Eager to Improve My Craft by Dena Dyer
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
In early 2020, I was desperate to articulate the angst I was feeling as a mother. My 16-year-old son Jax had been having chronic back pain for a year, and we hadn’t been able to find a diagnosis. As an adult who’s had chronic pain and fatigue since my early 20’s, I felt a mixture of frustration, anguish, and helplessness. As a writer, I turned to the page to process my tangled emotions.
Soon enough, I had a draft of an essay which detailed my struggle with illness, Jax’s issues, and our changing relationship. I’d attempted to craft it as a braided essay, which is my favorite of all the essay forms. I even submitted it as part of the application to a competitive writing workshop with the Collegeville Institute. They were offering a weeklong (virtual) summer workshop led by Lauren Winner, who is an acclaimed spiritual non-fiction writer and professor. Several years ago, I received a few hours of instruction from Lauren at a retreat, and I longed to study under her more formally.
However, I was rejected for the workshop, and after stepping back and allowing my husband Carey to read my draft, I understood why. My attempt at braiding the separate threads resulted in confusion, not cohesion. Carey respectfully told me he didn’t think it worked, and after viewing it with fresh eyes, I agreed.
Eager to improve my craft, I enrolled in a creative nonfiction Writing Workshop class taught by James Tate Hill. In eight weeks, we read numerous essays and parts of memoirs (including parts of his), critiqued one another’s short manuscripts, and received his guidance. The feedback J.T. and the other students gave me on my essay about Jax was practical and helpful, and his advice on a memoir-in-process gave me hope that the manuscript wasn’t destined for the trash can.
Motivated, I paid a friend Cameron, who had published an award-winning memoir, to help me integrate the feedback from the class into my braided essay. Because I’m a visual learner, I had a breakthrough when I cut up the printed version into parts and re-assembled it like a puzzle. Two drafts later, I felt it was finally complete. My friend agreed.
Taking a deep breath, I submitted this (Sixth? Eighth? Tenth?) version as part of an application to a December workshop with Lauren Winner, again through the Collegeville Institute. When the acceptance email came through, I shouted so loud I frightened my dog.
I’m excited about the upcoming weeklong deep dive into spiritual nonfiction with one of my favorite teachers.
I think the moral of the story is threefold:
- Don’t give up on a manuscript too soon. (I usually write twelve drafts of pieces before I finally hit “send.”)
- Be willing to humble yourself and take criticism. It’s not always fun to hear, and not all of it will resonate, but others’ perspectives are vital if you want to gain readers and be successful.
- Invest in your writing. Each year, I set aside a portion of our family budget to take a class. (Just a note: the WW class gave me more for my money than several other courses I’ve paid for.). It has paid off in several different ways.
I’m grateful to my friend Cameron, J.T. Hill, Writing Workshops Dallas, and my fellow WW students. Here’s to a productive and impactful 2021!
AUTHOR BIO: Dena Dyer is the award-winning author or co-author of ten nonfiction books for the religious market, and she’s had numerous articles published in Writers Digest, The Writer, Family Circle, and many other magazines. She enjoys coaching aspiring writers and is hard at work on a memoir and essays about motherhood and illness. Find out more about Dena: website, Instagram, or Facebook.