I spent last week attending The Rosemont Writers Retreat. This is the most formal training I’ve received since college, which was, let’s just say, a long time ago. Here’s some of what I learned.
Deconstructing a short story. Each afternoon, we deconstructed two short stories that were written by our group members. Each day we also deconstructed a short story chosen by our facilitator that we had read as homework. We were a small group, five students and our teacher. Several participants were formally trained; with Creative Writing MFA’s or MA’s. Several participants teach Creative Writing or Literature at local colleges.
While I’d read my peers’ short stories before the retreat, it quickly struck me that each story really needed to be read two or three times before the workshop. The first reading should be for pleasure. In subsequent readings, the structure of the piece starts to stand out. Little clues surface, such as the use of foreshadowing, the importance of word choices. Now, this may seem elementary for seasoned writers. I’ve re-read and marked up short stories before, but not with the tenacity I now realize is necessary.
Our facilitator, Elise Juska, has published three novels and dozens of short stories and currently teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and The New School in New York City. Elise guided us through the deconstruction of these stories, asking exploratory questions and offering her insights. She gently balanced positive feedback with constructive recommendations where she saw opportunities for improvements. She made our group feel at ease the entire week.
In some ways, the deconstructing workshop reminded me of the Philadelphia Writers Group’s process. The writer of the piece simply listened as their story was deconstructed by the group. I scribbled pages of notes as the group discussed scenes they enjoyed, and scenes they’d like given more weight, moments they didn’t understand, etc. What was different was the amount of time we had to deconstruct each story, the insights of the more formally trained participants and Elise’s guiding hand. I have a ton of constructive notes to review.
Each day at noon, a different author was interviewed by Carla Spataro, the retreat’s director. Hearing from different genres of writers; poets, creative non-fiction, novel, and short stories was a nice touch to round out the experience. After the noon reading each day, we sat down to lunch as a larger group, where we had a chance to converse with writers in other workshops. I found myself scribbling down the names of other short stories, novels, and authors I need to read. I now have an extensive summer reading list. The first three nights, we attended readings from other local writers. On Thursday night, each student read a piece of their work.
Throughout the weekend as I decompressed, there’s been one bit of advice Elise offered that I keep reflecting on. Elise attributed the advice to the writer Ethan Canin, who said reading a story is like climbing a mountain with a backpack, picking up and placing certain weighted items in the back pack along the way. When you get to the top, every item you’ve placed into the back pack has to have been necessary or the reader will feel cheated.
Today, I start sorting through my back packs with a more critical eye.