Nick O'Connell flying into the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park.
To graduate from the University of Washington’s Master of Fine Arts program, I needed to write a creative thesis. Having worked as a journalist, I knew how to write news and feature stories, but I struggled with narrative techniques like dramatic scenes, character sketches, and scene-by-scene construction. My thesis, a coming of age novel, featured an unformed main character (a thinly-disguised version of myself), a mishmash of points of view, and overly poetic description that pleased me but had little to do with the story.
When I turned in my masterpiece, a creative writing faculty member promptly rejected it.
I was crushed. How could I achieve my dream of becoming a writer?
I dropped by the office of my adviser, Charles Johnson. He had seen the thesis once, but now read it over more carefully.
“This is a detective novel,” he said finally.
“Really?” I said. I hadn’t planned to write a detective novel and wasn’t thrilled to be doing so. Wasn’t a detective novel genre fiction? Did it have any chance of becoming literary art, our goal in the MFA program?
I thought about what he said and went back to work. In addition to revising, I read the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ernest Hemingway. I found them plenty artful and extremely helpful in understanding the structure of action and detective novels. By looking at my thesis as a detective novel, I found a shape for the story. A larger structure emerged from the chaos of the first draft. Things clicked into place.
When I turned in the revision, it passed and I went on to graduate. The novel now gathers dust on the shelves of the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library. This is a good thing. It didn’t deserve to be published. It was an early effort that taught me a lot but didn’t need to see the light of day.
I relate this story to demonstrate Johnson’s effectiveness as a teacher and theorist about writing. In his classes and mentoring, he taught me that writing required not just inspiration but technique and aesthetic design. You had to learn how to tell a story and understand why you were telling it, lessons I’ve taken to heart in my own writing and in the classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop.
Thus, I was delighted to read Johnson’s new book, The Way of the Writer, a compendium of his teaching and literary wisdom from decades at the University of Washington and elsewhere. We feature an excerpt from the book in this, the eleventh issue of The Writer’s Workshop Review, as well as an interview I did with him for At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers. In addition, we’re pleased to publish Susan W. Kemp’s story, “Twelve Writing Secrets from Bestselling Writer Jennifer Steil,” revealing advice for aspiring and published writers; Susan Little’s touching story, “My Mother, the Apple Tree,” about important lessons learned in tending a garden; and Elayne Clift’s “Doula in Somaliland,” which highlights the adventures and unexpected epiphanies of travel; "Listening to the Grapes," a chapter from my forthcoming book on apprenticing in the wine trade.
I'd like to thank the following people for their help with this issue: all the writers who contributed; Managing Editor Kathleen Glassburn for keeping things on track and organized; Irene Wanner and Jane Alynn for careful reading and editing of manuscripts. We’re looking for an additional reader, so if you’re interested, please let us know.
We hope you enjoy the eleventh issue of The Writer's Workshop Review. Please let us know what you think, and if you have a story that might work for us, please send it. We read all year and welcome submissions at any time. We look forward to hearing from you!
The Writer’s Workshop Review
In addition to learning travel writing skills, you’ll dine at outstanding restaurants, visit some of the world’s best wineries, and explore fascinating historic sights during the travel writing classes.
TRAVEL WRITING CLASSES – Travel writing, Food writing and Wine writing are some of the most appealing genres of nonfiction, calling on all of an author’s skills—dramatic scenes, character sketches, concrete detail, point of view, scene by scene construction—to compose compelling, engaging travel narratives. This six-day intensive class will introduce you to essential techniques of travel, food and wine writing and give you expert, insider advice about how to submit and publish finished travel stories.
In addition to learning these skills, you’ll dine at outstanding restaurants, visit some of the world’s best wineries, and explore fascinating historic sights during the travel writing classes. You’ll enjoy exclusive behind-the-scenes tours unavailable to the general public. Best of all, you’ll receive up-to-date story ideas from local industry experts that you can turn into finished travel, food and wine stories by the end of the class and submit to newspapers and magazines for publication. And now, I will personally edit and recommend your stories to a well-known food and beverage magazine for likely publication.
The six-day travel writing class will take place in Haro, a lovely wine town in the Rioja region of northern Spain and a center of the region’s cultural and epicurean life since before Roman times. The cost will be $2600 per person, including accommodations and most meals. (Single supplement, $500 per person) Plane fare, transit to and from Haro and some meals extra For more: http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/travel.htm.
To enroll, please send me a non-refundable deposit of $800 to 201 Newell St., Seattle, WA 98109 or you can pay with a credit card via the Paypal link of my website. Enrollment is limited to 10.
Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D., is the author of The Storms of Denali (University of Alaska Press, 2012), On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (U.W. Press, 2003), At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (U.W. Press, 1998), Contemporary Ecofiction (Charles Scribner’s, 1996) and Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers (Mountaineers, 1993). He contributes to Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, The Wine Spectator, Commonweal, Image, Rock + Ice and many other places. He is the publisher/editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review and the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,( http://www.thewritersworkshop.net)