VWS to Cheryl Strayed’s Kitchen

How The Village Writing School Put Me in the Kitchen with Cheryl Strayed


Tell Your Story!

I recently attended the American Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held, this year, in Chicago. Almost 10,000 people attended. The majority of these dream of writing an important book that makes money, wins an significant award, or makes a bestseller list. The lines for a coffee stretched out the door. The lines for writing fame seemed even longer.

 Writers feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the odds against winning a laurel wreath of recognition, when so many are in the race. Overwhelmed by competition for readers, when there is so little reading time. Rather than a celebration of the joy of writing, the conference reminded us of these grim realities. Workshop panels and side conversations frequently turned to the difficulty of getting an agent or publishing horror stories. (I have one that I’ll share here some day.)

But this totally misses the point. Just as no two zebras are alike, no two writers are alike. Each individual is a combination of his traits and traumas, history and hopes, fears and fantasies, pain and passion. Every person’s voice is his own. Through writing, as through any creative activity, we celebrate our uniqueness. And through our uniqueness, the universal.

Raymond Carver says that if a depressed person on a subway reads about another depressed person riding a subway, he becomes a little less depressed, for he sees that he is not alone, not isolated, not singled out for misery. Through writing, we examine our pain, but we also see it as a part of the universal pain. We unearth our hope, a fragment of mankind’s hope. And hope is the fuel for, not only continuing this life’s journey, but actually enjoying it.

To write for fame is frustrating, for the odds are against it. But to write as a celebration of our own rare and eccentric personhood, our own frailty and beauty, is to light our individual candle and hold it up. No, the odds are that it won’t illuminate the world as a New York Times bestseller, but it might give a little more light to our own faltering feet and, perhaps, even our neighbor’s.

So if you want to write, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and just do it. Don’t edit, censor, or try to critique yourself. Jump into the river of creativity and splash around playfully. It’s true that there are a lot of us in here. But the river is wide.

Don’t you want to tell your story? For information on how the Community Writers’ Program at the Writers’ Colony will support new and established writers in this area, contact” style=”color: rgb(0, 66, 118); text-decoration: none; “>

In the next column: How the critical voice stifles the creative voice.

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Alison Taylor-Brown directs the Community Writing Program at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, which provides creative residencies for writers of all genres, composers, and artists. More than 850 writers from 44 countries have created at the Colony since its founding in 1999. Her column, Notes From The Colony, appears every other Friday.” style=”color: rgb(0, 66, 118); text-decoration: none; “>


Do You Need Professional Help?

Can an art form be learned? How much of artistry is innate talent, and how much is a mastery of craft techniques?

Raw talent exists. I have been given stories by seemingly ordinary, untrained people, who possessed a naturally lovely style, or an interesting voice, or a sixth sense about story structure. They had the eyes and ears of a writer, able to reflect upon, to portray and to penetrate the soul.

But even these people committed the mistakes common to novice writers. Their talent was raw, unpolished, and poorly controlled.

What can be learned?

First, you can learn not to make beginner’s mistakes. Such as:

* Not knowing where the story starts. Novices feel that they must have introductory material. They tell us history, geography, psychology, or other material they think is necessary for our understanding. So the first thing I usually do as a writing coach is to decapitate the baby. Cut that introductory stuff and find the true beginning, which will be a real scene, with characters and dialogue and conflict.

* Fear of scenes. Beginners lean far too heavily on narrative exposition. Hence the adage: Show, don’t tell. Never write more than ½ page of explanation or description before the characters say or do something. The story is about PEOPLE. We want to see them and hear them, not hear you talk about them.

* Lectures in dialogue. While attempting not to give lectures in narrative, beginners load their dialogue with information. So each character gives little mini lessons on history, plot developments, etc. They all talk like professors.

I just finished reading a wonderful self-published memoir that did just this. It was the only flaw in the book, and something a writing coach could have corrected easily, giving the book a much better chance in a wider market. Instead, the reader got history lessons, botany lessons, geography lessons, and discussions of politics. And all the characters sounded alike.

* No narrative arc. A story has a beginning, a middle, an end. While real life is just a series of scenes, a story must build to a climax. Even a memoir must examine life in such a way that the character develops.

* The rules of the Business. Another thing that the new writer can learn, whether from recent books on writing craft or in a workshop setting, is what is marketable. All my life, I loved literature. I was totally into the 18th and 19th centuries. Imagine my shock to discover that this passion was actually a serious handicap to my own writing.

My graduate instructors tried to retrain me, but I was incalcitrant. The rhythms I heard in my head were sentences of forty words. I ignored the rule about long descriptions. At last, my advisor said in exasperation, “War and Peace wouldn’t be published today!”

I was stunned. And at that moment, I realized the harsh truth. If you want to be read by anyone but your mother, you have to abide by the rules. Yes, the rules may be fads. You may not agree with them. But there are conventions that must be followed if you ever want agents or publishers to consider your work.

These conventions vary by genre. There are rules for fiction, and then additional rules for thrillers or other genres. But these rules are easily learnable.

Here’s where to get help

The goal of the Community Writing Program at the Writers’ Colony is to “help local writers writemypaper take the next step.” Maybe, for you, that next step is the first step. Or maybe you’re already writing but need to learn to avoid beginner’s mistakes. Perhaps you need to review the current rules of the market.

On Saturday, July 21 at 10 a.m. at the Writers’ Colony, we will be hosting a reception for all local residents and visitors who have an interest in writing. This will be an informal discussion of our vision for the Community Writing Program and an opportunity for you to discuss your writing dream. The event is free. Come and hear what you can learn.

For information about the July 21 event, contact me at or 479 292-3665. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

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Alison Taylor-Brown directs the Community Writing Program at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, which provides creative residencies for writers of all genres, composers, and artists. More than 850 writers from 44 countries have created at the Colony since its founding in 1999. Her column, Notes From The Colony, will appear on the first and third Tuesdays each month, beginning in June.