Cascade Writers

Somehow it has been a whole week since I got back from the Cascade Writers Workshop at the Washington coast, where I was one of the instructors.

The workshop seemed ill-starred at first, with author guest Jay Lake having to drop out (as it happened, he wound up having surgery on the first day of the workshop) and his replacement Ken Scholes only able to attend Friday and Saturday. A few weeks before the workshop, the restaurant of the hotel where it was to be held burned to the ground, leaving the organizers scrambling to find a new space for lectures and the Saturday night banquet; the fire also took out the stairs leading from the hotel down to the beach. And on the first night of the event, workshop organizer Karen Junker’s step-father (who was helping out) died in his sleep, an unexpected tragedy that left many people dazed and sleepless the next day.

Despite these unfortunate events, though, the workshop itself went well. Ken and I, along with editor Beth Meacham, provided critiques and Q&A sessions, with additional lectures by NYT bestselling author Bob Mayer and writers Randy Henderson and Spencer Ellsworth. The students included a nice mix of people from previous workshops and new people, and some of the stories were very exciting. And the food, all of it provided by Karen and her family, was first-rate. There was so much to do that I didn’t even really miss the fact that we couldn’t easily walk down to the beach (I did have a nice soak and conversation in the hot tub).

One incident from the weekend stands out in my mind. During my Q&A session, someone had just asked a question about creating sympathetic characters when a bird flew into the room, battering itself against the glass doors in an attempt to escape. Everyone leaped to its assistance, gently guiding it back outside. As soon as we’d settled back down I pointed out how that bird was an object lesson in creating a sympathetic character: it was a character (the bird), in a situation (the room), with a problem (an impenetrable glass door), which tried and repeatedly failed (battering itself against the door), but eventually succeeded (it got out with our help) and was rewarded (it flew away).

By taking action in an attempt to better its situation, what I call “protagonistiness,” the bird demonstrated pluck, which makes it admirable. By failing it demonstrated that the problem was significant and not easily overcome, which made it sympathetic. By repeatedly trying and failing it demonstrated persistence, which made it even more admirable and sympathetic. And then it succeeded by using a quality that had been inherent in it from the beginning (its cuteness) to solve the problem in an unexpected and yet satisfying way (getting us to help it). Kind of hokey, yes, but how could I turn down such a brilliant example when it literally flew in the door? We imagined that great bird legends would be written about the battle and defeat of the Invisible Wall.

I enjoy teaching but it does take a lot out of me; I was pretty wiped out when I got home. But the feedback I’ve gotten from the weekend has been excellent, so I will happily keep doing it as long as people keep inviting me.

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