01 October 2009

Interview with Rachel Kann

By Lori A. May

Rachel Kann is an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, which you can learn more about here. She is also an award winning poet and the author of 10 for Everything, a collection of short stories. As part of the interview series here on Poets’ Quarterly, I spoke with Rachel about her pedagogical philosophy and the benefits of writing workshops.

You're experienced the writing workshop both as a student and as an instructor. How would you prepare a young writer who is considering participation in a workshop for the first time?
I would tell them to come with an open mind and an exceedingly positive attitude; that their ego will not be of much use to them in this environment. I'd advise them to be open to trying new things, but to stay true to their distinct voice. I'd urge them to be exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to mix it up with other writers in the workshop environment, and to focus on what is working in their fellow writers' pieces.

As someone who has a lengthy history of teaching, what is your response to the question, "Can writing be taught?"
Absolutely, yes. But more importantly, can writing be learned? Again, the answer is yes. It's up to each individual to decide how dedicated they want to be to any pursuit. Basically, I have a lot of faith in the human ability to achieve. I mean, people can survive concentration camps. Heather Mills, with a prosthetic leg, (love her or hate her,) can ballroom dance and do flips on TV. I believe in any person's capability to reach whatever artistic goals they have, regardless of how long the journey may be. And it's a never-ending journey. For everyone. How hard is the person willing to work? 

What is the most valuable lesson you learned as a student in a writing workshop?
God, there are so many. I wish I had some overarching spiritual answer for you, but the truth is, I learned fabulous nuts-and-bolts things about the craft of writing that are like gold to me. Tod Goldberg encouraged me to break rules and conventions of fiction...but only if I could do it so well that the quality was undeniable. Rob Roberge taught me to excise the word "suddenly" from writing, because it only slows down what you are saying. Also, that it's ok to confuse your characters, but never the reader. Suzanne Lummis taught me not to fear punctuation in my own poetry.

What do you hope to offer your students at UCLA Extension Writers' Program?
I teach a variety of different workshops in different genres for different levels of experience, but I can say that if my students leave the workshop committed to these craft rules, I feel like I can sleep easy:
*Show, don't tell.
*Be specific.
*Use 5-sensory description to land your writing here on earth.
*Embrace, adore, and honor the editing process.

Peer critiquing can be emotionally challenging and sometimes workshops offer negative responses to a student’s work. How do you encourage your students to take something positive from a workshop or to find balance in the criticism received?
I encourage my students to focus their critiques on what is working in their fellow writers' pieces, rather than on what isn't. I explain to them that workshopping a piece is not about killing the unique voice found therein, rather it is to nurture that voice and make the piece as effective as possible. In keeping their focus on supporting each others' work, they are less concerned about their own ego, and more concerned on doing the best writing they are capable of. This helps the insecurity regarding workshopping recede to a minor concern.

Is the workshop setting for everyone?
I think everyone should try workshopping at least once, because writing does not exist in a vacuum, it exists as a dance between the writer and reader. Workshopping can give you that immediate feedback on your piece from someone not married to or related to you...a more honest take on the piece, to be sure. I also think people can become workshop-addicted. It's all about finding a balance.

What other options might an emerging writer explore, if not a formal workshop?
The best part about workshopping is the opportunity to interact with other writers. So I'd encourage a writer to explore creating a writers' group with some fellow poets and/or prose writers, and meet regularly. The gift of a workshop (or a writers' group) is accountability.

Share one of your most surprising, inspiring, or moving experiences from a workshop, either as a student or as an instructor.
The most inspiring, exciting, AND moving experience I have had as a student involves discovering myself as a fiction writer...which I had no idea I had any aptitude for until I faced my fears, took a deep breath, and plunged into a fiction workshop with Tod Goldberg. The experience altered the course of my life forever.

Finally, Rachel, what classes are you instructing in the near future? How can interested writers enroll or learn more?
I'm currently instructing exclusively through UCLA Extension Writers' Program. My next workshop with open space for enrollment is an online poetry workshop. It's called "Writing The Poetry of Luminous Things" and it starts January 20th.

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Lori A. May is the Founding Editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Visit her website at www.loriamay.com.