Monday, February 23, 2009

MECAC Writers' Workshop with Dean Nelson

If you were not one of the 23 writers who attended the first all-day MECAC Writing Workshop on February 21, you missed a gem of an experience. Dean Nelson, founder of the journalism department at Point Loma Nazarene University, presented a workshop that appealed to writers of all sorts: beginning writers to published authors, poets to novelists. My twelve pages of notes and two pages of original writing attest to the quality and practicality of this workshop.

The day started with bagels and coffee, fruit and granola bars, as attendees meandered into Conference Room "A" at the serenely beautiful Pine Valley Bible Conference Center. MECAC Director Judith Dupree informed the audience about our little arts council before introducing Dean, the author/co-author of thirteen books and countless articles and stories, many of which span the fifteen years he freelanced for the New York Times. Despite his daunting writing repertoire, Dean disarmed us immediately with his humor and his relaxed style. We were somehow immediately at home with him -- which is easy for me to say as I'm a former student and colleague, but I think everyone felt the same camaraderie, the kinship that comes with being on the same journey, even if Dean is much farther along than we are.

Dean started out the workshop by exploring with us the idea of "Why We Need to Tell Stories" and what "story" means to each of us. He discussed the two levels of meaning in good writing, a surface level and a deeper level that goes beyond the plot itself. He mentioned Madeleine L'Engle's idea that stories help us in naming -- in making sense of our chaotic world. Stories help us to live life creatively and without fear. Good stories, Dean informed us, point to something larger than themselves and contain intrigue for the reader, doubt about the outcome, character(s) with the potential to change, an emotional payoff, and sufficient attention to the craft of writing (concrete and significant detail, convincing voice, accuracy in research, striking (not cliche) figures of speech, etc.). Dean told us of two ways to improve our writing: 1) Write more. 2) Read more ... and read the good stuff. He reiterated what I tell my writing students: "Reading crappy books doesn't help with writing." Avoid preaching, Dean reminded us. Let the story unfold. Stick to the craft and trust the reader. Most importantly, writers bear witness.

In order to illustrate his points, Dean took us through a story he wrote for San Diego Magazine entitled "Flashback to Bruges." He read it aloud to us as we followed along on copies, marking as he read. We looked for shifting levels in the story, where the tension started building and how it was resolved, the universal import of seemingly insignificant details, the use of humor to release tension yet allow it to build to a higher level, the juxtaposition of marriage and grace, the mere suggestion of menace, the portrayal of characters, etc. It was a concrete learning experience as we dissected a great story, examining its inner workings and figuring out what made it tick.

After lunch in the Dining Hall during which the workshop participants had the opportunity to become better acquainted over soup, sandwiches, and salad, we returned to the conference room to examine some practicalities and do some writing. Dean started the afternoon session by assuring us that yes, we are going to write crap, but that even writing crap is a point of departure to better writing. He outlined the clustering technique and freewriting as ways to get beyond the blank page/computer screen, and we did some of the exercises together. He then gave us an indirect writing assignment with a choice of two topics: 1) Describe an object without telling what it is, or 2) Describe an incident from the last 24 hours without revealing what really happened. After writing for twenty minutes, we were to gather into small groups to read our sketch aloud, the listeners suggesting our subject matter.

To close out our day, Dean then opened the workshop for questions about writing, especially our problem areas. Writers weren't at all shy about asking about improving dialog, the value of blogging, the importance of journaling, and the lessening or absence of the self-publishing stigma. Dean also recommended his favorite writing books: On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and If You Want to Write by Barbara Yuleland. Closing the workshop, Dean mentioned how several well-known writers got their start in writing: Stephen King was a sports writer. Anne Lamott wrote restaurant reviews. Hemingway and many others were journalists. Dean finished by reminding us to get comfortable with rejection; writing is a marathon, not a sprint. To practice being a wordsmith. And to remember the vast difference between "I want to be a writer" which involves a romanticized, idealized role of a writer, and "I want to write" which demonstrates a compulsion to write, something within that needs to burst out.

By 4:00, we were standing up and stretching, saying our goodbyes to each other and to Dean, and tidying up the conference room. About five of us stayed behind to share some short pieces of writing with each other and gain some helpful feedback.

We at MECAC and all participants in the workshop extend our thanks to Dean for presenting us with a practical and encouraging day of digging deeper into the craft and soul of writing. Thanks, Dean, for making the long trek up the mountain to teach us how to improve our work and to feed our inner compulsion to write. Dean's advice continues ringing in my ears two days after the conference, and I feel encouraged to master the frustration and to put in the long hours that the literary gods require in order to improve my writing. As Dean reiterated and as I tell my students frequently, writing is hard work. But learning how to shape words into meaningful narrative that affects another person's mind and soul is somehow worth the slaving over the writing pad or keyboard. It's what makes the hard work worthwhile.

MECAC hopes to provide another writing workshop this year, and until then we strongly encourage local writers to attend our monthly writing workshops the second Tuesday of each month at 7:00 PM in the Pine Valley Library.

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