I always imagined that workshopping writing in person would be akin to walking into a room full of strangers, dropping your pants, and asking them to point out all the pimples on your butt. Writing is like that—intimate. Something you do in private. You’re exposed, but you can’t see your own issues.
It wasn’t like that at all—it was wonderful.
When researching which writing workshop to apply to the Key West Literary Seminar Workshop stood out to me for a few reasons:
- THE ACTUAL WORKSHOPS. At KWLS you apply to the various workshop groups based on what you’re interested in / need help with / could really use the focus on. There was a class on memoirs, a few for poets, one for short story writers, and so on and so forth. The one I applied to was with Christopher Castellani and it covered the art of perspective, as in “Who is telling your story?” which was perfect for me since my WIP has six different tight third POVs. It really gave me the focus, and frankly, the vocabulary that I needed to refine my manuscript. The other reason I chose KWLS was because of the afternoon class with Lynne Griffin called The Writer’s Toolkit—a hugely helpful way to polish your one-line elevator pitch, learn more about the publishing industry, narrow down your goals, and figure out how to query strategically.
Christopher Castellani – The Art of Perspective, Who’s Telling Your Story?
Billy Collins – Form and Content Revisited
Fernanda Eberstadt – Developing Voice: Being and Imagining the Other
Lynne Griffin – The Writer’s Toolkit
Lauren Groff – Subversions
Claire Messud – The Iceberg Beneath the Surface
Gregory Pardlo – Epiphany or Bust
Francine Prose – Close Reading for Writers
Krystal Sital – Crafting Strong Narrative from Real Life
Luis Alberto Urrea – Trust: Collaborating with the Shadow
2. THE LOCATION. It’s in KEY WEST! Not cold, great food, beach, butterflies, and bars. Need I say more? And getting there, at least for me, involved just one stop through Miami to connect to Key West, and yes, those of you familiar with the area will not be surprised that everyone made fun of me for flying to Key West from Miami. Spending a week in Key West in January was great for all of the reasons mentioned above, but also because the place is seeped in literary history. It’s hard not to be inspired there.
3. IT’S NOT A DORM SITUATION. Some workshops have all the writers staying in dorms. Communal bathrooms? No thanks. Not being in a dorm, however, does come with a con that you should consider. KWLS ends up being a tiny bit more expensive with hotel costs, but not much. Booking a room in Key West in January for a week isn’t the cheapest, but local hotels supported the KWLS foundation with discounts to those attending the workshop. It made a big difference and pulled the price in line with other dorm-based, week-long workshops. I didn’t do this so I can’t tell you much about the process, but I do know that KWLS was very generous to many with financial aid and scholarships, so it’s worth applying to if you have the need.
The Welcome Dinner
By early December we had already uploaded our pieces (up to 5k words) for workshopping and were given each others’ (and instructions, which was helpful if you haven’t workshopped before) to start combing through.
Workshop week kicked off with a welcome dinner at the Hemingway House. Six-toed cats, a pool his wife had installed while he was gallivanting with other women—it’s all there. I can’t imagine a better location for a welcome dinner in Key West. The first hour is cocktail hour which was great because it gave you the chance to throw yourself into the melee and meet people. Some wandered around and tried to gather up all those in their own workshops, others, like myself, got lost in a conversation about how fantastic Chinese science fiction is, and several bee-lined for the famous faces.
After cocktail hour was a sit down dinner beneath atmospheric bistro lights. Folders, pamphlets, and a booklet detailing everything was set at each seat. You’ll find your place (it’s all labeled) and then proceed to look nervously around the table at all the 10-12 people you’re about to get very close to, very quickly.
The dinner was lovely. I don’t remember the food, I do remember the rosé, but mostly I remember how I never wanted it to end. It was such a treat to be surrounded by those with a similar goal: to see a work through to publication. And they’re all so different! I live between two islands, neither of which has so much as a bookstore, so I DRANK THIS UP.
“What are you reading?”
“What are you writing?”
“Where are you in the process?”
