Prepping for a Workshop: (Not So) Minor Characters

In going through some books the other day, I found one of my favorites from my undergrad days. It wasn’t assigned in class. I found it through researching, following the paths of different writers during my crush on the Beats.

Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

Joyce Johnson is in the background of the cover photograph, behind Kerouac. In her book she describes seeing the photograph, herself photoshopped out of it, used for a GAP ad. They just wanted Kerouac.

But I loved reading Johnson’s account of her life as a writer during this time period, in many ways moreso than On the Road. 

At writing workshops you’ve got your main characters – the people whose names are on the website or flyer. The writer or team of writers who will lead the workshop. They are probably names you’ve heard of, writers whose every book you’ve bought within a week of its release, whose writing encourages and challenges you to be a better writer.

If you’re accepted to a residential writing workshop like Clarion West, you’ll probably start reading books by your workshop leaders as soon as you get the call.

But workshops are a labor of love, supported by communities of writers and artists, who believe so much in the power of words and the worth of writing that they donate their time and money and backyards (for parties) and cars (for driving you to parties) to making the workshop run smoothly. Their photographs don’t appear on the main website for workshops, but their names aren’t hidden away. Look for the board of directors, the contributors to the workshop newsletter, and the workshop administrators. They’re writers, too. Excellent, amazing, award-winning authors that you’ll mingle with at parties and dinners.

When I went to Clarion West in 2011, I took at least one book from each instructor with me. When I arrived at the workshop, I heard someone talking about writing poetry with Neile Graham. I had her book of poetry, Blood Memory, at home. I’d bought it years ago, because hers was one of the most highly recommended books of SF poetry. I hadn’t made the connection between the writer whose poetry I’d admired and the person who had called me one evening in March, and told me in gentle, welcoming tones that I’d been accepted to Clarion West. I felt the sting of overlooking this fact when Neile wrote a poem for my class at the end of the workshop that was beautiful and true and the most wonderful gift.

These writers aren’t minor characters, they’re your mentors and future friends. The ones who will sit beside you and talk to you even when you’re shy and terrified, whose books you should read. So do your homework before you pack your bags to that amazing workshop with Frightfully Famous Author. You’ll be meeting many more writers, learning from them, and falling in love with their work.

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