How to Write Anything in Six Easy Lessons
Workshop leader chokes back fear as Kimball series starts
The magic words “Free writing workshop” summoned twenty people to Kimball Library yesterday—we almost ran out of folding chairs. The turnout filled my heart with joy and fear. What was I thinking when I breezily promised to help, in some obscure way, any writer, of any genre, who walked through the door? ("No matter what you're working on, this workshop is for you.") Our circle included a performer of standup comedy, a science-fiction writer, a playwright, a journalist, and the author of over 100 columns on woodworking. One of the participants had driven over eighty miles to get there. I have three weeks to deliver on my promise.
We started by writing down our names. Then we wrote down something about our names. This is called writing to a prompt. The prompts for this exercise, which I call “I Was Born,” include “Where do you live?” and “Where is home?” which might be two different places. For example, I have lived in Louisville, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, New York, Tanzania, and France, but “home” has always been Randolph. We wrote for maybe five or six minutes, then we shared what we had written. This one exercise took 40 minutes, or roughly two minutes per person. The sessions are 90 minutes. We had used up half of our time just introducing ourselves!
I skipped over the second exercise (“Once Upon a Time”) and went straight to the third and final one, which I call “The Story Animal,” after Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. The prompt: What brought you here today? I asked people to think deeply about their writing goals. “If your goal is to write some down parts of your life story for your grandchild, think about what that grandchild means to you and what you hope those stories will convey,” I explained. “If you love science fiction, tell us why.” Second prompt: “What might somebody do to help you reach your goal?” At the end of the exercise, we shared again. By then it was noon.
I’m into this new thing, where instead of being a know-it-all, I let people tell me what to do. The anxious, fretful side of my Gemini self screams “Disaster! Disaster!” at such folly. What? You’re doing a three-week workshop without a lesson plan? Are you crazy?
I came away from yesterday’s session with my marching orders, and today I’m writing up a program for the next few sessions. Here are some of the questions we will address:
1) How do I start writing the story that I've been carrying around in my head? Where do I begin? Short answer: You begin at the end.
2) How do I find a publisher? Short answer: Start by finding books that are similar to your book. Write a proposal, and send it to the editor of that book (this will take some research). Repeat this process with publisher after publisher. Never give up.
3) How can I get my handwritten manuscript typed through a barter arrangement? Interesting question. Hiring an editor or even a typist can run you hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most of us don’t have that kind of money. I am constantly thinking up ways for people to publish their work, or get it published, or get 50 copies run off by a local printer, without spending a fortune. We will address this question, too.
Note: The beautiful hand-painted blue bench in the photograph was made by John Parker and Tom Batey, artists who live on the other side of Chelsea Mountain from Randolph. The family of Idora Tucker, my mother, commissioned it and donated it to Kimball Library in her memory. It occupies a corner of the children’s library, appropriately, since children and books were two of Mom’s favorite things. This is the room where I will be spending much of my time from now until the end of May. Join me on Saturday mornings (10:30–noon) and/or Tuesday evenings (6:30–8). No registration, just walk in. Bring a notebook and a pen.