By Kes Trester
There is a magical place in Austin, TX known as The Writing Barn. A former stable, it is now home to a lazy herd of deer, a bunkhouse with all the comforts of home, and a beautifully converted barn where a certain breed of people known as writers come together to share, well, everything.
I recently had the privilege of attending a three-day, advanced writers workshop billed as Exploring Narrative and Character Depth, with YA authors Matt de la Pena and A.M. (Amanda) Jenkins. For the uninitiated, workshops involve giving and getting in-depth critiques on the work of everyone who attends, with the exception of the faculty. This one required potential attendees be agented and/or published (or have extensive workshop experience), along with writing samples be submitted with the application. When I was accepted, I knew I’d be in great company.
A month prior to the workshop, I discovered just what I’d gotten myself into. Close to 200 pages appeared in my inbox, a compilation of submissions made by the twelve writers (myself included) who would be attending. My task was to critique the eleven other submissions prior to arrival, and be prepared to present my opinions in a round-table forum. I wasn’t too concerned, that is until I started reading. That’s when I realized my fellow workshoppers weren’t just talented; they were Seriously Talented. And it hit home that Matt de la Pena and A.M. Jenkins, authors whose books I truly admired, would be reading my words. What had I done?
I was plane bound for Texas when I made the mistake of looking at the workshop schedule for the first time. It noted that following the 30 minute critique period, each of us would have 10 minutes for an “author response.” What? Were we supposed to defend our work? Justify our choices? Beg for forgiveness? And most importantly, did Southwest Airlines serve cocktails at eleven o’clock in the morning?
The writers who gathered in that late afternoon traveled from all points of the compass. We came from a variety of backgrounds and brought a host of diverse life experiences to the table. The only common bond we shared was a love of words. As it turned out, that was all we needed.
I’m accustomed to the wonderfully inclusive nature of writers, but the speed with which we instantly became a tribe, complete with ceremonies and traditions, brought out a level of honesty, support, and encouragement (helped along perhaps by an ever-present supply of wine) I’ve rarely encountered.
We all knew our turn in front of the class was coming. Each of us would be in that uniquely vulnerable position only other writers can truly appreciate, yet it quickly became apparent no one came to be petted or praised. That’s not to say we didn’t open each critique by citing the hard-won accomplishments of each writer; we did. But it was during the debates over a character’s level of self-awareness, or whether a scene too strongly telegraphed a plot point, or how best to forge an emotional connection when writing in the first person that the room really came alive. Rather than huddle protectively over our words, it seemed we all couldn’t wait to bare our souls even further. And I loved every minute of it.
At the end of the workshop, each of us wrote one or two meaningful words on a hand-painted rock and ceremoniously placed it in the rustic garden of our gracious host, Bethany Hegedus. The words were a personal reflection of our experience at the event, and one writer in particular said a few words that have stayed with me.
This writer had arrived with her first manuscript in hand, and she confessed she hadn’t even finished it. She said when she arrived, she thought of herself as a writer, with a lowercase w, walking into a roomful of Writers. By the end of the workshop, she realized being a writer was about heart, drive, and commitment; not who had the most publishing credits. Her rock was painted with a giant W, because the experience had taught her she was indeed a Writer – with a capital W.