Flip through a copy of Poets and Writers, a popular magazine for aspiring authors, and you'll see advertisements for summer writers' workshops on nearly every page. "Ten days devoted to the craft of writing and the writer's life, set in a landscape of unsurpassed beauty and uncommon tranquility," an announcement for a workshop in Washington State proclaims. "Art of the Wild," another ad with enticing graphics beckons you. "Writers, editors and agents at 6,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe."
Great, you say. Sounds like paradise. But do I really need a resort setting to get some serious writing done? Probably not.
In fact, last summer  several Dayton, Ohio area residents -- K.L. Storer, Lemoine Rice, and Amy Rang -- passed up exotic locations and found their writing oasis right close to home. All three of them made the short but significant trek to Wright State University's summer writers' workshop, held the second week in July and officially called "The Experience of Writing." And all three have different experiences to share.
K.L. Storer's journey to becoming a writer is a long and arduous one, but it is certainly fascinating. A native of Dayton, raised on the East side by a mother who worked as a salesperson and a father employed as a business administrator, Storer did not seriously pursue his interest in writing until after his thirtieth birthday.
He tells his story this way. He had been working at a corrugated paper company in Miamisburg, one of many jobs he held after graduating from Wilbur Wright High School in 1977. One day, while sweeping debris off a loading dock, he thought to himself, "Why am I doing this? Why am I sweeping garbage when there are other things that I can do well?" When he couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer, he clocked out for lunch and never returned to the job site.
Shortly after that, in the spring of 1988, Storer had what he calls his "spiritual awakening." He looked to "the god of [his] understanding" and asked "What am I good at?" The list that formed in his mind included composing songs, singing, and writing stories. Then he compared his talents to all the things he'd been doing for the last eleven years and discovered that the two lists just didn't match up. It was then that Storer decided to take advantage of his creative gifts, especially his ability to write stories. So he moved back home to live with his parents, stopped working and enrolled as a first-year student in WSU's English program. At the time, Storer believed that he was going to school to learn how to be a student, something he admits he "never learned in high school." But now he recognizes that he also returned to school "to get the discipline to be a writer."
Today, Storer is employed by the Dunbar Library on the campus of WSU. He is in Acquisitions and Current Periodicals, where he supervises student workers. He works eight hours a day, five days a week, and gets two weeks of vacation each year. Last year, Storer used one week of his two weeks vacation time to attend "The Experience of Writing." Though he'd taken creative writing seminars with WSU professor James Thomas, last year's summer workshop was the first class Storer had taken that was structured in the one-week, compact method common to writers' workshops.
For Storer, participating in the workshop was important because he likes being "in commune with like-minded people." Storer puts it this way: "If it's you and twenty-nine other people who like to write, you're going to learn something from each other. You're not going to get the same thing if it's you and twenty-nine electricians." Storer also thinks that the workshop format, where people share their work and listen to others respond, can yield good advice "if you can be patient enough to listen for it." Still, Storer recognizes that people often give "inappropriate" criticism, but he believes that hearing that criticism is useful because it helps him be aware of how his own reactions to other people's writing might be unsuitable.
Nevertheless, at last year's workshop, the most beneficial advice Storer received did not come during any of the planned sessions but during a one-hour lunch he set up with faculty member Irene McKinney. McKinney, the Poet Laureate of West Virginia and author of the collections Quick Fire and Slow Fire and Six O'Clock Mine Report, was able to give Storer the one- on-one attention that wasn't available in the larger group sessions.
Since the meeting with McKinney last year, Storer has continued to work on his poetry. He also finished a story he began at the workshop which was based on a personal ad he clipped from the newspaper. This story will be workshopped in the fiction writing seminar he is taking with Thomas this quarter [Spring 1996] and will be ready to go out to literary journals in the near future.
On advice from Thomas, Storer has "put on the shelf" a novel he had been working on for several years. The novel, about a boy named Lee Cooper who dreams of being a rock star, has a relatively complicated format, moving in and out of Lee's fantasy world. Thomas worried that by working on a long, complex project Storer was slowing himself down creatively. "Like an undertow dragging me down," Storer explains.
So Storer has been working on short stories about the primary character of his novel. And he has been writing what he calls "very, very sudden fiction." He recently finished a story that is only 800 words long but has a rather lengthy title: "Two Seconds in the Lives of Two Young People Who Haven't Met Yet." Storer admits that while a three-page story is terribly short, "two seconds is even shorter, so 800 words should cover it."
Looking back over the past year, Storer seems to have adopted a realistic attitude about his writing. He sees each workshop or seminar and every story as one step on a long continuum to becoming a better writer. In the end, Storer expects that he will be a writer though he qualifies his expectations this way: "I'm not sure if I'll be in the five percent that makes their living writing. I probably shouldn't be planning on a condo yet."
