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BY BEN MOYER
Knowing the worth of sharing time and ideas with other writers, I applied, and was accepted, to participate in OWAA’s 2010 Goldenrod Writing Workshop held the first week of August at The University of Montana.
I had some specific objectives in mind when I set aside time and made the trip. My short introductory essay, required of all candidates as part of the application process, stated:
“My primary goal at the workshop is to further develop my ability to craft the non-fiction essay. This genre has drawn my interest for some time and I would value the opportunity to benefit from the experience of others doing this work.”
As the workshop drew near, OWAA asked all accepted applicants to choose their primary faculty mentor from among a selection of well-known and accomplished writers. I chose to attend the small group sessions led by Alan Liere, who writes back-page essays for several publications including Northwest Fly Fishing, Upland Almanac and Wildfowl. Liere has also published several book collections of outdoor humor.
Liere’s sessions met in the comfortable confines of The University of Montana School of Journalism, surrounded by art depicting Native American culture of the Northern Plains. Four writers from Virginia, Washington, Ohio and Pennsylvania were also part of Liere’s group. We shared a week of intense reading, discussion and homework writing assignments. Each of us read our assignments aloud, followed by rounds of response, suggestion and constructive critique.
Afternoons featured larger group sessions during which approximately 22 participants heard presentations from outdoor-writing icons like Joel Vance and Pat McManus. If you think reading McManus’ work is funny, never pass by an opportunity to hear him speak. He is a master of setting a scene, understatement, establishing conflict, and perfectly timing that hilarious punch.
During our more intimate small sessions, Liere boiled down his tenets about writing the non-fiction or humor essay:
1. Show! Don’t tell.
4. Write tight.
5. People like to read about people.
No. 5 was particularly helpful to me. In my own work I’ve written about vultures, rattlesnakes, fungus, fish, acorns and more. But I generally get more appreciative feedback from readers when my essays include people. Positive feedback need not be a writer’s primary motivation but it does help to steer the writer toward more jobs and more frequent checks, certainly a worthwhile consideration in today’s economy.
As an experiment, and to fulfill one of the workshop writing assignments, I applied Liere’s rules to an essay I’d been working on sporadically, and with some frustration, for months. The essay is about my reaction to dumping the carefully butchered and wrapped venison from two deer at a landfill after my freezer shut off when I was away from home. I’d already written pages about the smell of the landfill, the wind-blown waste and the crows wheeling above it all. But I could not make the work “come to life,” as writers like to say.
At Liere’s suggestion, I added human characters – people I met at the landfill. There was the woman greeter at the sign-in office; and the equipment operator who, not without empathy, squashed my venison into the muck under the spiked steel wheels of his Cat compactor. I added details about their clothes, manner and speech, reconstructing the dialog we shared.
Suddenly, the essay became almost fun to write. The paragraphs jumped onto the page and my classmates reacted with enthusiasm.
“Sell it,” one wrote on his critique sheet.
I consider this a valuable lesson. Yes, fish and fungus are important parts of the natural world. But so are people. As outdoor writers, we have infinite opportunities to observe people in outdoor settings and to make them part of our stories, columns and books, to the satisfaction of readers and toward furthering our own professional success.
Workshops, of course, at least the best ones, are never all about work. At Goldenrod, with the help and guidance of OWAA’s gracious staff, we had the privilege of fly-fishing the big Blackfoot River, floating in inner tubes down the Clark Fork River, and hiking and exploring around Missoula. Before my return to Pennsylvania, I set up a float trip on the Missouri River and caught some beautiful big rainbow trout in stunning surroundings.
Working hard at your own desk is one way to improve your writing, as is reading the words of others who produce good work. But to stimulate and exercise the muse within us, there is nothing like a gathering in a good place of good people who love the outdoors and writing. Just the opportunity to be around other writers is reason to go.♦
–A member since 1986, Ben Moyer is a book author and outdoor columnist. His specialties include fish and wildlife and creative writing with outdoor themes. Contact him at email@example.com.