by Lyndsay Hall
The way my MFA program worked, we received in the mail a spiral-bound, paperback book of our peers’ work that we were to read before meeting for workshop a few weeks later. The work was hit or miss by nature: The due dates for these particular pieces came in the middle of the semester, when all of our writing was half-polished at best. It was often worse.
Jackie’s story was perfect, by which I mean, when we met for workshop and she cited Alice Munro as a literary influence, I could tell. She mapped the quiet emotions of two couples on a camping trip with precision and care, with a deep thoughtfulness we know to expect from Munro, but perhaps not our graduate school peers.
When Jackie Heinze launched her workshop, The Write On Writers Workshop (which she calls a “silly name that, by this point, [she] could never change”), I waited eagerly for the time in my calendar to open up. Once it did, I joined. I trusted without doubt Jackie would be an exceptional workshop leader—plus, I’m a sucker for her dry wit and thought her the type of mentor who’d kick my ass a bit. (She does tell me, “Maybe I’m not a good fit for the tormented writer, or for the arrogant writer, for that matter. I like writers who fall somewhere in the middle.”)
The workshops are hosted in her backyard, either in a repurposed garage or the open air of an old carport. My first night, nervous and too stubborn to reread the welcome email’s instructions, I opened the gate to the left of her home and squeezed through a narrow alleyway between the two. Jackie saw me through the kitchen window, beside which I awkwardly stood, and shouted my name.
In her front yard, she tried to take full responsibility for bad directions, but I confessed I was too confident in my memory and clearly bombed—There was a much larger, much more obvious gate to the right of the house, which Jackie led me through and then showed me the space. The carport was strung in bulbed lights and a long table within the repurposed garage was dressed with thick cloths, a cheese platter, chocolate covered almonds, a pitcher of water, and two bottles of wine. An assortment of chairs surrounded the table, and Jackie sat herself at the head. I learned the setting is intentional.
“I want us all to feel as though we’re communing together over our work,” she tells me over email. “There’s a lively dinner-party vibe to the whole evening, fueled by our dynamic discussions about writing.”
“In the endless debate about whether or not writing can be taught, I lean toward yes, it can.”
The workshop was immediately a home. Not just for me, but for the many others who have come continuously over the years. When I talk to Jackie over email for this piece, she tells me about Write On’s pilot workshop: After the six week session, many of the writers lived too far or were too near giving birth to commit to another session, but for one writer, who begged Jackie to continue the workshop.
“Turns out, she was all I needed,” she says. “If she met another writer at a bar or at her son’s school, she recruited them for workshop. She grabbed old friends and new and brought them to my house at 7pm on Wednesday nights. Word of mouth brought writers to my house.”
When I ask Jackie why she thinks writers return each season, she’s humble and without an answer. She does, however and maybe unexpectedly, provide me insight into the community she’s fostered in her backyard.
“I like writers who value community and are open to honest feedback, to learning, and to giving back as much as they get, or more, to other writers,” she explains, and she’s right that that’s the type of person who joins me in workshop each week. “You’ll notice I said nothing about the quality of their work. I don’t care at what level they’re writing, or if they’re ‘good enough.’ If they’re open to discovery, they should come to the table.”
As Jackie notes, the workshop carries the feel of friends old and new coming together to discuss one another’s writing, though it doesn’t stop there. We dig into our goals and that which obstructs them. We celebrate small successes and major revisions. We take risks. There’s no shortage of discovery in Jackie’s workshop, and first drafts are applauded. In fact, in our first session of the fall, one writer brought in a first draft of a braided essay I’m not sure she realized was braided yet. Jackie begged us to follow in that writer’s example: She wants us unpolished, susceptible to learning.
“In the endless debate about whether or not writing can be taught, I lean toward yes, it can,” Jackie says. “A writer can be guided toward greater insight and understanding of the choices they make in their work. They can learn—yes, actually learn—how to ask more of themselves in their creative process.”
And so, Jackie takes her time to teach. This past Wednesday night, around the table we discussed creative nonfiction: the difference between the protagonist and the narrator and the author, the pros and cons of present and past tense, what it means to reflect and how to do it.
“I use the first half hour to share the wisdom of other writers, so that all of us around the table grow our awareness and appreciation of what it takes to write well. We follow the discussion with a free-write. I give the group a prompt and writers write, without lifting their pen from the page, for 8 minutes. Free-writing is a way to get out of your own way.”
On Wednesday, our freewrite was based on an opening paragraph of an Annie Dillard story, and I lifted the second line for my inspiration: “It was a curious compulsion.” I’m nothing but a body of curious compulsions, and I wound up following this thread to a particular social media tick I have (namely, stalking my ex’s new girlfriends) and discovered the basis of a new essay. Apparently this isn’t unusual: “So many stories in workshop are born out of free-writes,” Jackie tells me, excitedly.
“There’s a lively dinner-party vibe to the whole evening, fueled by our dynamic discussions about writing.”
Then, we dive in. Unlike every other prose workshop I’ve attended, which assigns two writers to be workshopped each week, at Write On, everyone has an opportunity to submit up to seven pages in advance. We are encouraged to write and often. We arrived having read each other’s work, and Jackie had printed the pages and scribbled notes in the margins. This is where Jackie’s workshop departs a second time from other models I’ve seen.
“In grad school, workshops required the writer don a theoretical ‘cone of silence’ while their work was discussed. Pish posh,” she says. “In our workshop, the writer is right in the mix with us. We are all in, celebrating what works about the piece and wrestling with the parts that can be clearer or mined further for greater discoveries.”
Afterwards, as though Jackie hasn’t spoiled us enough, we end each workshop with a final parting gift: a quote from some writer who likely knows better than us, a piece of inspiration to take with us into the week. We drew quotes at random from a mug that was passed around the table. I’ve received many good ones: “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.” – Jeanette Winterson. “Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.” – Ray Bradbury.
Ultimately, Jackie tells me, she created the workshop she’d most want to attend. After a variety of her own experiences, ranging from her first (which she says she attended with the “desperation and gluttonous delight of a starving dog set loose on an all-you-can-eat-buffet”) that benefited her with careful, insightful attention, to a later workshop at Columbia that perhaps humbled her a peg, she appears to have landed on an ideal structure based on the exchange of ideas and shared love of writing.
“Workshops are communal, learning experiences. We’re all in it together,” she says, and then advises: “If someone has something to prove, they won’t have the optimal workshop experience or benefit in all the ways available to them.”
Write On Writers’ Workshop meets Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings in Los Angeles. In addition to workshops, Jackie hosts submission seminars, readings, and retreats. For more information on Write On or anything else Jackie Heinze, visit jacquelineheinze.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.