Like Storer, Lemoine Rice doesn't see writing as a way to make money or get famous. In fact, Rice seems content to remain what he has been for the past twenty-eight years: a high school English teacher at Springfield North High School, a position he landed right out of college.
It was through his work as a teacher that Rice first heard about "The Experience of Writing." He received a mailing from the Ohio Arts Council, a co-sponsor of the workshop and the other classes that make up WSU's Institute on Writing, a month-long summer program for school teachers. Like many teachers, Rice laments that his busy schedule doesn't give him the time he needs to write, so he enrolled in "The Experience of Writing" as a way to work on his own writing while getting ideas on how to help his students become better writers.
Last year, his third or fourth time at the workshop (he's been so many times he can't remember the exact number anymore), Rice worked with Scott Russell Sanders, who teaches literature at Indiana University in Bloomington and who has published children's books, fiction, and numerous collections of essays (including Staying Put, Secrets of the Universe, and Writing from the Center).
Rice is eager to praise Sanders, saying that he is "an articulate writer, a sensitive person, and a mentor." He and Sanders also share a common interest in creative non-fiction writing, a category that draws on life experience and the essay form but incorporates fictional devices.
Rice first began exploring this kind of writing as a high student when he latched onto journal writing, a form he still encourages his own students to use. "It is a good method for expressing feelings," Rice says of journal writing, "and it's helpful for solving life's problems."
Reading non-fiction has also been an interest for Rice over the years. He particularly likes travel stories and books about famous and/or interesting people. "I do kind of believe that truth is stranger than fiction," Rice declares, noting with humor that his interest in eccentric people and wacky facts has prompted his students to refer to him as "a compendium of information nobody needs to know."
Rice is also an avid photographer and teaches classes at the Springfield Museum of Art several nights a week. While he does some studio photography, his penchant for the truth over fiction surfaces again when he talks about documentary-style photography. "I would have loved to have been a Time-Life photographer in the 1940's," Rice acknowledges with a hint of nostalgia in his voice.
Amy Rang also has dreams of being someone who records human experience, but she sees herself writing for television and film rather than getting behind the camera. Rang, a graduate student in WSU's English department and a teaching assistant at the university, often gathers her writing material from popular culture. She is an ardent admirer of Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire; she'll buy anything made by Disney; and she faithfully watches an array of science fiction television shows.
On the day I speak with her, all these interests are apparent. She is holed up in the tiny office she shares with three other graduate teaching assistants. She has all the lights off but has lit two candles that fill the room with a waxy, sweet scent. "To help me relax," she explains as I pull a chair up to her desk, noticing that Rang is dressed in a blue Pocahontas t-shirt. And, as I take out a pad of paper on which to take notes, Rang shows me a flyer she's going to hang on her office door. The flyer announces that The X-Files star David Duchovny will be guest starring on the next episode of Space: Above and Beyond. "They're not even advertising it on T.V.," she informs me.
Intrigued by her attachment to pop culture, I ask Rang about a conference she has just attended: The Popular Culture Association's annual get-together in Las Vegas, Nevada. Rang tells me about a paper she read at the conference that focused on the movie The Lion King and Shakespeare's Hamlet. But I want to know whether there were any papers on Anne Rice. "There were whole sections on Anne Rice!" Rang replies excitedly.
When I ask Rang why she enjoys both the futuristic sci-fi genre and the more historically-based vampire stories, she tells me that both texts "reflect on human experience. By tracing back in the vampire stories, you are tracing your own roots." And despite the forward-looking nature of sci-fi books, these stories still have characters which are ordinary people. "It's still a human study," says Rang. She also cites many of the Star Trek television episodes as works that are set in the future but seem to mirror past and present human concerns. But Rang also notes that in television shows there is a greater push to address moral issues. "In texts," she explains, "you can be more discreet about it."
Teleplays, scripts for television shows, are something Rang knows well. In the past, she has written to producers to obtain scripts of episodes she enjoyed. At one point, she obtained several scripts from Highlander: The Series. Then, by studying the format of the scripts, she fashioned her own episode of the show. "That was one of the best lessons," she says, pointing out that imitation of another's work is one of the ways she improves her own writing.
Another way Rang has worked on her writing is to attend "The Experience of Writing" at WSU. "It was wonderful to get feedback from all sorts of people, people who are accomplished writers but also those who are just beginning to write," she says of her first experience with a summer writers' workshop. "The different voices represented at the workshop help you see what you wrote in a new and different light."
Getting to know other working writers and hearing how ordinary but creative people like themselves are struggling to produce finished work out of imagination is what attracted Rang, Rice and Storer to "The Experience of Writing." And it is also what makes them return.
"It is a place I can orbit," Rice says, indicating that he is
already looking forward to the evening readings scheduled for this year.
"It's given me a base to work from and a support group. That's a good
feeling to have."
© 1996 Molly Youngkin, all rights reserved
appears here by permission