FOUR DAYS WITH MARGARET ATWOOD
I just returned from a workshop in Key West led by Margaret Atwood, the focus of which was story openings. The intimate size (12 participants) combined with the setting (the back patio of Ms. Atwood’s vacation house) created a cozy atmosphere and helped ease our first-day jitters about being read and critiqued by a rock star of the literary world.
The workshop was part of the Key West Literary Society’s “In Other Worlds” 2012 seminar. The criteria for admission were two-fold: 1) our stories must set on Earth in the near future, and 2) Ms. Atwood must accept us based on a writing sample.
My novel-in-progress (“Underneath Us”) opens in the ruins of Las Vegas in 2069, so I was excited to learn of this opportunity, and—subsequently—of my acceptance into the workshop.
The first morning we gathered quietly around the poolside table, awaiting the start of the workshop and making chit-chat, unsure what to expect. When Ms. Atwood joined us, she offered a brief “good morning,” then laid five white cards on the table with “STOP TALKING” printed on them. These were for us to use, she explained, if we felt anyone was becoming long-winded. We chuckled and, after brief introductions, embarked on the business of workshopping.
As it turned out, we had a great group and no one tried to dominate the discussions, so the white cards disappeared after that first morning. The workshop was comprised of readings, group commentary, line-editing, and examining the internal consistency of our world-building. Ms. Atwood also recounted many summaries of books and movies that might be relevant to our stories (including “The Head That Wouldn’t Die” and “The Creeping Eye”).
My turn came on the last day, by which time we’d grown comfortable as a group—and I’d observed the grace and kindness with which Ms. Atwood offered her criticisms of our work—so I wasn’t feeling too nervous. I received useful feedback and line-edits, as well as a wonderful compliment when Ms. Atwood said, “You know how to open a story.” [*Insert happy dance here.*]
As souvenirs of my experience, I returned home with an autographed copy of my marked-up manuscript, a “STOP TALKING” card, and—most importantly—new friendships with people who care about books and writing as much as I do.
Thank you, Ms. Atwood, for having us.
(Gratitude and credit for the fabulous photos to Cat Sparks. http://catsparks.net/ )