Monday, May 20, 2019

Personal Note: What I Gained from A Writing Workshop

The first workshop I attended was at my local library. I was like most first-timers – a brain full of great ideas and writing packed full of problems, more desire than talent, and a healthy discomfort about even thinking of myself as a writer. And in I went.

Photo by Jens Schommer
For a workshop hidden within the shady, winding streets of Park Forest, Illinois, this group stood out with a great blend of people at different stages of writerhood. From college students looking to lock down that A in a writing course to retirees starting the next phase of their life, this workshop had it all. And this motley gang of wordsmiths was just as multi-faceted as its coordinator, James “Newton” Berry.

A good workshop needs a facilitator willing to be just as open and sharing as the members, and Newton was exactly that. From that first session, I learned he had been an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, he was a national chess master who had published books on the great players and taught chess at local schools, and despite having lived throughout the country and serving overseas, he had never totally shaken his native Mississippi accent.

When a workshop provides a safe place for the sharing of ideas and constructive criticisms, the writers will flourish, and many did. Writers from that group (including myself) went on to publish poems, short stories, and books, and they all credited Newton as a force behind their work. Indeed, my first novel included him in the acknowledgements as well. But I am fortunate to say that I got to know Newton beyond just being one of his disciples.

From the books he published on chess, I learned the nuances of the Spanish Opening used by his good friend and international chess grandmaster, Arthur Bisguier (who I called "Art," and shared a couch with during my visits). From Newton’s tutelage, I learned to use the subjunctive voice (If I were to explain it, it would take up its own commentary, but this parenthetical clause actually demonstrates it). I learned the million-word rule (for another commentary), the importance of reading obscure books such as Winesburg, Ohio, and a good portion of the Gilbert & Sullivan song list (not for writing, but good to know).

But more importantly, Newton gave me the confidence to take my writing further, and I did. All workshops should provide members the inspiration to write and the courage to grow. I don’t think any group can tell a member when they will become a writer – that is up to the person. But this workshop made it possible for me. How do I know this for sure? Well, the greatest compliment Newton ever gave me was when he handed me the draft of his first fiction novel, Bughouse Square, and asked me to be his editor. I can think of no higher honor.

After Newton retired from the head of the South Suburban Writers Workshop, we continued an informal group at his house, hosted by him and his wife and fellow writer, Linda. We would drink scotch (not mandatory), enjoy some cake (unavoidably good), and bond over the written word. I’ve lost count of how many manuscripts we went through, but we set the groundwork for many future book clubs.

It has been twelve years since the first time I bravely walked in to that library conference room. I am now the head of Newton’s writing group in Park Forest, sitting in his chair and wondering how to fill such a space. I attend other workshops as well, because there is always something to be learned when sitting with fellow writers, but I take every lesson back to Park Forest. I think of the long road that brought me from one end of the conference room table to the other, and how Newton was a guide for the whole trip. The thing that gives me the most pause for thought, however, is what I can do to earn this role I now hold.

Newton passed away yesterday, quietly in his sleep. His death was not unexpected, but that is far from a comforting thought in the greater picture. After Linda called me, my first thought was how I should honor his memory, and what he meant to me. I could still use the Spanish Opening when I play chess, and there’s nothing wrong with cranking out a little Gilbert & Sullivan now and then. But for all that he offered me as a writer, how could I express its importance? I could write something, but was that enough? It was too obvious, too simple. He deserved more.

In my final calculus, I decided that it all came down to the workshop. If there was any way to remember James “Newton” Berry, it would be recognizing what he brought to the workshop and its many attendees. To honor Newton, I will spend my meetings living up to the standards he set, offering the kind of advice that turned people into writers, and motivating them to pursue the route that so many people feared. I can never be the man Newton was, but I can help make others into the writers they can be, because that’s what he did for me.

So that’s what I gained from my first writing workshop.

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