Bad Advice Wednesday: Take a Workshop

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


The Haystack stair to the ocean...

I disdained all organized writer things when I was young (in my twenties, that is), regarding them as extraneous and foolish and vain. I thought the only proper apprenticeship for a writer was to make pages on my own under the unwatching eyes of various writing gods, not Shakespeare—I thought he was a jerk for all the puns—but more like Scott Fitzgerald and Bukowski. I worked in construction and as a bartender and on a farm and played music and all of these things were the experiences I was collecting for my writing fund, real stuff, life stuff. Anything I did was writing, as I saw it. I was on the wet path, as the Buddhists call it, partying and playing and working the sentences when I saw fit and writing in fits and starts, getting better, sure, but in a terrible vacuum—aside from reading, reading. Study and devotion to a mentor seemed too much the dry path for me. And why bother, since everyone knows both paths—wet, dry—lead to enlightenment.

This week I’m teaching at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. I drove over in the remnant of Hurricane Irene, got here in time to watch the wind increase off the ocean, the waves mount, nice.

The craft school is a great environment for teaching writing—my group is among other groups, not isolated away from the other arts, though each group has its own studio, its own specialized equipment. People are blowing glass, firing clay, dyeing fabric, working with precious metals, making prints. At first I felt envious, and I know some of my students felt envious: the other workshops were making stuff.

But we’re cheering up—because we’re making stuff, too. It’s just that we do it out of words, whole worlds. And it’s good to recall that a craft is a craft is a craft. Our pots of words we can smash again and again and thereby improve them. Too much decoration? We’re learning to trim.

The best thing we’ve learned by watching the others is the function of the studio.
All meet formally from 9-12 in the morning, then (after a rocking lunch) from 1-3 in the afternoon. We read the responses to exercises I’ve given, we read passages from books, we argue, we cry over unexpected passion, we do a lot of laughing. And then we part ways. I’ve been swimming off the rocks, after, and taking long walks, and that’s pretty wet path, indulging the body, all good in my book.

But look at the other workshops. They meet for the same formal hours, the teachers lecturing a little, walking the studio, commenting individually as the students work their projects. Not so very different. The difference comes after class time, and then after dinner, and then all night, when students and teachers alike rush back to their respective studios to keep working.

I’m trying to get my folks to work like that, treat the lab time as precious, as if our equipment—a couple of pencils and a pad of paper, maybe a laptop—were just as exciting as a new kiln, or a laser cutter.

Anyway, the advice this week is take a workshop somewhere. Doesn’t have to be writing. Glassblowing would be fine. You can import the lessons later. There are sentences that must be heated to precise temperatures and stretched and turned and heated again, maybe splashed in cold water for a little craquelure. There are sentences you can dip in various colors of ink and repeat across page after page. There are sentences you leave in the ocean water for salt dyeing, or sentences to be left in spruce-forest puddles to use the natural tannic acid, make ready for the dyes of meaning.

But a writing workshop is a great thing, too.

I was wrong and stupid not to apply to Bread Loaf when I was 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 38. With luck, my application to be a waiter would have been accepted, and I’d have been part of a cadre of young writers getting to know seasoned writers in a wet-path atmosphere, a cadre that would have grown with me over the years. I would have skipped several of those years of trial and error, when I was too shy to show my work to anyone and in my own head disguised the shyness as contempt for the community I so longed to join. Weird behavior, but not unusual. When I finally did go, as a fellow, 1992, I could hardly believe the joy of the place, all those friends I might have had earlier, but that I still have now.

Like Bread Loaf, like Haystack, many of the best workshops and conferences take place in summer. Get started now—if you’re young and poor, apply for the scholarships, the work-study programs, the fellowships. If money’s no object, dream your way to workshops in other parts of the world, build vacations around them.

And when you’re home again, keep in touch with all the friends you’ve made, gather them to your breast. Together, you will make careers.

Plus you get to sit on the rocks by the ocean and stare.




  1. vince p writes:

    Bill —
    How do you get these nice gigs, Alaska, Haystack, etc?
    You must actually write a lot.

    Meanwhile, you drove over in what vehicle? And what did you listen to on the way? My last long solo drive, after taking two sons up to scout camp to work for the summer, I listened to LA Woman by the Doors, which CD was on sale at Walmart upstate for $6.99. Fabulous. I listened to it LOUD. That Ray Manzarek — not bad.

    He’s my second favorite keyboard player. Sending love to my top keyboardist herewith.


  2. I so enjoyed you and your writers at Haystack. I was in the clay class and loved every moment at Haystack – magical! Hearing the writers speak on the last night brought my experience full circle. Our instructor, Kevin Snipes, was all about story telling in his work. He talked with me about taking risks and exposing more of myself in the pieces I was making – as well as in my own work (oil painting and glass) when I get home. The writing students showed me another way of accessing and expressing that. Hearing their stories deepened my sense of my own, and of my experience at Haystack. Thank you for being there.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks so much, Julie. How wonderful to hear from you here. I had such a good time, and such deep talks with so many people. I’m finding it hard to re-enter the other world!

  3. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Who made this painting? It’s gorgeous! Full of sun and light and possibilities.

    • Kerry writes:

      Claude Monet painted a series of stacks of hay and grain in the field after harvest season. 1890-91. It’s a favorite. I had a postcard picture of this painting on my carrying case of special ed. forms. I would look to it at times when the meetings became too tedious, or too emotionally tense.

      • Bill writes:

        Yes, a Monet–Dave added it when I was at Haystack and couldn’t access any images. At the school, it’s all ocean and spruce trees and huge pieces of granite and feldspar…. Didn’t see any hay…

        • Bill writes:

          Dave and I painted that and many other paintings, just in our spare time. Actually the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it from us for several tens of millions, thus the Bentley limo in Dave’s driveway… License plate: MONET. Dave can’t even spell money right.

          • Tommy writes:

            As an artist, of course Dave can’t spell “money” right. I’m just as impressed that you, a farmer, can! Yer crackin’ me up! But I knew you were foolin’ ’cause anyone can tell this painting was done by a sixth grader.

  4. Kim Matthews writes:

    Thanks for this sweet post. I attended Session One, a mixed media workshop with Joan Livingstone. I made friends that I’ll probably have for the rest of my life, learned new techniques that will inform my future work, and yes, got to do morning meditation on a big rock overlooking the Atlantic. Can’t wait to get back there.

    • Bill writes:

      yes, it’s so good there. i liked visiting the various studios and seeing what was going on, day by day…

  5. monica wood writes:

    Oh, Bill, I envy you at Haystack! Kiss a rock for me.