Writers At Work 20th Anniversary — Donna Frazier

Writers At Work 20th Anniversary — Donna Frazier

What I remember most vividly are mornings of sitting in the orange room, which was probably not orange yet, printing out pages from the fat desktop encyclopedia and creating poems from them. Poems, I learned, did not have to be pulled from my own stories but could, instead, be found, constructed. I began to cut together lines like: Every woman knows the elegant isolation of orchid and hummingbird, the danger of spoilage. I began having fun.

In the Saturday morning poetry workshop, I went through phases, influenced by what I heard. I wrote a million 14-line poems, sonnet-like things, and was always pulled along by Yvonne Estrada’s seemingly effortless real sonnets, which were spinning out lines about graffiti or the infinite faces of the moon.  Because she wrote hers, I wrote mine. To find out what could happen. Or someone would write a ghazal and it seemed necessary to write one too, to see my mind through the filter of that form. Brett Hofer wrote long-lined prose-poem feeling pieces, so intimate, and I wanted to get that into my poems. Or Kim Dower surprised me with a twist of a line or a laugh, and I carried the feeling of that with me and wanted to get closer to it. Terry’s dis-articulations, which felt like the perfect refinement of those early cut-ups we did, opened up a whole new world for me, not so dependent on my preferences and habits but blown open doors and topics and randomness that flowed into the unexpected and true.

These are my poetry people forever, and they live in my work. I have nothing but gratitude for that and them and everyone in the workshop.



Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

To be a writer, you need to love the writing process. It’s a process of ongoing discovery, the discovery of the wisdom your work wants to convey. If you already know everything that’s going to be in your work, that work is going to be D.O.A. As Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press says, “If you don’t discover anything while you’re writing your work, the reader isn’t going to discover anything from reading it.” It’s an archeological process; you can’t discover that wisdom all at once; we discover it layer by layer. This is why revision is your friend.

It’s the job of a first draft to be insufficient. Sometimes an emerging writer may feel like it’s a rebuke to be asked to revise a work, as if they have somehow failed. Writing is the only art form in which there’s the expectation that you’ll get it right the first time—musicians know they have to practice constantly; actors rehearse; painters paint over their canvasses; dancers spend grueling hours each day performing the same positions.

When your first draft is insufficient your haven’t failed; you’ve succeeded in completing a first draft. When we’re lucky, the first draft maps the general territory the work wants to explore. But there’s a lot we still don’t know at the end of the first draft. Now the real work begins.

Revision is not editing.  Re-vision literally means to see again, perhaps to see anew.

Sometimes you have an idea of what you’re trying to say; revision gives you the opportunity to measure what you’ve said against what you meant. In the process of revision, you may also become aware of additional perspectives, additional angles, additional layers that you couldn’t have seen before that first articulation.

Or maybe you have no idea what you are trying to say. Revision gives you the opportunity to discover the meaning or meanings in what you have written (another word for this is themes), and then to craft the work to deepen those meanings.

Revision isn’t a one-step process.  It’s not just “first draft/revise/done.” A piece may get “worse”—more disorganized, more self-conscious—in a second draft, but that’s not your last chance. Writing offers endless opportunities for redemption. A piece may undergo several revisions, until you’ve discovered as much of that wisdom as you can. The poet Mary Oliver reports that she revises a poem 50-75 times before she is satisfied. Don’t be in a hurry to be done; again, love the process.

As you approach revision, don’t have it in your mind that you are trying to “fix” something (revision is NOT editing). Approach revision with the goal of seeing more, learning more, understanding more, adding power, adding depth, adding risk, adding artfulness. Don’t worry about making it “good”—make it real, make it true, make it meaningful, make it, as Jane Hirshfield suggests, more strange.

