I’ll say it: I’m exhausted. I spent 22 days in Gambier, Ohio, first as faculty for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and then for the KR Young Writers Workshop, in which I wrote every day. I’m looking at drafts of 12 poems, which is more than I’ve written in some years. I’m exhausted, but I’m also exhilarated. I slept for two days, and I’m ready now to go back (which is good because I leave Sunday for Young Writers Session Two).
Before I pack my bag, I wanted to reflect upon and articulate a few thoughts about what made these three weeks such a positive experience.
The Kenyon community is a part of this, always so welcoming; one quickly becomes a familiar, even if you’ve never been here, and if you’re returning, the names come back, the distant waves across the quad, and the generally positive improvisations of small town life, which ease the days, especially if the power goes out.
But the design of the workshop, its architecture and its pace and length—it pushed me and the participants in my workshop into new places, by challenging us, and then challenging us more, pushing us to a place where exhaustion and exhilaration rewrite all the menus.
The way the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop operates is quite simple: each participant receives an assignment just before lunch and then has 20 hours to complete the assignment. The workshop sessions combine presentation of new work and lecture-y conversations that help the participants imagine new ways forward from the morning’s draft. The workshop is, explicitly, a generative space, rather than a space for critique.
The Kenyon Review staff sometimes describes the workshop as a “process based” workshop, and I know what this means, but the experience of the workshop gave me a slightly different feel for this. I decided, before I arrived in Gambier, to answer each of the assignments I gave, so I was riding the same 20-hour cycle as everyone else (though I also had to complete some consultations and do a load of photocopying). To put this another way, the daily appointment to create and to share left little time for hesitation or doubt, and the accumulation of work meant that certain gestures got exhausted quickly, so we were, all of us, writing in a new space by week’s end. The feeling of watching a poem come out of yourself, from a place you wouldn’t have inventoried—this was surprising and wonderful. It reminded me of being, in high school, a long distance swimmer, coming into the last eight laps of a 1500-meter race and finding the strength to kick into a finishing sprint. There is something athletic about this, but the sport is creativity.
For me, the workshop came at just the right time. I completed a manuscript in March and, since then, have been “resting” and thinking about what might come next. The KR Writers Workshop brought me out of that pause and kicked me down the road a fair piece.
The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop had a different feel to it: each day had more structure to it, with two 90-minute workshops sandwiched between breakfast and lunch, and a two-hour session in the afternoon and evening presentations after dinner. But in each of the workshops, the instructors write too. Here the workshops offer prompts, but not assignments per se, so you’re drifting toward something, but you also have a lot less time to bring something into a complete shape, so you end up using your most reliable moves over and over, which of course you see, so for the instructor, the Young Writers Workshop provides a great opportunity to reflect on the efficacy and the range of one’s writerly reflexes, even while it begins to call on new muscle.
One of the last assignments in the Young Writers curriculum this year asks students to catalogue their “moves,” the maneuvers they complete repeatedly, and then to revise a piece from early in the session in two different ways, first as the “uber-you,” exaggerating these moves, and second as the “anti-you,” trying to use opposite approaches. This assignment produced some humor (Jack!), but the insight was amazing: I saw some of my own tendencies highlighted in the inversion, so I began to dream of new poems in which I might use techniques I haven’t used yet.
At the beginning of the first session of the Young Writers Workshop, David Lynn told the students that they were going to write a lot (indeed), that they were going to be tired by the end of the two weeks (I can confirm this, too), and that they would remember these weeks for the rest of their lives. He meant that for the students, but this rang true for me. I was writing, too, and I surprised myself, both with what I generated and what I failed to generate and, just as importantly, by the stream of amazing writing my students generated. I learned a lot about my writing and about my brain. And now I have a third, maybe, of my next book of poems and a clearer understanding of some of my own fascinations that will serve me for years to come.
David Lynn, you were right. I feel a little newer today.
On a moderately related note, here’s a recent talk, from Behance’s 99% Conference, on creative insight and exhaustion: