There's Gold in That Story

I once enrolled in a New York City workshop taught by a widely respected older poet. He was the editor of a well-known poetry magazine—a literary connoisseur known for his crusty, tough, asperous workshop critiques.

The first night of class, a fragile-looking woman read us a newly written poem. Midway through her reading, the rest of us were cringing, shifting uneasily in our seats. The poem was just plain bad. It was cliché-ridden, full of grammatical problems, and rambled incoherently about several disparate subjects. My stomach was in knots, as I was deathly afraid she’d be humiliated.

When the woman finished, our instructor recited back to her a single line from the poem. I recognized it as the one line that held some element of intrigue. Then he told her, “That one line is your poem. The rest of what you’ve written doesn’t fit with such an articulate, wonderful line. I would begin with this line, and hone it, and see that the next line that follows it is just as good as that one.”

When our classmate brought in her revision the following week, the poem still wasn’t stellar. But it was markedly better. And we all knew from reading the second draft that she would keep honing and crafting and polishing, as our teacher had instructed, because she was filled with the buoyant belief she had something worthwhile to say.

I went home that night and wrote about what I’d learned. Our gruff instructor hadn’t deceitfully flattered this woman. On the contrary, his pointed wisdom about her one, beautiful line transformed her writing. And I realized we’d missed the living core of her work because we hadn’t excavated the glittering line, the gold nugget of possibility; we were busy panning the poem, eyes dully fixed on the dross.    

Every writer has defining moments that shape their ethos and sensibilities. This was one of mine.  I once read something that echoed my poetry class experience by yet another former instructor of mine, NYU professor Galway Kinnell, who said, “What someone who teaches a workshop mainly does is recognize the passages that are alive and true and show those to the author.”

The lessons learned in that long ago class, as well as my desire to embrace Kinnell’s generous spirit of “truth and life,” is what I hope I bring to the Spark and Re-Spark workshop I teach at Lighthouse.        

In this class, we work together to shape polished first drafts—of essays, short stories, novel chapters, poems—by listening for what’s most alive in the writing. We don’t offer warm fuzzy fluff feedback (“Wow…that’s great…awesome writing…”), but instead learn to give specific and discerning critiques about where the “juice” of a piece is found.          

In Spark, we immerse ourselves in creative exercises to help us move through stubborn blocks and to resurrect writing strengths. We seek to identify and refine our unique voice and style.  We study the techniques of writers such as George Saunders, Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, and Naomi Shihab Nye in order to return to our old drafts with a fresh eye.

My curmudgeonly workshop leader left me with the kindest of lessons: writers are called to be sleuths for possibility. We’re not cheap flatterers; we’re curious miners, surrounded on all sides by pure gold.

The next session of Spark and Re-Spark starts November 18.