Workshop Bliss

The Workshop

While I contemplate the pros and cons of getting an MFA, I want to learn as much as possible from the writers I admire most. John Dufresne is one of them. I first met John at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (SIWC) in 2012. At that point, I hadn’t read any of his work. I showed up for his 7:30 a.m. writing practices each morning and just loved his style. Naturally, I immediately downloaded/ordered all of his work. If you haven’t read his stories, you’re in for a real treat. Same with his novels. Go to the library, Powell’s, or Amazon and order some of his books right now. You’ll thank me later.

One of his books is The Lie That Tells a Truth, which is a how-to for fiction writers. And it’s one of the best. For me, it ranks up there with The Art of Fiction (John Gardner). I devoured it when I returned from Sanibel, and decided that I would find out if he was planning to do any other conferences or workshops. I got on his mailing list and found out about his conference in Sante Fe, which I couldn’t attend, and the one in Seaside, Florida, at the Seaside Institute’s Academic Village (SIAV). Because I’m a Floridian, this was a much more feasible option.

For my first workshop this past February, I was an observer; I did not bring a story. Before you ask why, I’ll just tell you: because I was chicken shit. There are a lot of reasons, and I’ll probably write about them in the future. Not now. The important thing is that I just overcame that fear and decided to submit a story this time. John and Kim made that easy, because they really want all participants to have a rewarding experience.

I learned so much from both of them and from my peers. John’s one of those guys who is not pretentious or pedantic. While he’ll educate you on the repeat offenses (um…em vs. en dash, anyone?), he doesn’t get lost in the minutiae. He facilitates an organic discussion of the story at hand. (Ew…who’s been writing too much corporate nonsense lately? Don’t do what I just did. Save yourself. Write more fiction.) The point is that John believes every person can write, and every writer can learn how to do it better. He believes in his students. If you are fortunate enough to have him as a teacher—either in the MFA program at FIU, or through the workshops he conducts outside of school—you will definitely learn skills that will help your fiction. And it’s just fun to be around someone who is such a good storyteller. And funny. I am going to take my time revising, but I think my story will become better, thanks to the input I received in workshop and during our one-on-one discussion.

The Accommodations

The Village is a great place to take a class or participate in a workshop. They have four basic room configurations in seven cottages (enough for 12-18 people). Six of them have front porches and two are complete tiny houses with kitchens. These cottages were specifically designed to be sufficient, comfortable accommodations without also being distracting. The walls are white, with no artwork or beach themed knickknacks, and there is no TV or radio. They do, however, provide wi-fi, which I found a little slower than what I have at home, but better than what I am used to at most hotels. Here is the bedroom (full bed) I had in February:

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I didn’t take a picture of the bedroom last week, but you get the idea. Here’s the desk, which was the same both visits:

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While I sat at that desk, scribbling away, this was my view, which became the wallpaper for my iPad (it reminds me of what I should be doing, but in a friendly way):

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There are more pics at the Institute’s site, if you’re interested. The classroom is in a building right behind the cottages, so there’s no commute to the workshop. There’s also a great communal area with plenty of tables, chairs, and umbrellas.

Also, it’s in Seaside. You don’t have to get in a car the entire time you’re there if you don’t want to. Everything you need is within walking distance. Including the coffee shop, Amavida, which has seating inside and out:

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As you can see from the menu board, they have some great food options. I didn’t sample anything myself, so I can’t offer a review of the food. But my latte was hot and coffee was not bitter.

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Of course, sometimes I just didn’t want to have to go anywhere first thing in the morning, before workshop. That’s where the Aero Press and pre-ground coffee came in. They don’t provide a pot at the SIAV, so I had to bring my own works:

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While swilling that morning coffee, I took walks. Nice, tranquil sunrise walks. I know some folks plunk themselves right in their desk chair first thing, but I prefer to walk while the world wakes up. And not on the beach; everyone’s at the beach for sunrise and sunset. I do love the Gulf, but I prefer the solitude of walking through the neighborhood.

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The Next Step

Revision. Isn’t it always revision? I’ll be working on that story we workshopped for a bit before starting the next project. Perhaps I’ll use it as a jumping off point for the NaNoWriMo? The idea of writing a novel is so absolutely absurd for someone like me, in the nascent stages of this fiction thing, that I might just do it.

What About You?

What was the last workshop you attended? Was it what you expected? Can you recommend it? Please share in the comments below. And, if literary fiction is your thing, you might want to consider joining us for the next workshop at Seaside, tentatively planned for February 2015. I’ll definitely be there, eager to improve the next story, hang out with some great writers and teachers, and enjoy a few days at the Gulf. I’ll update this site with information as the details are finalized.

 

 

 

My Coffee Shop Soundtrack

Do you prefer noisy, cacophonous places, or do you prefer the whispery quiet we remember from libraries of our youth (libraries are much louder places now than they used to be)? Do you take comfort in the sounds of the kitchen – the clinking water glasses, the scrape of porcelain cup on saucer? That rushing gurgle of the espresso machine or the frothing of milk? Do you prefer white noise in general when you concentrate on something? Or do you find the dialogue of other patrons too distracting?

