Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop
At the center of Buntrock Commons on St. Olaf College, there is a memorial. It is a lovely wood tower with a huge wind chime. It is a magnificent structure made all the more meaningful by what it represents. The memorial is for the students that pass on while attending St. Olaf before they can graduate. It anchors the campus and makes one feel gratitude for life and the privilege of being able to learn.
That was the theme of this year’s Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop, gratitude. Every student I spoke with was so pleased to be writing and learning with people who were as passionate as they were about the craft. Everyone was in a genre cohort that they work closely with for the week. The visiting faculty was incredibly impressive and also surprisingly warm. For a student embarking on a career filled with rejection letters, the workshop is a place where writers can feel a sense of community and place.
Our Creative Nonfiction visiting faculty this year was Sven Birkerts. His class focused on the memoir and the past. Students were instructed to bring a photograph with them to class, (challenging for some of our more technologically advanced students), and to focus their writing on something about this photograph. Sven is the kind of writer and teacher that wants to focus carefully on a subject to find insight. He used the Flaubert quote; “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” This is a perfect encapsulation of his class. Students were given writing prompts to find the locus of their projects, the place of revelation.
Chinelo Okparanta our visiting Fiction faculty ran her workshop with razor sharp focus. Each student writer had a piece workshopped. Chinelo used classical examples to improve the work by referencing Chekov’s assertion that if there is a gun present in the first act that it must go off by the second. She used this to point to particular places in student’s work where there were “guns” that failed to go off. Using a more contemporary analogy Chinelo referenced Lan Samantha Chang by using her bucket analogy. It is the concept that states that a story has a series of buckets from beginning to end and the author must fill the bucket with information otherwise no matter how the piece ends it will not be complete. This simple analogy can be incredibly helpful for revision. Her guidance to the students was focused on eliminating the unnecessary omissions from the work. After one student’s work was workshopped the other writers were given writing prompts to improve the main character. It was an interesting prompt that Chinelo described as a “gift to the writer.” Having an entire class help you with flushing out a character was truly a gift.
Rebecca Lindenburg ran the poetry cohort and she was universally admired by her students. She ran each class in small workshops. In intimate groups the poets were able to read each other’s work and have casual craft conversations about, at times, sensitive subjects. Rebecca was the best kind of mentor, thoughtful and protective of her students.
And then there was The Contented Cow. A waterfront three-story patio attached to a small Irish pub in the city of Northfield, MN. The students had some wonderful late nights there. If you want details you’ll just have to attend next year and join us.
The Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop was not just about taking classes. It was also about making connections with other writers and constructing a space where we exchanged ideas, talked about challenges, and celebrated each other’s successes. As one student said, it felt like family. Another student described the experience as being uplifting and necessary. We as writers are solitary by virtue of our work and it is necessary for us to collaborate and connect.
Thank you Water~Stone Review Summer Workshop faculty, students, and the lovely Northfield for a week of fun, joy, and gratitude.
Danielle Bylund is a writer, graduate student, and graphic designer living in Saint Paul, MN. She is the Production Assistant for Water~Stone Review.