How to approach revision if you’re working on your own:

  1. Put away your first draft for a while. Give yourself time to gain some distance, and thus, perspective. How long a time depends on how quickly you can come to see it as a thing in its own right, disconnected from your ego, your ambitions, your intentions.
  2. Interrogate the work and interrogate yourself as its maker. Here are some questions to ask:
    • What meanings have you made? Are these what you intended?
    • Have you made it possible for a reader who does not know you to understand these meanings?
    • Have you made it likely that a reader who does not know you will care about what you have said?
    • What do you want a reader to take away from the work?
    • What have you risked? Have you risked enough? Are you shrinking from some risk in the piece?
    • What have you discovered? Is there more to discover?
    • What of your own questions remain unanswered? What needs to happen for you to answer them?
    • What are the missed opportunities?
  3. Assess the craft elements in the piece:
    • Does the plot reveal the significance of the events that take place?
    • Are the characters believable, dimensional, unique?
    • Is the world of the story—the time and place—rendered so that the reader can enter the experience and know where they are?
    • Does the structure support the reader’s journey through the piece?
    • What are your themes and do you understand the hierarchy of them?
    • What is the voice of the piece and how does that support its meaning?
    • Are your images specific, concrete, sensory and fresh?
    • Does the language/diction help to deliver the world of the piece to the reader?
    • What is the music of the piece—pacing, rhythms, language?
  1. Make a plan for what you will tackle in the next revision. Don’t try to accomplish everything you think needs to be done. Choose one or two things to focus on; choose the most important things to tackle first.
  2. Save your previous draft and then let nothing be sacred as you approach the revision. Risk, experiment, be bold in trying things out. If you make a wrong turn, you can always go back to the previous draft. Let each draft be as playful, as rich with discovery as your first.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8:   Plot and the Novel

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8: Plot and the Novel

When I began to write my first novel, I didn’t know anything about writing a novel. I had read hundreds of novels, but had always allowed myself to be immersed in the story and hadn’t studied their construction. My early writing education took place within a feminist context—with wonderful instructors such as Marge Piercy and Deena Metzger—and had focused more on permission and experimentation than on literary technique.

I hadn’t planned on writing novels. It was just that an idea appeared to me and said, “I need to be a novel.” Even then, I knew better than to argue with my writing. This was a novel that imagined a reunion of 1970s feminists reconvening in the late 80s to consider what they had and had not accomplished. So I wrote a draft and revised it, and a friend introduced me to a literary agent who was also a feminist. I sent her my draft, then flew to New York to meet with her.

In the back of the taxi on the way to that appointment, I was Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” living of the dream of being in New York, meeting with someone whom I was certain would become my literary agent. If I’d been wearing a hat I would have thrown it into the air.

At the meeting, the agent sat across from me with my manuscript in front of her. She shoved it across the table and said, “Put a murder in it.” I was outraged. I wasn’t writing detective fiction; I was writing about feminism. I was stunned. I hope I managed to be polite. I stumbled back down the stairs to the street, my bright imagined future disappearing before my eyes.

It took a long time for me to understand what that agent was talking about, and that she was right. The missing ingredient in that novel was plot. A bunch of women gather to talk about feminism—so what?

I had come of age during a moment when writers were disavowing plot; they were creating stories in which people sat around and talked about things and nothing happened. These were writers who had likely been trained in the device of plot, and were trying something new, suspending that element of story. I was a writer who hadn’t been trained in that element, and I needed to learn how it worked.

I came to understand that a story is a record of change, and that change, no matter how subtle or how obvious, needs to be present. Plot is the device that allows you to demonstrate that change.

Sometimes I call it the engine that powers the car. It doesn’t matter how pearlized the paint job or how shiny the rims—without an engine, the car won’t go anywhere.

Readers want to know what they are investing their time in. They want to have a pay-off for reading. The protagonist needs to have a quest (something they want, something they’re seeking) and this helps to establish a central question for the story: will the protagonist achieve their quest?

Readers also want to know what’s at stake, what does the protagonist stand to gain or lose by how that question is answered. It’s the stakes that make them care.

