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Writer School – Day Zero

"Image courtesy of arztsamui /"
“Image courtesy of arztsamui /”

Yesterday was the orientation for the 2014 session of The Writer’s Studio. Students, mentors, program director, mentor assistants, all assembled in one room, looking at each other with all the friendly awkwardness of new acquaintance, and mostly listening to the program director talk through the handout we’d all been given.

Chairs for students were lined up in a U shape, with an m-dash of chairs at the top of the U, for the non-students. This configuration allows everyone to see everyone else, and allows no possibility of hiding in the back row. Chairs only, no tables, so no physical barriers. A solidly egalitarian arrangement, if a bit wasteful of space; I’ve been to clubs with smaller dance floors than the lagoon of empty carpet in the middle of the room.

There was a table of coffee, cookies, and pitchers of water on one side, so the first thing I did was get a glass of water. The second thing I did was knock it over onto the floor in front of the seat next to me, just as its occupant came to sit down. (I’m so sorry, Deepthi. I truly am not usually that clumsy.)

Each chair had its pile of handouts, topped by a foldable tent-card bearing a student’s name. The third thing I did was fold up my tent card and put it on the floor in front of me. The rest of the room followed suit as they arrived and took their seats (in egalitarian alphabetical order).

I read through the handout, and had a minor panic attack at item 3 on the agenda for the day:  “a two minute glimpse of you as a writer: in three sentences write an ‘ideal review’ of your work that mentions your genre, primary subject matter, and the most interesting aspect of your writing style.” My inner teacher’s pet shrieked, OMG I’m not ready! I pulled out my notebook and started writing but could hardly squeeze out a sentence, let alone three. We’re not even started and I’m blocked? Gah! But when we got to item 3, we were told “don’t be modest”. That completely freed up my pen, and here’s what I wrote:

Wendy Barron burst onto the fiction scene with a searingly witty historical romance that reflected her love of all things Jane Austen, and from the success of that first  novel grew a highly successful series. Her clever heroines are much emulated today. She later branched out into other genres including mystery, contemporary, and literary fiction, and although the tone and subject matter may change from book to book, her abundant joy in language and sparkling dialogue are a constant throughout her work.

I’ll note that I’m not the only one who ventured into hyperbolic self-praise; as a group we impressed Wayde with our willingness to aim high, in that way.

Later in the day we broke into groups to do a round-robin on the following questions:

  • which writer currently most influences your writing?
  • what is it that you admire most about this writer’s work?
  • how is your writing and/or experience different from this writer?

My answers:

  • Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dick Francis
  • Use of language, sharp characterization, turn of phrase
  • I am still alive, not British, and have never been to a horse race in my life

I was surprised at the number of people who said, in answer to the last, “of course I’m not as skilled / intelligent / educated as the writer(s) who most influence me…” Seriously? Stop that nonsense. You’re a skilled writer, or you wouldn’t be in this room. One thing I have learned over the years is not to invite people to find fault with your writing, by words or actions. “I’m not as good as Shakespeare” doesn’t need saying. There is no “as good as” anyone else. There is only “better than I was before”. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, Pynchon is Pynchon, Stephen King is Stephen King, and you don’t see them apologizing for not being Shakespeare. Embrace and promote who you are, don’t apologize for who you’re not.

Anyway, I got a bunch of names of writers to investigate and books to read from that little session, including:

At the end of the day, we met with our mentors and got further info on how our little group is going to work. In our group of nine students, there are four men. I think all the men are under thirty, definitely under forty. I know that at least two of them write Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Given that most of my existing writerly friends are women, it’ll be good to have some fellas in the mix.

I’m looking forward to meeting all the goals of the program, to wit:

  • build your strengths and skills as a writer
  • gain a clearer focus on your writing projects, with the possibility of drafting a complete or partial manuscript
  • to connect you to Vancouver’s literary community

I’m calling that Day Zero, because the learning doesn’t start until next Saturday. First class: Manuscript Critique for Writers. I feel like a bit of an old hand at that, but it’ll be valuable to learn the format and emphasis that SFU and this program uses.

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