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Tin House Writer’s Workshop: Day Seven

This is the saddest day of the week. By the end of the day, about a quarter of the workshop attendants were gone and the rest of them I had to say goodbye to at the end of the night, lest I not see them at breakfast the following day.

9AM: Workshop

This day I woke up and was almost late for workshop. If you think being late for a university class is scary, you’ve never been scared until you face the possibility of being late to a writing workshop run by Benjamin Percy. I woke up at about 8:45 in the morning, rolled over, looked at my phone, said “Oh shit!” and threw my covers off and proceeded to dress faster than I have in over a year. I even forwent the option of wearing socks to save as much time as possible. After running a quarter mile through the rain with all my notebooks and stacks of paper in my messenger bag, I got to the classroom with one minute to spare. BOO-YAH! And not even that, I wasn’t even the last person to show up! So double boo-yah.

Ben started the class off a bit differently this day. Instead of a talk on craft, Ben talked honestly to us for a while about what it means to be a writer, what writers actually do. One of the things I have to say about Ben Percy is that he is one of the most down to earth people in the literary world. When he sits down at that table and looks you and your fellow writers in the eye, you know that he means everything that he’s saying. And that he knows what he’s talking about. It’s a very refreshing feeling. Anyway, some things that Ben said that struck a particularly strong chord with me were:

  • Set yourself a goal of how much writing you want to get done.
  • Be stubborn and strategic in the way you submit. More stubborn than strategic though.
  • Good writers are equal parts stubbornness and talent.
  • If you write fabulism, submit to Gulf Press.
  • Set up a tier-submission process. Submit to the ones you think are the best first. Then if you get rejected by them, go to the next tier. And so on and so on.
  • Cover letter should be as brief as possible. Don’t say what the story is about. They’ll find out by reading it. Finally, drop a name. Drop. A. Name.
  • **Submit to the Atlantic Monthly–you’ll get a personal reply from the editor.

After this awesome talk with Ben, we then went over the last two stories of the workshop. Some notes from Ben:

  • Increase detail and separate the awful from the regular.
  • Juxtaposition undermines sentimentality.
  • Use white space when an important moment just occurred.
  • End with mystery. End with dialogue. End with an image.
  • It’s okay to cut.
  • Write on a schedule.
  • Repetition.
  • Create a graveyard folder.
  • Kill your darlings.
  • When you use flashback, you kill forward momentum.
  • Make huge use of pre-writing.
  • The end of a story should have the same effect as when a cannon has just gone off and the air is still trembling.

Ben Percy is the man.

2PM: Talking Dialogue w/ Dorothy Allison

I skipped the 1pm talk to go back to my room and get some socks on, seeing as how the need to rush was behind me. The second talk of the day was with the amazing Dorothy Allison. With an awesome southern twang, Dorothy Allison is a tough lady who has had a tough life. And it shows in the way she is very frank about everything she talks about, and dialogue is just another subject that I now love because I was able to hear Dorothy Allison talk about it. Some notes from her talk are here:

  • Read Cormac McCarthy
  • Characters should talk about something, not nothing.
  • Dialogue should accomplish something–ideally it should do more than one thing at once.
  • People cuss in situations of extremity.
  • Walk alongside people and write what you hear. Always take notes. Mental, physical notes.
  • An exchange is needed for dialogue to happen.
  • Should be oppositional and contain echoes and at its best, it should be surprising.
  • Rules for making dialogue better:
  • 1. Walk around with a notebook
  • 2. Listen
  • 3. Do not write the way people actually talk–too much filler.
  • 4. People talk funny. A rendering of speech that is more believable should be achieved.
  • 5. More to the point.
  • 6. Pay attention
  • 7. Take all the filler out.
  • Try things out.
  • Write lots to explore the character. Write pages in order to allow the character to express his or her voice.
  • Once you get the voice, boil it all down.
  • Ego-driven characters talking.
  • Help: 1) Dialect–recognizable tics. Fucking with tense. Dropping words. Willing to sound stupid. 2) Pacing and timing. 3) Repeat signature phrases. 4) Physical action that denies the weight of emotion expressed in the dialogue.
  • Don’t overdue “He said, she said.”
  • Profanity is the salt of dialogue.
  • Subvert stereotypes by showing how complicated the situation is.
  • Find the language that works for you.
  • Characters are speaking to an audience to has read widely. Remember this.
  • You and your characters need to have a mind as full as your readers.
  • At some point, give yourself permission to go too far.

