I’ve attended a number of summer writing retreats over the years, both as participant and instructor, but the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop has a feel and rhythm all its own. One reason might be the extraordinary literary history hovering in nearly every corner of the idyllic campus, right down to the life-size sculpted crows adorning the roof of (John Crowe) Ransom Hall. But the real reason, I suspect, is the adrenaline and excitement that flows from the “write something new every day” rule.
It works like this: each workshop group of roughly ten writers arrives with blank pages and ready pens, and from the first moment of the first morning the focus is on generating fresh material. In my class, we start with two prompts per day, resulting in two rough draft “seedlings,” and the students take those seedlings back to their rooms in the afternoon to water and care for them. The following day, one of those seedlings (having grown larger overnight, by either magic or careful revision), is presented in class, discussed, and sent back home. New prompts are given; new seedlings pop up from the soil. By the end of the week, each writer has around ten seedlings started, a few of them already bearing fruit.
Each workshop instructor handles the ebb and flow a bit differently, but the idea is the same in each classroom. Participants are challenged to create something new each day, and the instructors are challenged to keep the prompts coming. On Tuesday, when the student readings begin, we start to hear the results of the Sunday and Monday workshop prompts, and the surprises and breakthroughs are marvelous. The next night, more readings, more new work, more admiration.
The excitement that comes with this creative cacophony is palpable, and the support and generosity that workshop students afford one another—we are all in the same boat after all—creates a lovely tenor for the week. And the food is good. And on the last evening, kittens on the lawn, palm readings, wine, Indian food, fond hugs, and wide smiles. Everyone goes home with a stack of rough drafts and a year’s worth of inspiration to wrestle those drafts into publishable form.
Did I mention that the students are brilliant? Even the beginners seem to rise with the tide and achieve miracles on the page. What more could one ask of a summertime workshop?