I enjoyed myself to the point where when it started to rain toward the final hour of the evening, I stayed in my chair, pointed out that it wasn’t a hurricane, and I would have gone right on sitting there if everyone else hadn’t of left.
I once read in Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum that workshopping is crash course in what it feels like to be rejected and that if you can take anything away from such an experience, it’s that if you can respond with some degree of normality to it in person, you’re at least practicing for the living nightmare of online reviews and twitter trolls. Maum also mentioned the pressure to please, especially when it comes to incorporating comments into your revision process and that first-time workshoppers have a tendency to put it ALL in there. Luckily, my inner monologue / f-you reflex is pretty strong so I was fairly certain that I could filter, but I didn’t need to. My peers were on-point. Maum went on to speak about how every workshop has at least one windbag but I didn’t find any at KWLS.
(omg—sobering thought: maybe it was me?!)
Somehow, by some miracle I’m undeserving of, the group of people in Christopher Castellani’s The Art of Perspective workshop were walking, talking, gems of human beings and Chris was a welcoming, funny, and incredibly insightful leader. Their discerning comments and questions were always delivered with the utmost love which made the entire week a positive experience in so many ways.
In one of his initial emails to us Chris said that we may find that workshopping other people’s writing is more valuable than workshopping our own and I couldn’t agree more. Having a problem shifting between present and backstory? Recognizing that in someone else’s work will help you correct in in your own.
Lynne Griffin’s The Writer’s Toolkit afternoon session allowed signups for one, two, or all three classes so the group of people in attendance each day was a little different. Being a dork, I took all three and am exceedingly glad that I did. I’ve been simultaneously working on my synopsis and query letter while going through various, endless manuscript drafts and there was one thing that always stumped me no matter how much I read about it: the genre line in your query letter.
I have kept myself awake at night trying to figure out what’s between literary and commercial or if what I wrote is some sort of Frankenstein literary meets upmarket commercial fiction with a book club bent. So I asked and I think this is the most valuable thing I took from Lynne’s classes: let your comps do the talking. That’s it! Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Your two comps will guide the agent on the right course. That night’s sleep was the best I’ve had in a year.
Another reason to fall in love with the Key West Literary Seminar Workshops is that in the evenings there are literary events available for all workshop attendees and the public. Tuesday saw a wine and cheese reception at the legendary Judy Blume’s Studios of Key West and Books & Books followed by greetings from the KWLS executive director and author, Arlo Haskell, a reading from Lauren Groff (I listened to her short story collection Florida on audio because to me, the way she reads her work out loud adds so much and seeing it happen on a stage was brilliant), the funniest 45 minutes ever by from Luis Alberto Urrea (complete with a deep and meaningful message on the transformational power of humor), and a conversation between Billy Collins and Gregory Pardlo on living a life in poetry.
Author and program coordinator Katrin Shumann took the stage Wednesday evening followed by a conversation regarding “Why Write?” between Fernanda Eberstadt, Claire Messud, and Francine Prose. Christopher Castellani then gave us an incredibly interesting backstage look at his novel Leading Men and the art of writing fiction with historical characters.
Even though the workshops continued on Friday, the farewell reception was held on Thursday (so if you needed to fly out Friday afternoon you could without missing anything) at the Key West Lighthouse. Partners, travel buddies, etc. were welcome to attend and Kashmie and I had a blast. Whatever you hear about what happened afterwards at Mangoes with some of the memoirists isn’t true.
– Do some homework on google maps before booking your hotel in Key West. I chose Tropical Inn (and loved it) on Duval Street which was a 5 min walk from my workshop location, around the corner from the Hemingway House and Key West Lighthouse, but further away (15 min walk) from my afternoon classes and the lecture series. There’s no ‘central location’ per say, so being between them all was great.
– Sushi Song is the best restaurant in Key West.
– Don’t turn down opportunity. You’re already there, you might as well go to every last thing that you can. I think the only event I missed was the sailing trip (and I’m still sad about that) because of a work call I couldn’t reschedule. On the don’t miss stuff note—my default mode is antisocial, but you’ve just got to suck it up and put yourself out there. Talk to people because you never know who you’re going to make a connection with.