Regarding the Writing Wrong Workshop
From January 9th - 16th, the application process will open for an upcoming workshop with Chuck Palahniuk in Portland, OR beginning on February 27th, 2017. For full details, head over to Attic Institute of Arts & Letters. For an idea of what the workshop will entail, read this exclusive essay by Chuck Palahniuk below.
“Someday you will kill me,” was the first thing Tom Spanbauer said to me. If memory serves I wasn’t even inside the door. Tom meant “kill” in the Buddhist tradition of the child succeeding the parent and the student surpassing the teacher. Not that I understood. Here I was, still on the sidewalk, and this stranger was making this grim prediction and demanding $20.
Another statement Tom made in that first hour of our acquaintance was, “In the Taoist world of 10,000 things what will you bring that’s any different?” He charged $20 cash for an hour of writing advice. Later he charged $20 for each session of his writing workshop, payable in ten-week increments of $200, whether or not you showed up each week or submitted work for discussion.
At the time, 1990, twenty bucks seemed like a lot of money. Automatic teller machines still had some novelty because we could remember the old Friday rush to a bank to get weekend money. Twenty dollars was usually my budget for everything between Friday night and Monday morning. Besides, there was the tiny arrogant part of me that felt my work provided readers with so much pleasure that I shouldn’t have to pay workshop fees. It didn’t.
As Tom explained it, the difference between New York City and everywhere else is that in New York, people who wanted to better their skills sought out the best-possible teacher and paid whatever the cost to learn. Nowhere else were aspiring people so driven to make similar sacrifices. That $20 was skin in the game and motivated students to write, to attend, to submit work for critique. Tom’s Thursday night workshops began at six and often ran until midnight. Every week Tom would ask each of us, in the third person, “How’s Chuck doing?” Then, “How’s life for Monica?” Going around the table until everyone was comfortable. Then he’d give a short lecture on some aspect of writing fiction. Thirty minutes into the session he’d ask who’d brought pages. The first author would distribute copies of his or her work, and everyone would follow along and make notes as the author read aloud.
Another Tom-ism was “Ninety-nine percent of what a good workshop does is give people permission to write.” He was always generous with his praise, even when an occasional student – antsy to sell work, filled with ambition – didn’t succeed fast enough and left the workshop claiming that Tom was a huckster and a con man.
Which brings us to what’s possibly the best thing Tom ever said:
“If you’re writing in order to do anything other than write you should not be writing.” If you were writing in order to earn enough money to buy a boat, for instance, or be loved by millions or impress your father, you should not be writing. For Tom writing had to be its own reward. While students churned out their 800-page novels, he’d linger over a single sentence in their work, explaining why it did or didn’t seduce him. If you could achieve one perfect sentence, you could move forward. If you could write a good story you could tackle writing a novel.
There was something very church-like in his focus. We’d reverse engineer stories by Amy Hempel and Mark Richard, and Tom could explain how those writers magically prompted us to emotional reactions.
For almost thirty years Tom Spanbauer has led his writers workshop. This past spring, he stopped. It’s impossible to imagine a world without his weekly meetings and endless quest for the perfect sentence. For that reason I’ll be leading a workshop beginning February 27th and meeting Monday evenings from six until whenever. The space can accommodate sixteen people, and the fee will be as close to Tom’s $20 as possible. A total of $250 dollars for ten sessions.
Tom has taught hundreds of people how to take risks and experiment and, ultimately, to write. Now let’s see if he’s taught me how to teach.
Note, this will not be ten consecutive weeks. I have travel obligations for at least one of the Mondays, so the sessions will likely stretch out over eleven or twelve weeks. Writers who would like to participate must submit a short sample of their work. This will be a workshop for writers with potential and imagination – not necessarily money. If interested, please go to atticinstitute.com for more details.
If not you’ve already learned three of the most important lessons Tom or I could impart:
In the world of ten thousand things, what will you bring that is different?
To learn your craft seek out the best teacher and become an apprentice.
If you’re writing in order to achieve anything else you should not be writing.