Literary Nonfiction Writers Workshop: Letting Something Small Expand

Julia Grawemeyer
July 6, 2015
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“Oh boy.” I’d forgotten to prepare for the first day of Literary Nonfiction class at the Kenyon Review’s intensive Writers Workshop. Roger Rosenblatt had assigned 250 words on any item in his list: an object, an event, an animal, a piece of furniture. I had only an hour, so I typed out a few thoughtful ideas, but nothing I was thrilled about sharing with everyone the next day. In the workshop, I discovered that this simple exercise on the topic of a beat-up table I bought at an antique store revealed a great deal about my family’s dynamics. “I can just see your sister smoking outside the car!” They laughed and asked about my mother. They saw openings everywhere to make it larger.

Instead of trying to fit a big moment or event into a small space, Roger Rosenblatt urged us to take the space of 250 words and let something small—a detail, a choice, a place—expand. You learn to write carefully when you only have that many words. We got a sense of what hovers around our pieces if we let the basic facts breathe without explaining them to the reader.

What bloomed around our table from our workshop members was stunning—from a forced family portrait by a father’s new girlfriend, to a Catholic family’s nighttime praying routine, to a mother’s daughter’s coming out, to the history of the Lexington racing horse. We each brought threads of our larger stories every day to class, and our interest in each other and our own writing grew.

With a supportive space to write about what matters to us and Roger Rosenblatt’s guidance on how to make our writing clip along, it was only a matter of time before we became invested in each other’s larger story lines.

“I came here expecting to make my writing better,” workshop member Ann McCrory said. “I did not expect to make friends.”

Well, it happened, and the emails have been flying since we’ve returned to our separate corners of the United States.

We created a Google Drive folder where we upload new pieces in the same 250-word format we used in Rosenblatt’s workshop. We comment on each other’s work using the same language and approaches we used at Kenyon. More than a workshop, our group became a web of readers who push each other and think and lean in for more.

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