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Tin House Writer’s Workshop: Day Three

Day three of the workshop began with a really hard time waking up and a really good breakfast once I got off my ass and got to the cafeteria. As each day wore on while I was at the workshop, it got harder and harder to wake up in time to get breakfast, simply because I usually ended up going to bed between midnight and 2am and then waking up between 8 and 9am.


The first talk of the day was a really cool one. Normally (no offense to poetry) I wouldn’t have made sure to drag my ass out of bed to attend a lecture on poetry, as I write poetry about as well as I drive a stick shift (see: not at all). I attended the lecture with one of the workshop participants I had met the previous day. The reason I made sure to attend this talk was because in reading the description of the talk in the program, I saw that the talk would “focus on visual presentations of poems and what they mean. Why do poems look the way they do? What does white space mean in a poem? We will consider some strategies of visual composition in poetry, especially the use of space as means of working with silence.” If that doesn’t sound interesting, I don’t know what to tell you. The specific reason this interests me so much is because one of my best friends (amvanscyoc, who comments quite a bit on my blog) uses white space in his poetry to great effect. I understand much of his use of white space, but I hoped that attending this talk would afford me more understanding. However, since we weren’t studying Aaron’s poems, it was difficult to attain a greater understanding of his poetry. However, we were shown versions of poetry by Ezra Pound where the white space was included and then versions where the editors had chosen to take the white space out. It was very interesting to see how much the meaning of the poem was altered just by eliminating those spaces. Participating in and attending this talk didn’t exactly achieve the aims that I had in mind, but it did increase my appreciation for the use of white space in poetry, and it encouraged me to try and write a poem that same day (which I’ve only shown to two people–only one has responded with comments).


Today’s workshop was another opportunity to sit and marvel at how much knowledge of craft Benjamin Percy possesses. We talked about two really good stories this day. Ben began the workshop with a mini-lecture about setting that said so many things that made sense I wasn’t able to get them all written down. After the talk on setting, he also gave us some more gems that I wrote down basically in list form. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the whole narrative of each workshop, but I did write down all the “Golden Lines” that Ben shared with us.

  • Pay attention to how long you let the camera linger. If you linger on something unimportant, nothing ends up being significant.
  • Make sure style matches content.
  • Setting is about myths, stories, culture, geography, and the effect of a place on its characters.
  • Give palpable details (scents, images, telling details about place/people).
  • 15 pages long is the ideal length for a short story (quoted from Updike).
  • Pay me 1,000 dollars every time you include a death in a story. (Also known as the Death Tax)

I would like to take a second to talk about the last item on that Golden Lines list. It wasn’t until this week in Portland that I realized how much I was relying on melodrama and traumatic events to tell my stories and to evoke emotion and empathy in the hearts of my readers. The story of mine that was workshopped the day before (“Darkened Fields”) was looked at once previously by my writing group. In that version, I had the main character kill himself after witnessing the rape and doing nothing about it. This is a perfect example of what Ben Percy was talking about when he brought up the idea of a Death Tax in fiction. If you are willing to show us a death, it must be so integral to what is happening that there is no way to tell the story without it. Furthermore, you must be willing to pay 1000 dollars in order to keep that death in the story. As the week goes on, Ben made further additions to the “Tax List” as I call it. But more on that later. At the moment, I’d like to leave you with that idea when considering what you are going to write a story about. If you are considering a death, make sure it is worth it. That one idea alone has made me much more conscious of what I’m doing in terms of craft that I feel like I have advanced several steps as a writer just by hearing and seeing the truth in that phrase.


Before the workshop, I hadn’t heard of Peter Rock. This talk was to focus on the idea of how much research is enough and how much the writer should rely on facts in order to tell his story. Throughout the talk, Peter Rock (or P-Rock) made reference to the works of his in which he made particularly strong and abundant use of facts to write his novels. It was quite an interesting talk, especially since I am not very research-minded when considering what I will be writing next. Also, I don’t know that I’ve developed a story in need of research just yet. Either way, the bullet points that I took away from his talk are here:

  • Trust your curiosity and follow it.
  • When writing autobiographically, we get lazy.
  • Research can tempt us to use it too much.
  • Put unlike things together.
  • Leave room to be surprised or confused.
  • History doesn’t happen to people, it is made by people.
  • Ask yourself if you can live with what you have to do.
  • When does research turn into procrastination? When it gets in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.
  • The story filters material.


