The Writers Studio: a presentation.
by guest editor Jenny Dowling.
The Writers Studio is a place to go to learn to think as a writer, to read as a writer, and to practice the craft of writing. At the Studio we study other writers, not in an academic way, but to learn how they build the illusion and why they make their choices. When we think we understand, we try those same choices in exercises, much as a painter would. This method allows us to train in a manner that is nonthreatening; we are not writing masterpieces, we are simply practicing. This concept is very liberating. It allows us to use our imagination, to experiment with language and our own storytelling impulses without being self-conscious, without the fear of being disgraced before our peers: because it is just an exercise it allows us to hear the criticism. After all, some styles of writing will be a better fit for us than others. Still, we know that the more techniques we understand, the more comfortable and confident we will become as writers.
The writers we study range widely: Franz Kafka, Lydia Davis, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Allen Ginsberg... We use both poetry and prose as starting points for exercises. The fiction writers will do the exercise in fiction and vice versa. The techniques for poetry and prose are similar in that they both tell stories, albeit in different ways. The challenges and the choices are similar. There is the basic choice of a narrator: who is speaking and to whom; whether the voice is 1st person or 3rd, and what is the distance of that 1st or 3rd person narrator from the characters, the story, and the writer. What kind of personality the narrator has is of great importance to our studies.
There are 4 levels of workshops at the Studio, and then there is the master class. From the very beginning we are encouraged to write every week: just an exercise from a writer who has been taught the previous week by the instructor. The students are encouraged to critique their fellow students' work on the basis of that particular writer’s technique and what the student declares he/she was trying to do with it. In this way all the students become involved in the study of that particular technique and how others have approached it. The better they learn to discern their peers’ successes and failures, the more they will be able to take that knowledge and put it to use in their own work. This fosters a sense of community and trust where competition is healthy: between the student and the great writers.
During the course of a tenweek session, every Tuesday night there is a Craft Class, which consists in learning how to read as writers. We read fiction and poetry on alternate weeks to analyze and discover how writers achieve their goals. The novels, stories, and poems are carefully selected by our director, Phil Schultz so that one class builds on another, on a theme that might not be so apparent, but which is there nonetheless, so that by the end of the ten weeks a general body of craft has been covered. The last class, or the last two classes, are called Narrative Technique Nights. The students are called upon to give a clear-eyed assessment of their development to this point; to discuss which of the writers we studied were most helpful and why; and to state where they want to take their work for the next ten weeks.
Here you will find examples of the kind of exercises we do in the Master Class at The Writers Studio. Even though, at this level, many of the students are working on novels, completing short stories, putting together books of poetry, we all still do exercises regularly, for that is the mother lode; it is what helps us discover new personas, excites our imaginations, gives us ideas for future work.