Each Winter Workshop—for One Year Adventure Novel students 18 and older!—has its own unique theme that sets the tone for the week.
This year’s theme, The Road Through, acknowledged that, sometimes, the writing life is painful. Our roads run through Mirkwood, so to speak! Writers, like others, struggle with loneliness, discouragement, health concerns, family problems, and other serious long-term challenges. In light of that theme, not all of these reflections are upbeat. Nonetheless, our week together provided not only insight into writing, but also hope, comfort, and companionship as we journey through our own personal dark forests.
Sometimes before moving on to new territory, you must remember where you have been. At Winter Workshop each of the sessions built upon what we already know—but need to be reminded of—about writing and about life. With a solid foundation we can then launch forward into deeper, more meaningful places.
My favorite memory was on New Year’s Eve in the fireside room. We gathered in a circle and shared children’s picture books aloud. Old stories came to life as others heard the words for the first time. Some stories had hardly any words, but the simplicity powerfully captured the emotion and every listener leaned in, invested in the story.
The Workshop felt like a joyous and peaceful family reunion. With this family to remind me where I’ve been, I look forward to walking the Road Through together.
The 2018 Winter Workshop’s theme, “The Road Through,” was probably the grittiest road I’ve traveled at a workshop as of yet. Looking back, and hearing the roads that each of my friends and their stories have been walking on, it became evident to me that every student came from a different end of the forest, and—if only for this brief week—the paths we walked intersected, often all meeting in the middle in a break in the branches above.
This union of each of the student’s humanity made the entire conference feel “alive”—though, maybe in a non-traditional sense. It was a somber event. Even though there were a million laughs, worlds explored, plots developed, and characters taken to a safe place to be developed, not a moment of the conference was a wasted opportunity to spur on the growth of each student as an author, and as a human. More applicably than ever, the speakers, conversation amongst each other, and message of the teaching asked us to capture the humanity within ourselves. It required us acknowledging that to continue to write new wonder in our stories, we must allow ourselves to grow, change, and see things in the new light that awakens on the other side of the trees, past the hills, valleys, hobbling out into its blinding light on sore ankles. We, as humans, are alive, and always growing into new stages of our life. We were challenged to come to terms with the distance we have walked, not just our stories—looking back in order to move forward along the road through.
On New Year’s Eve, Mr. S. gave an excellent talk on the use of tertiary emotions and the depth they can bring to a character. For some situations, the consequences of an event have not yet hit home enough for a character to express their mental turmoil directly. Instead, they must process it through a series of other feelings, the core reason very rarely on immediate display.
This concept is one that has fascinated me for a long time, starting with the observation as an early writer that there are a multitude of ways to cry; weeping, sobbing, and bawling all carry vastly different connotations, but are often used interchangeably within mediocre prose. This inaccurate equivalence has never sat well with me, and Mr. S. helped to pinpoint why: reaching that breaking point of actually shedding tears often has a build-up to it that cycles through a wide range of reactions before finally achieving salinity. If these precursors are not first explored, it’s no wonder that poor prose tries to combine the soft defeat of weeping with the uncontrollable nature of a sob.
Although the phrase was never directly mentioned, Mr. S.’s talk struck me as a literary explanation for the Five Stages of Grief. Most people have endured loss or sorrow in some regard, making the concept of delayed “core” emotions an immediately familiar one. As Mr. S. succinctly put it, “People have subtext.” As Yoda more verbosely put it, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
This progression of slowly-developing emotions should be implemented for your character’s reactions to have realism and depth. They bring a human element to difficult feelings, using subconscious but recognizable patterns. As Mr. S defined it, “Find the derivative and unexpected emotions; the ones connected, but not the precise ones.”
We aren’t children anymore. Life isn’t rosy and innocent. Life is hard. Unlike past workshops, WW18 refused to live under the impression that life can be escaped or conquered. Life can’t always be conquered. Sometimes, life wins.
I came to this workshop empty. There was nothing I had to give. I stood in silence for the first twenty minutes after I arrived watching Garrett scribble in his notebook.
Mr. S. opened the week with a short explanation of the theme. There was no big reveal or complex explanation. “The road through is Mirkwood,” I remember him saying. A dark place, a hard place. I knew that feeling. I… had that feeling. Life is a road through Mirkwood. It tantalizes us with temptations, bites at us with snares.
I didn’t share my road at workshop. I was empty. Other people, however, were not. They privileged me with the chance to walk on their roads, even for a short distance: listening in a quiet corner, their words and their tears and their life crashing into mine as I sat with nothing to give in return but silent empathy.
My mentor session with Mr. S. became less of him saying “here’s what I think your writing could use” and more of the two of us simply . . . talking. About life. Writing. The Road.
I didn’t know that I needed that.
All of this.
Although to be honest, I left workshop the way I came. Empty. At the same time, however, I also left with a tiny, tiny part of me full. Very, very full. Full of the tears of other people, full of the wonders of other people, full of the roads of other people.
Their roads aren’t over. Neither is mine.
But . . . we keep walking.
Every New Year’s Eve at Winter Workshop, we clear away the tables and chairs in the main room and rig up the speakers to play various ear worms. Chatter fills the room; friends pray, laugh, and play card games; some of the braver ones dance around to their favorite songs.
I stand along the wall, my arms slung around the shoulders of friends I’ve grown up with and friends I’ve just met. The room is filled with people who know me, who have prayed over me as I’ve wept and who I’ve laughed with until my stomach hurt. People who love the Lord and love to write and love each other. And as I look at each of their faces, I realize how lucky I am to begin and end every year with them.
As midnight approaches, someone turns off the lights and we all turn to the projector displaying the giant digital clock. In unison, we count down the seconds, our voices building. Midnight strikes and we all scream New Year’s greetings to each other as someone starts playing “Auld Lang Syne.”
None of us know what the new year will bring—whether we’ll grapple with writer’s block or land a publishing contract, start blogs or pound out college papers, whether we’ll see each other again or if this is the last workshop we’ll ever attend. We don’t know. What we do know is that right here, right now, we stand together.
And on that night, hugging friends old and new as we sing with wet eyes and strong voices—that togetherness is enough.
For auld lang syne, my dear; for auld lang syne
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
If you look up quotes on being loved versus being understood you will find an array of opinions. Some say it is better to be understood than to be loved, others argue the opposite. A few point out that we fear being understood without love. It does seem, however, that there is an agreement that it is hard, if not impossible, to experience both.
I had a traumatic event last year that left me on an emotional island. My hope of getting off was getting to the Winter Workshop.
Then I made it. I was there with my dear friends. We clicked back together like little puzzle pieces, learning about each other and making memories to last us until next time.
Yet my island was still intact. No one joined me on the island, I didn’t move to a new one. I was still stuck on that beach of lonely, looking out at the ocean and spotting other islands.
I struggled with guilt for feeling isolated. In reality I am not. I was surrounded by people who cared about me, though they didn’t understand. I didn’t expect them to. My experience was mine alone.
But they love me. They listened and empathized. They swam out to my island though they couldn’t come ashore. And that is because they love me. Not because they understood what I was going through.
And I can’t understand what any of them are going through either; that is their journey. All I can do is look at their islands from a distance and swim over now and then. Which I do because I love them.
Just because we are each living on our own islands does not mean we can’t swim in the ocean together.
If you’ve been to more than one of our workshops, which theme was your favorite?