A Workshop Experience

As newsletter editor and webmaster for Writers Forum, I have tried for years to get several members to write about their experiences at workshops or conferences to share with the rest of us who had never been to one. The rest of us would like to know what to expect from them, what not to expect, but above all, whether it was really worth the time and expense to break up our normal routines for a few days to travel away from home, mingle with total strangers, and put our writing out there for everyone to see and criticize. However, none of my invitations to write had ever been followed up with an actual piece to share with you.

That’s right. I said ‘rest of us.’ I had never been to one, either.

That changed last fall when I took the opportunity to attend the Writing By Writers Tomales Bay Workshop.

The application period is once again open for this annual workshop, and I hope that by telling you what I gained from attending last year’s workshop, some of you might be encouraged…even emboldened…to give it a shot this year.

When I say ‘emboldened,’ I really mean that. It takes a certain level of grit to open your creative self to the whim of strangers and lay it all out there on the line. And to pay top dollar to do it. Especially when you have been playing on a small stage for a while, like we can when the only people seeing our writing has been our family, friends, and local writing group. The small familiar audience can feel safe. Secure. Comforting. Why would I want to rock that boat?

Because there is a bigger world out there that needs your writing.

Let me tell you about the motivational trigger that finally convinced me to try a workshop.

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a memoir of my time in the California Conservation Corps. It has technically been a work-in-progress for almost thirty years. I started jotting down trail stories and collecting them with encouragement from a college English teacher around 1991. Over the years, these stories have collected into about 70,000 words. Now I have a bunch of small stories, and I need to build them into a coherent narrative of about fifteen months of my life.

A few years ago, nationally known writer Pam Houston came to Shasta College for a reading. Several Writers Forum members, including our president Laura Hernandez, and Alicia McCauley, were excited to hear Pam speak. They convinced me that it would totally be worthwhile to attend. I did. They were right.

Pam read a selection from her memoir-in-progress. I was spellbound as Pam read about her balancing of two lifestyles…a high country Colorado rancher, and a UC Davis creative writing instructor. Over the next few weeks, I went out and either bought Pam’s books or checked them out from the library. This writer was the real deal, and I was hooked.

Early in 2019, Pam’s memoir was published: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I bought it immediately. It delivered everything promised in that reading at Shasta College. I did something that I never do. I contacted the author directly to tell her how much I enjoyed her new book. I also mentioned my memoir-in-progress, and that her memoir was an inspiration to make progress on mine. Since I had been following her Facebook author page, I sent it as a Facebook Message.

To my surprise and delight, she replied in a few hours.

She said,“The world needs a CCC memoir.”

Validation. That’s what Pam gave me in those few simple words, and that’s exactly what I want to give you. Validation that the story you are working on has value, and the world needs your story. Your story. And a writing workshop can help you do that.

Every workshop out there is different. You should learn as much as you can about any workshops that might interest you. Some workshops focus on creating new material. Others focus on critiquing something you have already written. The Writing by Writers Tomales Bay workshop is mostly the latter. The workshop started out as an official part of the UC Davis MFA program. However, budgets got tight and the workshop was on the chopping block. Pam decided to try to save the annual workshop as a separate endeavor not funded through the University of California.

She has been successful.

The workshop is still attended by many students in the UC Davis MFA program, but it is open to anybody that cares to apply. It is a four-day workshop, and the tuition cost includes lodging and three meals a day at the Marconi Conference Center, a California State Park on the shores of Tomales Bay. Once you are there, you do not have to leave the facility for days. Enjoy the time!

What can you expect when you are there?

Let me walk you through my few days there.

I checked in and received my room assignment. I met my roommate, who turned out to be somebody that I had heard regularly on a San Francisco news radio station when I had lived down in the East Bay.

I thought, ”What am I getting myself into here? This guy is a pro!” Well, it turns out that a pro radio broadcaster is not the same thing as a pro author. He shared with me some of his writing projects, and they sounded a lot like some of my writing projects. And your writing projects that I know about in Redding. Yep. Your writing projects. And my new broadcaster friend knew that he needed help to get his stories where he wanted them to be.

Dinner was in the conference center dining hall. The food was great, as you would expect it to be in Marin County. We had plenty of time to enjoy our food and talk with other workshop participants. I found out that some of them attended the conference every year. They kept coming back because it was their annual opportunity to totally immerse themselves in writing.

The first evening program introduced us to the staff and instructors, and let us know what to expect over the next few days. Each workshop group learned where they would be meeting the next morning when work started. Then it was free time to do whatever we wanted to do. We could mingle. We could buy books by the workshop instructors. (I didn’t buy any books that first night.) We could go off by ourselves, to write or read or think. We could go to bed if we wanted to.

After breakfast the next day, our groups met to critique. Everybody got a turn in the chute. I had volunteered to go first. I wanted to get it over with quickly.

In a critique, the author isn’t allowed to respond. The goal is for everybody in the group to present a critique of your work. The author is expected to listen to it all and take notes. This gets you out of the defensive frame of mind, where you might naturally respond to critique with justification for the choices you made. Believe it or not, this works. It is not adversarial at all. You know that everybody in that room is on your side. Everyone is trying to help you improve your work. You take your notes and go over them later. Some of the critiques are going to be right on the money. Maybe most of them will be. But not all of them. Then your job is to take the critiques that you think provides the most value for you and edit your piece. This morning workshop is where most of the heavy lifting is done over the four days.

Before you know it, the morning is over, and your group has critiqued three pieces from the group of twelve. You are expected to participate in the critique of each piece. No hiding here! Then you go up to lunch. You can eat with people in your group, or you can mingle with other people attending the workshop. Either way, you cannot lose. You are meeting other writers. You talk about each other’s backgrounds, of course, but the talk always gets around to writing. You are learning from each other even when you aren’t in a formal workshop.

After lunch is free time for a while. You can nap. Or you can mingle. Or you can write.

Then there is a panel discussion for the afternoon program. Several of the workshop instructors will have a discussion in front of the assembled workshop participants on some aspect of writing.  Attendance is not mandatory at these afternoon workshops, but you are there to spend the weekend focusing on writing, so why wouldn’t you attend? One benefit to these workshops is that you get to hear from other workshop instructors. I was overjoyed to have gotten into Pam’s fiction and memoir workshop, but when you listen to the other instructors talk, you realize that you could not have gone wrong, whatever workshop you would have gotten into.

There is another break after the afternoon panel discussion. Use your time however you would like. Then dinner, and evening program. One of the instructors will give a talk and a reading from one of their works.

Then you start to wonder, “How could I have not heard of these writers before?!” Then you are glad that the bookstore is open every evening. You start buying books. And getting the authors to sign them. And you take every opportunity you can to talk to them about their books. Because at this workshop, the instructors are mingling among the attendees. They talk with people. They interact with people. They are even eating their meals in the same dining hall as everybody else.

Then more free time, and eventually bedtime.

That’s how it goes for four days. Total immersion in writing. A phenomenal experience. An unforgettable experience. An experience that should put plenty of gas in your writer tank.

Have I mentioned the oyster reception on the last full day of the workshop?

I recently exchanged emails with the program contact person. At this time, they are still expecting to proceed with the conference, which runs October 21-25. They do still have spots available. Go to the Writing By Writers Tomales Bay Workshop website for more details and to sign up.

If you have ever been tempted to try a writing workshop, this would be a great one. You will be glad you did.


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2 thoughts on “A Workshop Experience

  1. Thank you for sharing! I’ve yet to attend a workshop because I had the same questions as you prior to you attendance. I will be checking this out. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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