Blue Jacket Workshop 101

by Ed Davis on February 23, 2010


There’s nothing better than being the right teacher for the right students at the right time. That seems to be exactly what happened on Saturday, February 20.

Loving independent bookstores, I decided last summer to do something to highlight Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, Ohio (www.bluejacketbooks.com). Inside the historic Civil-War era building on Detroit Street, I always feel right at home— squeaky floors, high ceiling, comfy chairs, a black cat named Maggie—and used literary fiction that rivals the collection at Dark Star in Yellow Springs (www.darkstarbooks.com).

Since co-owner Elizabeth Svendsen has carried my two published novels for a couple of years, I decided to re-pay her for shelf space by leading a free writers’ workshop in her store. It would also give me the chance to teach a more public mini-version of the fiction-writing class I’ve been conducting for two decades at Sinclair Community College in both beginning (English 256) and Advanced (English 258) versions. When I retire from Sinclair soon, I’m thinking about leading just such classes—in bookstores, libraries, maybe even my home, so this was testing the waters.

Blind Faith

Months ago, Elizabeth and I worked out a plan: limit the workshop to a dozen participants who’d sign up in advance; and accept brief 1,000-word manuscripts ahead of time, which I would read and critique. Both were key decisions leading to some amazing results.

I had no idea what to expect. When I picked up the submissions a few weeks before the workshop, Elizabeth told me she knew only one of the writers. Who are these people? I wondered. (And who is he, the brave writers were no doubt asking themselves? And can he be trusted with my sacred words? Will I be shamed in public? Will he use me as an example of how not to write?). It was an act of trust on everyone’s part, even—or especially—on Elizabeth’s; she must’ve wondered: will this event work in my store?

Striking Gold

Reading the manuscripts at home, I began to smile, my pulse quickened, then I dropped my jaw. I’d certainly gotten more than I’d bargained for. No rank beginners these, but obviously writers who could navigate sentences, steer paragraphs and guide grammar to good effect. Where had they been hiding? Why hadn’t I seen them in my classes at Sinclair?

I decided to delay drawing any conclusions (other than this was terrific stuff I was reading) until after I’d met them.

Marathon

We gathered in a corner of the store Elizabeth had appointed for us, with coffee, cookies and cake. It was a no-brainer that we should focus on the work that six of the participants had submitted, so after discussing my handout “ABC’s of Fictional Literary Craft,” we dug in.

I laughed to find I’d been wrong about the gender of two writers: Jamie, the writer of the Cold Mountain-esque Civil War fiction was female, as was Devon, who’d authored a fine piece about an intriguing first day of a university class exploring religion vs. science. A couple of others knew each other from a writing group, so no wonder their stories—one centered on a female criminologist vying with a male counterpart for a promotion, the other about an aristocratic young Frenchwoman with a sympathy for the lower classes—were already so polished.

Although the event had been billed as a fiction workshop, I also received some fine essays: one a loving memoir about the author’s grandfather, another about a quirky female Appalachian “decorator of graves.” I pointed out how the authors might consider transforming their work (already working fine as nonfiction) into Autobiographical Fiction.

All the work was so strong, I was limited to minor editing points, most of which I learned from Browne and King’s excellent Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (which, by the way, Elizabeth agreed to order for anyone interested). As I explained early on, I don’t “do brutal,” preferring honest yet diplomatic. My students apparently agreed, for they jumped right in, making suggestions for improvement while always stressing the positive and respecting the author’s original vision.

I never left my chair, and though breaks were offered, no one wanted to take one. We intuitively knew that to pause was to lose momentum. Plus, we were having so much fun. When we finally stopped, I was stunned to find we’d been going for nearly two and a half hours!

The Hunger

Calling these folks my “students” feels like a misnomer—I hope I gave them something of value, but they taught me plenty. For example: if you offer it, they will come—and they will be even better writers than you hoped for. Why aren’t they taking my Sinclair classes? Though I didn’t ask, I’m betting it’s because their lives are very full, and in the “spare” time they have, they’re reading and writing. They’re not studying but doing the art they clearly and dearly love. Finding such enthusiastic writers hungry for connection, support, validation—and, yes, even a bit of gentle instruction—greatly heartened me. Working at the register, Elizabeth Svendsen nodded when I told the group I’d like to do this again. Maybe this summer? Stay tuned!

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