talk about learning. And teaching.

I was a learner for this week, and I feel expanded. I have new momentum for my work-in-progress, and everyday I itch to get back to it. I’ve reread my notes from Connie and my critique gang and have a good idea what must be done to continue to draft and revise this project. It’s been remarkably energizing, and I’m a better writer for it.

Later this month, I get to be a teacher. I’m part of the faculty for the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Writers Retreat. My session will be on revision.

Anchorage Inn in Beaufort, where retreat will be held.
Y'all COME!!
I don’t consider myself an expert because, like my writing project, I’m a work-in-progress. I will share what I learned in graduate school and from each of the novels I’ve birthed. I’ll talk about immersing oneself into characters so they will tell you what you need to know. We’ll explore the beauty of tension, nuanced and overt. We will discuss the flow of our narrative and ways to make it resonate.

And we’ll talk about how each step of the writing process, from pondering to drafting to revising, not only enhances our work, but expands our selves. I have learned from each work I’ve written—about writing, about grief, about obsession, about love. I want my fellow retreaters to experience that, too. It’s a quiet gift this writing journey offers us.  

In our Vermont workshop, Connie May Fowler (did I mention she was brilliant?) said, and she may have been quoting someone else, “Writing is an act of forgiveness. Revision is an act of redemption.”

I heard you, Connie. And I hope to breathe those words into my session at the retreat.

What has helped you in the revision process? Do you have one tip you’d like to share?


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Revision? I ask my critique partners who are happy to tell me I don't have a credible plot, I need more or less description, dialogue, and most of all, a deeper POV.

Emotion thesaurus in hand, I'm wrestling with the latter this week.

KM Rockwood said...

Sounds like a wonderful experience, Carla!

My main criteria for revision is: if your gut feeling is that there's something wrong, there probably is! It can take a while to figure it out, but if that nagging feeling shows up anywhere--plot point, character, description, whatever--it needs more attention!

Kait said...

Breathtaking! What a great experience in a fabulous part of the country.

Revision is my favorite part of writing in some ways. It's when I get to see if the story works and can be playful if needed. As Kathleen says, go with the gut, and your beta readers!

carla said...

Critique partners and readers are KEY. Am I relating what I THINK I'm relating? And yes, the gut knows. Listen, always.

Warren Bull said...

Writing is re-writing. I belong to a critique group and have a beta reader.

Gloria Alden said...

Carla, it sounds like a wonderful event. I went to something like this called Seascape in Rhode Island. I forget who put it on, but in advance we had our critique group of five and sent several pages of the beginning of our book. At that time I was working on the first book in my series. When we got there we got into our group and discussed each person's books and how they could improve the first chapter. It was that first year that I went that the woman in charge suggested I change my title to The Blue Rose which I did. As far as the suggestions by my critique group I accepted some of what they said and did not if it didn't seem to work with what my story was going to be.

I went back the next year, too, with a different critique group and was totally happy to see Hank Philippi Ryan there on Saturday. I had seen her at Malice Domestic, but it was the first time I was able to meet her in person. It was a good event and I enjoyed myself, but it was the last time I attended. It was too far of a drive from where I live and I had learned enough to be finished with the first book and had already published it.
Also, I had a critique group I got with the Guppies and even though we communicated on line - one lives in England the other in Cincinnatti, Ohio, we have become very close friends over the years. I still want to go to England to meet in person my critique partner over there. I've met the Ohio one before.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Carla, what a great experience. I'm sure you'll bring a lot of good information to your participants at the Beaufort retreat.

Grace Topping said...

I’m not shy about doing revisions. For my manuscript that just got accepted by a publisher, I completed 35 major versions. New to mystery writing when I started, I learned a lot on my path to publication and did revisions as I learned more. I think I finally succeeded because I was too stubborn to give up.