As you can see, Dorothy Allison is a freaking craft genius. If you have the opportunity to buy one of her books, I definitely urge you to snatch it up. I wish I had a bookstore so I could recommend all these authors to my customers.

EDIT: Here is a link to the Dorothy Allison talk at the Tin House Workshop!

3PM: Funny Is The New Deep w/ Steve Almond

Okay, Steve Almond is the shit. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that, but at the risk of boring you, I’ll say even more. Steve Almond is one of the funniest writers out there, both on the page and off, so when the man gives a talk on the importance and effect of humor on fiction, you know it’s going to be good. Some notes from the Almond talk are as follows:

  • The sadder it gets, the funnier it becomes.
  • Waters looked down on the comic mode.
  • A conscious desire to be funy is death to comic writing.
  • Determined confrontations between humans having to do with us.
  • Quixote was funny because of shame.
  • The comic impulse is an expression of helplessness and an expression of power by recognizing it.
  • Surrender to the absurd.
  • Laughter is a bio-evolutionary adaptation that is completely necessary.
  • Allows us to confront cruelty.
  • Take direct aim at evil.
  • Not a conscious decision but a subconscious impulse.
  • Do not hide behind jokes, but be loose enough to feel like playing.

The first bullet made the most impact on me. It felt like I got struck in the head. Through the course of the talk, Steve basically said that humor is used to undermine melodrama. I’ve wanted to write a story about the bemusement I felt at one of my best friend’s funerals. He killed himself and his family gave a funeral for someone completely the opposite of my friend. It wasn’t until listening to this talk that I realized how I could write my story without making it completely macabre and melodramatic. After the talk, I conversed with Steve for a while and thanked him for the talk. He was a really cool dude and gave me his e-mail address and told me to contact him whenever I wanted. My jaw dropped so many times during this week at the shock of seeing how many of these writers are so down to earth. Fucking awesome. Anyway, after the talk was dinner and the cocktail hour. The final reading of the night was after those two events. As usual I was a bit drunk for the reading and the night was beautiful.

8PM: Reading w/ D.A. Powell, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard

The first reading was by D.A. Powell, who read some poems from his latest collection. They were really lyrical and contained lots of metaphorical allusions and whatnot. Aimee Bender then read a really cool selection from her upcoming book. The stand-out of the reading though was Jim Shepard, who read a story of his that was pretty much amazing. The voice of the 1st person narrator was very vividly drawn.


So the last day of the workshop is always the dance party. When I found this out, I was stoked beyond belief! I was the first one on the dance floor and pretty much the last one to leave it. Throughout the last night, I drank what must have been at least five vodka martinis (the last two being free thanks to the open bar after midnight).  The awesome thing was that around eleven at night, I had one of the coolest things happen to me…I met Colson Whitehead! If you don’t know who he is, you should definitely look up some of his stuff online–or better yet buy it outright–because he is an awesome storyteller and works in many different styles with his fiction, which alone is admirable in itself. Saying goodbye to the friends I made over the week was really difficult and it sucked a lot. But by that time, all the new knowledge I gained was really motivating me to work on my writing.

I think this is as far as I’ll go for tonight. I’m not sure what else to say about the workshop. The effect this week had on me was such that at the end of it, it was 100 percent more certain that I am a writer than I was when I came to the workshop.  Thank you, Tin House!


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.

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