I recently read the first 80 pages of a student’s novel. She had a compelling voice, a powerful situation and believable characters, but each scene read like an episode, one after the next, without a sense of what we were building toward. I suggested she give her protagonist a quest, something she is working toward or hoping for, to give the pages more dramatic momentum.

Sometimes students push back, just as I initially did with the agent’s advice. They think I am asking them to reduce their complex meanings into a simplistic formula. But that’s not the case. A novel has more to say than its plot would indicate; the elements of character, setting, and theme, in particular, work to deliver those layers of meaning. When we go for a drive, it is the scenery along the way and the destination that we care about; but it’s the engine, the plot, that allows us to move down the road.

Eventually I wrote my first novel again (well, several more times) and I took the agent’s advice. I put a murder into that novel, the rape and murder of the daughter of one of those 1970s feminists. Suddenly the women had a compelling reason to gather, they had a reason for evaluating their movement, and we had a question: who had committed this murder?

If this were “That Girl,” Marlo Thomas would have gone back to the agent, shown her the new draft of the first novel and been signed on the spot. She would have tossed her hat up into a blue sky. Reality is always more complicated. That first novel, The Labrys Reunion, was eventually published, but it took twenty-one years from the time I first conceived of it. But that story can be the subject of another blog post, one called “Patience.”


Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

March Poem of the Month — Georgia Jones-Davis




Did you wave at the train
with its shrill keen,
as it went its own creaking way
into the distance of money?
Did you wave at the train
with its grim, receding aria?
The men who work trains
come from the borderline  —
Needles, Winslow, Modesto;
pine for the wild flesh of Alaska,
Seattle with its bracelet
of green islands,
anywhere tracks will take them.
They ride the rails
into the black tunnels
of  broken imaginations.
Some will never look up
where you, cold-eyed as a bird,
speed through clouds
in the silent altitude of years,
miles above the engineer’s
aging ranchera music,
the burnt grids of track-worn cities,
skinny Vegas nudity of the tourist desert,
miles above a snaking, lovelorn train’s
fading whistle.

Georgia Jones-Davis is the author of a chapbook, Blue Poodle (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including West Wind,  The Bicycle Review,  Nebo, Ascent Aspirations, Brevities and South Bank Poetry, London. New work will appear in the fall 2013 issue of Eclipse.

April 2012 Poem of the Month — Victoria Dym

Bird Song

for Sydney

Waiting out winter like
waiting for a phone call,
half past February…

like a ring tone
in the name of Spring,
we hear this warbling.

That one, you say,
that’s my fave…
and instantly, I hear

the bird song, as I see
you, sitting on the couch,
eyes closed, listening,

teacup in hand, smiling…
a thin break in the eggshell:
beak behind your lips.

Victoria Dym is a graduate of Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Clown College, has earned a BA, in Philosophy, from Pitt, and her MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry at Carlow University.

March Poem of the Month — Karen Marie Christa Minns




The evening rides a

Sapphic sky:  Venus

And Diana  rising


By Side.

O cupped silver, keeper of my anger

In these angry days;

I am sick of Light!

The snow-fed glare,


Of roaring stars!

Give me

Removed moon, pale night and

Let me


Karen Marie Christa Minns is a Gemini writer flying between jobs, family, friends and destiny. (So far, she hasn’t landed.)  Contact info: karenminns@yahoo.com. blog: STREETRAP  http://karenmariechristaminns.blogspot.com

February Poem of the Month — Sarah Maclay

Instructions for Wooing

I don’t want to wear rocks on my hands—
or metal, or anything dug from the earth.
I want my hands naked, I want my nails short,
I want nothing between us—no symbol, no law,

no metal, or anything dug from the earth.
No backbreaking labor, no three-carat deals—
I want nothing between us—no symbol, no law,
no grand proclamations, no bells, no expense,

no backbreaking labor, no three-carat deals,
no flowers, not anything torn from its roots,
no grand proclamations, no bells, no expense,
just this, just this: your skin, my skin.

