Writers’ workshops, and why they work

Talking to James Rahn makes me happy, even though it happens far too infrequently these days. Rahn leads Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, quite possibly the country’s longest-running independent writing workshop.  For years, once a week in eight-week segments,  RWG was the high point of my life. I tiptoed into it in the early 1990s, dreadful fiction in hand, with an idea that RWG would help me make it less dreadful. And bless my fellow workshop participants — along with Rahn’s constant exhortations to “push it, push it,” to home in on the uncomfortable, queasy-making stuff — that’s just what happened.

Rittenhouse Writers’ Group


When I left Philly and headed West, RWG ranked right up there with my family in terms of the things I missed most. (OK, and those Tony Luke’s roast pork sandwiches.) Fortunately, Missoula offers The 406 Writers’ Workshop, with sessions in novel writing, poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, and screenwriting offered by the city’s wealth of writers — and populated, just like RWG, with folks who are determined enough to reject descriptions of their writing as a “hobby.”

406writersIn chatting with James this week, I got to hear about the road to publication for his book, Bloodnight, a brutal and gorgeous collection released this year about growing up more or less wild in Atlantic City. Also this year, David Allan Cates – who leads the 406 novel-writing workshops, and who gently steered my own novel away from many a literary cliff – published Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, which is indeed strange and also gorgeous.

Talking to David makes me happy, too, as does talking with the other 406 workshop leaders, not to mention my fellow participants – we got so much from the workshops that we met on our beyond them. It’s energizing to hear about other people’s work, to find the common problems and work through them, and especially to celebrate the successes.

Writing is tough stuff, and other people tend to dismiss it if you’re not cranking out bestsellers and working movie deals. Workshops shut that nonsense out, and force you to take your own, and one another’s, work as the serious business it is. How can it help but get better?

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