Just so you know: Naomi Jackson is totally worth 40 Hrs on a Megabus

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Royalty with her constituents.

I recently completed my four in-house Master Fiction classes with Naomi Jackson at Catapult in NYC (with two more to go remotely). This required that I board a Megabus in my small central Pennsylvania town on Thursday morning, careen across the pasture lands for 5 hours, plus at least an hour of stop-and-go New Jersey traffic and Lincoln Tunnel nausea, rush down Fashion Ave. to our class at 7pm, eat dinner with friends, sleep, and then board another Megabus Friday morning for the reverse journey back home.

All in all, I spent 40 hours (at least) in travel time for only 8 hours of actual class.

And you know what? It was totally worth it.

Why? Because of Naomi. Because of my classmates. Because of Catapult.

As a writer whose professional training is in another field (in my case, development psychology), I find that professional writers whose training encompasses years of building their craft in intensive programs (Naomi went to Iowa) simply view words, language, and narrative differently. Taking a class with Naomi allowed me to benefit from her capacity to take a piece and distill it down to its essential components. I work-shopped two short stories that I knew were strong, but just not fully realized yet. Naomi’s feedback revealed to me what was missing–elements that I would not have discovered on my own.

The best way I can describe this process is that Naomi’s perspective is like an x-ray of an entire work–she sees not just the flesh, but the bones of a story or novel, and that also means she can see what doesn’t belong, what has ruptured in the narrative, which characters or themes are too porous or weak. It’s a skill built from years of training and careful observation of the written word, and there is absolutely no shortcut to this endpoint. She has earned this skill, and her students can only benefit from it. I certainly did.

Notes and notes and notes…
Another important tool was the way Naomi constructed the feedback portions of the course. We each read the submitted pieces, brought detailed notes and a written letter for our fellow classmate, and then discussed the piece in our group class, but the discussions followed their own important narrative arc.

Naomi insisted we begin with Aboutness–What did we feel the piece was about? This allowed the author to see whether the themes they  thought they’d captured were actually realized in the reader’s experience with the work.
Secondly, we provided Warm feedback. What is working in the piece? What are its strengths.

Only then did we head into Cool feedback, describing to the author what we felt could be improved upon.

I know many writers, myself included, have felt gutted by workshops, where classmates take critique opportunities as a venue to attack another writer in order to make themselves appear more intelligent or talented to the instructor. Naomi does not allow this to happen, partly through the structure she institutes and partly through the atmosphere of respect and constructive discourse she embodies in her own feedback.

 

In other words, taking a workshop with Naomi will make you a better writer, but it also won’t make you cry, question your existence, or imagine writing angry e-mails to each of your fellow students.

Which brings me to my fellow classmates, who are all incredibly talented, generous, and people I now call my friends. A group is only as strong as its components, and alongside Naomi’s skillful leadership I am certain the time and attention each of my classmates gave to my work has helped me grow further as a writer. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading their work, and cannot wait to hold published books and stories in my hand, as I am sure I will have a chance to do for each of them in the near future.

I cannot recommend Naomi’s class enough–and I hope you get the chance I did to work with her. You’ll be a better writer for it, and isn’t that what we all want to become?

Summertime Schooling for the Writer in All of Us

Summer Writing

As a writer and an academic, the summer months present an ideal opportunity to take a break from the classroom and to focus on my craft and ongoing writing projects.  For many other writers, I know the summer months offer a chance to think more deeply about plot, character arcs, and the next story or chapter without the challenges faced during the more taxing seasons of Fall, Winter, and Spring.  Plus the sunshine and warm breezes don’t hurt either!

If you’re looking for a chance to network and extend your writing abilities through educational and workshop environments, summertime is a fantastic season full of options. Below I’ve highlighted a few that offer great training, writer-ly camaraderie, and inviting locales.

  • Skidmore Writers Institute (Saratoga Springs, NY; July 4-July 29). Offers 2-week and 4-week courses for writers of different levels, ranging from intermediate, advance, and master classes.  The faculty they bring in for the workshops is stunning (awards and accolades galore!) and your workshop will meet 3 times a week for 3 hours, with readings and other writing and networking opportunities scattered throughout the remainder of the schedule. You have the option of applying early (by February) for scholarship funding, but applications for enrollment without financial aid are rolling and you can still apply for a potentially open slot in one of the workshops.

Genres: Poetry, Fiction (Novel and Short Story), Non-Fiction

Application Fee: $60

Submission: Online; Brief Letter and 5-20 pages (Students in Fiction or Non-Fiction) or 2-3    Poems (Students in Poetry)

  • Iowa Writer’s Workshop Summer Program (Iowa City, IA; May 16 – June 2 or June 13 – August 4). Offers 4-week and 8-week courses in poetry and fiction.  Workshops meet once a week (8-week) for 2 hours or twice a week (4-week) for 3 hours. The MFA program at Iowa is world-renowned and their summer program, although not taught by their resident faculty, is often taught by graduates of their MFA program. Applications are due March 1.

Genres: Poetry, Fiction (Novel and Short Story)

Application Fee: None

Submission: Mail-In; Cover Sheet and 10-12 poems (Poetry), 2 or 3 Short Stories or Chapters of a Novel (Fiction)

  • Community of Writers at Squaw Valley (Squaw Valley, CA; July 25 – August 1). Offers a 1-week long intensive workshop for Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction/Memoir. The week is full of daily workshops, afternoon craft talks, and one-on-one meetings with their writing teaching staff. Applications are due April 12.Genres: Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction/Memoir (they offer a separate workshop for poetry on different dates)Application Fee: $40Submission: Online; Sample of your unpublished work (under 5,000 words)
  • Tin House (Reed College, OR; July 10-17). Offers a 1-week long intensive workshop for Short-Story Fiction, Novel-Writing, Creative Non-Fiction/Memoir, and Poetry. Workshops meet in the mornings for 6 days, and afternoons are filled with craft seminars and career panels. Deadline for scholarship applications is March 23; other applications are accepted on a rolling basis (they typically start to fill up by May).

Genres: Short-Story Fiction, Novel-Writing, Creative Non-Fiction/Memoir, and Poetry

Application Fee: $40

Submission: Online; Sample of your work (varies by genre)

 Looking for something more ongoing  or not limited to the summer? 

  • The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) offers a host of workshops throughout the year, along with author readings and a variety of other events and opportunities for writers of all skill levels.  One of my favorite authors, A.X. Ahmad, regularly teaches the Master Novel course.  Needless to say, they have an impressive roster of faculty!