No flowers! Not anything torn from its roots!
I want us unpolished, unvarnished, undone.
Just this, just this: your skin, my skin.
I’ll wear your hands instead of a gown.

I want us unpolished. Unvarnish! Undo!
I want your hands naked. I want your nails short.
Oh! Your hands! Instead of a gown.
I don’t want to wear rocks on my hands.

Sarah Maclay’s newest release is Music for the Black Room (UT Press). Her poems appear in APR, Ploughshares, FIELD, Poetry Daily, VerseDaily, The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800 to the Present, Poetry International and elsewhere. She teaches at LMU. www.sarahmaclay.com

January Poem of the Month – Dylan C. Gailey

Afternoon Walks in Winter

Was it because the days are short
and meaningful and the nights will
be spent fitful with the scent
of burnt pallets that I am reminded
of your christening?

Or was it when I realized the breathe I held
would never pass between yours lips in time
and because the riverbed cannot
remember the cooling crush of rain
that I was left hesitant to ask.

Do the winds from the south speak more slowly to you?
Are birds aware they migrate in symbols of lesser or
greater degrees? How does the sparrow let you
touch her in death? I wasn’t certain I should ask;
you are after all only three.

Dylan C. Gailey‘s “Afternoon Walks in Winter” is her
second poem featured through WAW’s Poem of the Month.
She is also a student and teacher of Kundalini Yoga.

December Poem of the Month — Lory Bedekian


When the floods come
I swim to it.

From the stew
of water, my arms

loop and wheel, frantic
for that large mahogany slab.

Parachutes of waves
all around, I barely keep

afloat. This tsunami,
this ocean is full of debris.

I must have wandered
from shore again.

I glide and finally reach
its chipped edges. Glorious

boards and drawers,
my rectangular lifeboat:

I jump on its strong back,
lie down, breathe

and say, Thank you.
The rocking settles.

I say listen, there’s so much
to tell, so much I’ve seen

in my wanderings.
I have been swimming for days.

Lory Bedikian’s The Book of Lamenting was awarded the 2010 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. She earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and teaches poetry workshops.

November Poem of the Month — Elizabeth Knapp

The Burning Bush

For weeks, I searched for a sign that it was over—
my rage or mourning, whichever came first.

I dug holes in the ground and covered the bulbs
with mulch. Then I waited. If something grew there,

I’d know I’d been granted. But earth doesn’t respond
like that; there’s nothing human in its language.

Words came to me, but they seemed the symptom
of something deeper. And then I saw it: blue-red

in the October sun, the color of a pomegranate
seed when light passes through it, or the amber-red

of a young Arbois, honey-red, yet bitter. It lit
the yard with the intensity of a dream, only I knew

its leaves weren’t burning. Neither god nor prophet
it spoke to me, but what it meant I couldn’t decode.

Reader, there are those who would say
I shouldn’t address you directly, but this is not

that kind of poem—Frostian, dark, with a touch
of sardonic humor. Without you, I speak to the chasm.

Sublime, indifferent, the bush taunted me, its fire-
flecked voices I couldn’t answer, its quivering vowels

slaking off heat. How was I to translate? I could say
it represented the untenable, the ineffable,

all that I had faltered or failed in (this gift to you,
my raspy hunger, the miniature graves I dug

in the hope for flower, my sad little conscience
pulling up weeds), but that would be untrue. Listen:

It’s nearly winter and the bush is still burning.
In rage or mourning, I have failed you.

Elizabeth Knapp is the author of The Spite House (C&R Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 De Novo Prize for Poetry. The recipient of the 2007 Discovered Voices Award from Iron Horse Literary Review, she has published poems in Best New Poets 2007, The Massachusetts Review, The Mid-American Review, Barrow Street, and many other journals. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a PhD from Western Michigan University and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where she lives with her husband and son.