Where only words mattered: Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing

It was Sunday, July 15, and Alexander Weinstein, the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing (MVICW), took to the podium to welcome this year’s class to the weeklong workshop.

Before their trepidation gave way to muse-imbued creativity, the students and teachers of the MVICW milled around the courtyard of the Vineyard Square Hotel getting to know one another. These were not yet the people who would drop all inhibitions and share their writing with one another day in and day out, but they were soon to be. Monday through Friday of the next week, from 10 am ’til 5 pm, the nine students/writers and six faculty members would take and teach classes in fiction and poetry.

Mr. Weinstein, a professor at Siena Heights University who specializes in fiction, greeted the bleary-eyed students the next morning as they sipped coffee and spoke about their history with writing. The students ranged from a college sophomore to a veteran elder statesman of poetry. There was a novelist who was returning to writing after a decade hiatus, a marine veteran/college student with a thirst to tell stories, and students working towards MFAs.

Mr. Weinstein began by jovially encouraging the students to identify three distinct players that can either nourish or cripple their creativity — The Writer, The Critic, and The Slacker. A successful writer kicks the slacker out and tells the critic to wait his turn before she is free to let loose, getting everything down. The critic suffocates creativity with its constant demand: “Is this good enough?” After a draft is completed, the critic can be welcomed back in, as an editor who, if the writer is not too sentimentally attached to a piece, can look objectively at it and find where it’s weak.

Sharing his personal story, Mr. Weinstein told of the self doubt he felt through years of rejections, before his stories finally began to be accepted at literary journals. Cautioning that the fear of writing something bad can be exactly what keeps one from writing something brave and new, he stressed that one should just write, make a mess, throw it all down.

Mr. Weinstein’s lessons covered topics such as perspective (1st person, 3rd person, “We”), showing versus telling, and scene versus summary. Journalism is usually summary, he said, and, “Dialogue is a way out of summary.”

Marcus Wicker, a widely published assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana, changed the pace with the second class of the day. Mr. Wicker does poetry. He does it well and he does it non-stop. When he feels the need to write, he doesn’t let anything stand in his way. A similar directness informs his teaching. “When I read a poem,” he said, pen in hand, “I circle what I don’t get, star what I love, and underline what I think is important.”

Detailing the vulta (shift) of a poem and examining how content mimics form and vice versa, Mr. Wicker posed thought-provoking questions and offered some equally thought-provoking observations. For example, he said, “A good poem doesn’t close the meaning down.”

Writing exercises gave the eager students a chance to demonstrate their newfound knowledge. Inner critics silenced, everyone shared their writing and began to relax with each other.

Catherine Pierce, who co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University with her husband, Michael Kardos, taught the third class of the day. Ms. Pierce focused on persona, exalting the power that can be captured when one embraces the new voice that comes with writing from the point of view of a person or thing other than oneself. Her attentiveness and keen ear were on full display as she listened to and commented on pieces produced by a writing prompt.

Days continued in this fashion, each one producing more developed pieces from the students. Mr. Nguyen, editor of the journal Pleiades, took a tough-love, bare-bones approach to sharing his insider knowledge of getting published. Mr. Nguyen counseled that one shouldn’t get into writing for the money. Writing can have a vital purpose, but it takes a special mindset to find fulfillment in it as a profession.

Mr. Kardos talked about being on a selection committee that picked one short story out of 1,100 submissions. He spoke to what separates competent stories from compelling ones.

Keith Leonard, an easy-going graduate from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School who teaches at Indiana University, extolled imagery, compared image with abstraction, and shared his love of off-beat words such as ramshackle.

The week ended with a student reading. There was happiness yet lament that weeks have to end. Lessons were learned and friends were made. The writers left like newly winged birds, flying from the nest.

For more information about the program, visit mvicw.com.