After going to each available panel so far, today I decided to take a break from going to the panels for the 3 o’clock hour and instead just sat around talking with a few other people who decided against going to the talk. I think it’s important for me to reiterate the notion that one of the reasons that the Tin House Workshop is so effective and lends such an air of inclusiveness is because there is so much time available to get your work done while also socializing as much as possible. Nearly every single person is friendly and there for the same reason as you, so it’s an awesome week of fellowship and dedication to the same principles. It’s a really awesome time.

After dinner was the nightly cocktail hour, where I was once again proven a cheapskate who buys no alcohol for himself. But this afforded everyone else the opportunity to prove themselves extremely generous by buying me all the alcohol that could get me drunk–which to be fair, doesn’t take all that much.

8PM: Nightly Reading w/ Lee Montgomery, Lan-Samantha Chang, Dorothy Allison

The first person to read was Lee Montgomery, whose reading was awesome. Then Samantha Chang read a selection from her latest book set in a college town, basically in the same setting as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (she teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). It was a really funny selection from her book wherein the main character has a horrible final critique from the people in his class as revenge for sleeping with a girl in the class and bailing out of the relationship very quickly thereafter. Good times. And the final reading of the night was from the amazing Dorothy Allison. If you go out and get one book out of all the authors I’ve mentioned and will mention in the future in these posts, be sure to buy a book by Dorothy Allison. She is a writer from the South who has a fabulous accent that lends itself very well to making readings all the more enjoyable. She read from her latest work in progress and it blew me away. Top notch stuff!


Once again, I had a hell of a time with all the people I had met so far this night. My mental time line is a bit messed up because of the routine created by the workshop, but this night (I believe) I ended up playing a spirited game of Apples to Apples with about seven or eight others at a picnic table under an enormous oak tree. For those of you who aren’t writers, playing Apples to Apples with people who love words is 100 times more fun than it is to play with any other type of person. The answers given are really interesting and the spirited conversations/arguments after a green card is distributed are simply hilarious. Anyway, while we were playing, there was this old dude sitting a couple people away from me and each time after a green card was read, he would say, “What’s the word?” in this really spacey, reedy voice. And he would do this about three times for a single card. So finally I turned to my friend TJ and I said, “Who is that guy?” And he turns to me and says, “Dude, that’s D.A. Powell.” For those of you who don’t know, D.A. Powell is one of the coolest and most talented poets in America. Suffice it to say that my jaw dropped a couple inches. Basically, I played Apples to Apples with one of the best poets in America! Awesome night was pretty much complete after that.


About rydowney

What’s up party poetry people?! Welcome to my poetry blog. This is my rambling intro to you. My name is Ry. Ry Downey if you’re interested in googling me (giggity) but I’m not sure it will turn up anything interesting. I’m a citizen of Planet Earth and I might be from Mars. Or Venus, because I believe in love more than I do war. Yes, Venus. Definitely Venus. I love the thought of aliens and space–I’m a lover of nature and sunshine and laughing so hard I cry. I love my friends and my family and anything that makes me feel love and appreciation and gratitude for having lived this long on this beautiful rock floating through the stars. And then comes poetry.

2 responses to “Tin House Writer’s Workshop: Day Three

  1. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you about your poem yet! I’ve been thinking about it off and on since I read it; I just haven’t had the chance to sit down and write back. Was the other person you showed it to Anna, by the way?

    Also, I’m super jealous of you for getting to see that white space lecture. As much as you like my use of it, I bet I could have learned a ton.

    • rydowney

      Haha, it’s all good. Hopefully the poem didn’t suck terribly. It’s very rare where I get into a mood where I feel inspired to write poetry…hopefully that means it turns out good when I am inspired!

      And nah, I haven’t shown it to Anna. The other person was someone at the workshop. I was dumb enough to let slip that I wrote a poem the night before when I was having a conversation and she pretty much begged me to read it. She was a member of my workshop. On the upside, she told me, “I think you’re more of a poet than you think.”

      About the poetry lecture–I fucking know! You would have loved the workshop, I guarantee it. They have it every year, though, so if you feel like applying for this coming year’s workshop, I’d definitely encourage you. You’ve got lots of talent.

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