Eavesdropping is one of the great advantages to coffee shop writing. Transcribing other people’s conversations is a great way to practice dialogue. But that’s something I only do occasionally. Most of the time, I need to block out the conversations going on around me to stay on task. This is especially true if there’s an annoying conversation nearby, in which every other word is “like” used for emphasis or as punctuation. Also, if I’m at the shop in the afternoon, when it’s full of college students having the kinds of conversations and arguments I had a long time ago (e.g., the shameful tendency for people who are not musicians to refer to Led Zeppelin as a heavy metal band, etc.). I don’t find these conversations annoying at all – they’re often quite interesting. If I have oodles of time, I’ll listen in. But I don’t usually have much time. And I’m there to write.

What about the music? While some places offer a variety of sounds, I often find that I either don’t like the music they play, or I do like it and, therefore, find it distracting. I’ll drift away from whatever piece I’m working on and start paying attention to the music instead. This is especially true for music with singing – the lyrics pull me out of my story and into someone else’s.

Even if I’m not distracted by lyrics or conversations, the general sounds of the shop or instrumental music might still affect my mood. In such cases, I tailor my soundtrack to the story I’m writing. If I’m writing a scene happening in a quiet room, I don’t want booming thunder for a soundtrack. If I’m writing a scene with two characters having a heated conversation in a car at night, that thunder might be perfectly appropriate (not to mention trite). I control the mood of ambience by listening to one of those white noise apps. I’m cheap, so I use the free one. For years, I used Sleep Machine. Here are some of my favorite general combinations:

“Jury Duty”: morning birds, fish tank, spaceship
“Dusk”: frogs, stream, crickets
“Sunny Day”: beach (small waves), wind chimes, white noise 4
“@Office”: clock (really faint), low fan, white noise 4
“Summer Afternoon”: rain (heavy), distant train, rain & thunder

Because you can listen to three different tracks at the same time, there are lots of possibilities. If you’re writing a scene in a doctor’s office, you can use the fish tank sound with the waiting room sound or fan. You get it.

Unfortunately, I now need a new app. I just got a new phone and Sleep Machine isn’t available on this iOS. I will probably just download the top three cheapest apps and decide which to keep based on the UI. Unless someone has a favorite they would like to share.

Do you employ such measures, or do you find it easier to write with the ambience of the shop? Do you find this different from the noise your brain has to contend with at home? If you do use an app, which one? What’s your favorite individual sound or combination of sounds? Do you stay with a standard, or do you use sounds tailored to the scenes you’re writing? Please share and thanks for reading.

Why start a blog called “Coffee Shop Writer”?

I am grateful that I work at home. But I spend an inordinate amount of time there. If I don’t get out into the world for a few hours a week, I’ll lose my…you know (I’m trying to stop cursing so much). I also won’t get much writing done. I have a family, so when I’m not working, there are just too many other things I can do at the house – out of guilt, boredom, or laziness – instead of writing. The only time I can really, productively write at home is at night, when the house is quiet; but that’s also my only opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation.

I know writers who can sit down for 10-15 minutes at a time and knock out a few pages. I’m just not that good. I do write every day, no matter what, but I am most productive when I have big blocks of time. I just need some time alone to really concentrate, unencumbered by obligations. It’s nice to have a place that, in the context of my little universe, is mine separate from my family, colleagues, and friends. A place where I can ignore my phone and e-mail, and revel in my favorite thing. So I go to a local coffee shop once or twice a week. It’s my salvation.

Usually, I go to the shop every Saturday or Sunday between 8-9 a.m. and stay until noon or 1 p.m. I can usually manage one other day during the week, depending on my workload. I like to get there before the crowds start streaming in – primarily to secure my favorite table, and to have a couple of minutes to visit with the staff while I unpack and decide what to order. Once I sit down, I know I have a few precious hours to get something done. So I just get started. It’s very Pavlovian – my brain just knows it’s time to work. Sitting down at my desk at home just doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps that’s because I don’t have a dedicated office space at home. I have an office area in my bedroom, but I I use it to do all my professional and personal computer work. The only thing I do at that table in the coffee shop is write.

Regarding the blog title, I prefer the word “shops” to “cafés” because I do not live in Europe and I don’t want to sound like a pretentious ass. In my city, we have coffee shops. Some of them serve food, some don’t, and some, strictly speaking, are really tea shops. But none of them are cafés.

Do you do most of your writing at home, or do you prefer to get out? Do you go to coffee shops? Or do you frequent your local library, a park, or some other place? If you feel like sharing, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.

Welcome

Hi. Welcome to Coffee Shop Writer. If you’re like me, you may work at home and spend a lot of time alone, in your own head. Perhaps you’re a professional writer, working independently as a freelancer, or maybe you’re someone who writes in snatches of time, around your commitments to other work and responsibilities. Whatever your situation, the important thing is that you’re a writer. That means we have at least one thing in common.

Coffee Shop Writer is for all of us who would like to be members of a wider community without all the complications and obligations often associated with personal acquaintance. Let’s discuss whatever comes to mind. Also, let’s share information about our favorite shops in our respective cities. We might also discuss crafty things like structure and plot, share character ideas, and even explain how we find the time to write at all. There will be room for reviews ranging from the technical to our experiences at conferences and retreats. Eventually, I’d like to create an online journal for literary short story writers.

I hope you find something here that will inform, comfort, entertain, or engage you. Please keep in touch.

Regards,

Stephanie