Writers on Writing
Writers on Writing


Five Lessons from a Writing Workshop

by Molly Tolsky

As part of our expanding coverage of the literary world outside of NYC, intrepid writer Molly Tolsky reports on becoming a student again at the Tin House Writing Workshop in Portland, Oregon.  

Six years after solemnly swearing to all who would listen that I would never take another writing workshop again, I flew off to Portland, Oregon last month to take another writing workshop. It was the Tin House Summer Workshop held on the campus of Reed College, and I was wooed by the star-studded faculty line-up, friends’ testimonials, and Portland itself. I wanted to see if I could ever be cool enough to live in a city like that (I can’t). I wanted to take a break from my 9-5 life, and New York in the summer—its stench and humidity, its gasping subway cars. More than anything, I wanted to think of only writing for one week. I wanted to come home motivated, energized, less prone to watching an entire season of Frasier in one day and more loyal to the page.

I somehow managed to do all that and pick up some pretty nifty life lessons along the way. Here they are:

1. Writing workshops are for everyone

You will meet people who are working on book number two or three, people with agents and editors and maybe even publicists, whom you might have previously assumed couldn’t possibly need another workshop like this. And then you will meet people so young they will turn to you during the dance party when TLC’s “Waterfalls” comes on and ask, “Who is this, Whitney Houston?” and you will literally have to run away. But you will love them all, and you will learn from them all, because there is no magical stage when a writer grows out of the need to improve, when you no longer crave the feedback of your peers, when you can’t benefit from sitting around a table and talking about whether or not an ending is earned, no matter how many times you’ve had this fucking conversation before.

2. Writing workshops are basically nerd summer camp

I’m a Jew, so I know a few things about the cult of the summer camp, and this, my friends, was exactly that. Replace the cool, older counselors who teach you how to kiss with award-winning writers who teach you how to structure a story (and maybe kiss? I don’t know what went down at the bonfire every night…). Because yes, there is a bonfire. And a lot of spontaneous singing and dancing. And big faculty readings put on in the amphitheatre every night, which means plenty of bug bites. Intense relationships form in a day, and it’s possible to go through every stage of grief over the course of a workshop. And then you come home and all you can talk about is the workshop and the friends you made there, and your home friends get so sick of hearing about it, but THEY JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. Camp friends forever.


3. Writing workshops will make you cry

A few days into the conference, which felt like a few years into the conference (anyone who’s ever been to summer camp knows how time can stretch in funny ways), I turned to my friend Kira and said, “I feel like I’m about to burst out into tears at any second. Is that normal?” She told me when she went to the winter workshop last year, every single person in her workshop cried in every single class. Assured but still convinced that my tears would happen at the worst possible moment, I went on with my days ready for whatever emotional breakdown was surely coming.

And come it did, during my one-on-one conference with Claire Vaye Watkins while we discussed my story over lunch the last day. I kept it together while she gave me incredibly helpful feedback on a story I’ve been trying to crack for a year and a half, but then she asked one very simple question, “What else is on your mind?” and OH MY GOD the floodgates opened before I could get one word out. Through tears I heaped all my writing anxieties on poor Claire—how do you find time to write when you have a full-time job; how will I ever write a book when it takes me two years to write one story; why am I even writing stories when apparently nobody wants to read them—and bless her heart, she listened and gave just the perfect advice. Then she hugged me. And I needed that hug so, so badly, it was worth the tuition alone.

4. Writing workshops are actually just an excuse for karaoke

“I always thought anyone who did karaoke couldn’t be a real writer,” Claire Vaye-Watkins told our class one morning, “but last night, Molly, you were the writerest of us all.” 

It turns out Tin House takes its karaoke very seriously. As soon as you get accepted into the program, the emails start, reminding you again and again that everyone must participate—or at least dance. Tales from workshops past swirl the campus, legendary performances by students and faculty alike. Karaoke night happened to fall out on my friend Genevieve’s birthday, so we left campus for dinner. (Indian street food at Bollywood Theater seemed slightly more festive than the dorm cafeteria.) We showed up when the event was already in full swing, flashing disco lights and wild applause pouring out from the student union. I ran and put my name into the ring as quickly as I could. I happen to love performing—karaoke included, even though I can’t sing for shit—a fact that sometimes surprises people who view me as more of a quiet, awkward introvert (i.e. a writer). But I was a competitive figure skater and dancer before I was a writer, and something about that spotlight still soothes my ever-needy soul.

Show-stopping performance after show-stopping performance went by: my friend Alisson with a long flowy maxi-dress to match her long flowy blonde hair belting out “I want to fuck you like an animal” a la Nine Inch Nails; star literary agent Eric Simonoff screaming “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while Joshua Ferris headbanged in the crowd; many, many worthy boy band performances. I was starting to worry that I had gotten there too late, that I would miss my chance to go down in Tin House history, when the DJ called my name up to the booth. “Are you ready to close us out?” he asked. “Absolutely I am,” I said. I took my place on stage, the strobe lights came on, the smoke machine billowed behind me, and Missy Elliott's perfect beats came on. I rapped my heart out to "Work It," and suddenly I didn’t care if I ever published a book, won an award, was nominated for anything, or wrote another single word ever again. My life peaked on the karaoke stage that night, and I am more than okay with that.


5. Writing workshops do not require an extra day “just for fun”

Since this was my first time going to Portland, and because I figured I wouldn’t have a lot of time to actually explore the city throughout the week, I booked a red-eye flight for my return trip Sunday night, giving me an entire day to do it up in Portland. How fun! How exciting! How utterly idiotic. Turns out after a week of non-stop classes, lectures, readings, dancing, drinking, talking, SO MUCH TALKING, thinking, and almost no sleeping (dorm beds are about as comfortable as you remember), the last thing you want to do is explore a new city, even one as lovely as Portland. What I wound up doing with my *fun extra day* was dragging my suitcase to a delightful tea shop and just sort of pretending to read while my friends checked out the last standing porn theater across the street (for the story, you guys). I’m not saying this was a bad day. I’m just saying it would have been better in my own bed.

Monday morning at 6 am, I got in a cab from JFK to my apartment, intent on working that day despite my lack of sleep. The driver was intent on telling me how tired I looked, and ten minutes into the ride, he’d convinced me to take a sick day. In my apartment, I dropped my suitcase by the door and stormed into my bedroom, announcing, “I missed you so much!” to my beautiful bed as I collapsed into it. For a moment, before I fell asleep for twelve hours, I toyed with the idea of never leaving my apartment again, of quitting this whole living and writing thing out of sheer exhaustion, but I quickly reminded myself why I keep doing it, why any of us do: for the stories.







Molly Tolsky is a writer and editor originally from Chicago, currently living in New York. Her work has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Lumina, Modern Loss, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Alma, a new lifestyle publication for Jewish women, and senior editor of No Tokens. mollytolsky.com



*Story photo of author Aimee Bender reading at this summer's Tin House Writing Workshop by Molly Tolsky.