By Sarah Achenbach ’88
That first sentence was probably the hardest one I’ve written in the past 33 years.
I have decades of reasons why it took me so long to write it, but those excuses ran out this past January.
I had registered for Hollins’ January virtual Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop (TMWW) Winter Recharge program — my first creative writing seminar since graduating in 1988. Held January 29-31 through Zoom because of the pandemic, participation required 15-20 pre-submitted pages of my work in progress.
The course I had selected — The Middle Place Manuscript Workshop for Fiction Writers, Memoirists, and Essayists — best fit my chosen genre of humor writing, but I wasn’t anywhere near the middle. All I had were ideas, a sentence or two scribbled on ATM receipts, and the quiet dream of being what I considered a real writer.
Ironically, I make a living writing. As a freelance writer, I write articles and blog posts for magazines and nonprofits. It’s rewarding work, but the ideas I convey are someone else’s. For years, I dreamed of going to the annual TMWW. I pictured myself in seminars, sipping iced tea at a reading in the Green Drawing Room, or talking about character arcs while rocking on the porch of Main. But work deadlines, summer camp carpool, and other excuses kept me home.
Why, you may wonder, if I truly wanted to write, did I let life get in the way? I don’t have a good answer. But when I received the email about the virtual TMWW Winter Recharge (or “Charge,” in my case), I knew it was time to get out of my own way.
I am a veteran of many Hollins writing seminars as an undergraduate. I loved gathering with other writers in Pleasants or the Bradley conference room with my photocopies of everyone’s submissions, some pencils, and a can of Tab. Professors guided us through constructive, sometimes piercing peer critiques. While I often left a bit bruised, I always had a stronger draft and a better sense of my voice as a writer.
On Friday, January 29, as the first TMWW session was about to start, I channeled those past Hollins seminars. I told my family to be quiet — my office shares a wall with my high schooler’s drum set — and clicked on the Zoom link. I hoped that the workshop’s moderator, Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt & Company, had a lot of Richard Dillard, Cathy Hankla ’80, M.A. ’82, Jeanne Larsen M.A. ’72, and the late, ever-so-great Eric Trethewey in her. (Spoiler alert: she did.)
“We talked about how our craft was faring on the water. Other boats glided gracefully… I was pushing a beat-up inner tube into the current and tugging at my water wings.”
Having read my fellow writers’ work, I felt I knew a little bit about them, but seeing their native habitats in the Zoom tiles (Vicky’s landscape paintings, Larry’s houseplants, Barbara’s home office in Manhattan) created an immediate bond I wasn’t expecting. Throughout the weekend’s four sessions, we tracked a snowstorm moving up the East Coast with camera pans of what was happening outside our respective windows. We reminded each other to unmute. We smiled when cats, dogs, or spouses bringing tea suddenly appeared on camera.
Using Barbara’s boating metaphor for the writing process, we talked about how our craft was faring on the water. Other boats glided gracefully. For God’s sake, Larry was steering the final book in his historical fiction trilogy into port. I was pushing a beat-up inner tube into the current and tugging at my water wings.
No matter. We became the kind of tribe forged when writers bare their souls. We asked questions and shared suggestions. We took turns in “the sound- proof box” (on mute) while others critiqued our work. Barbara recalls how quickly we were in synch. “Was it that we knew how little time we had — only one weekend?” she wrote in a recent email. “I’m not sure. But the mutual respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness among the participants helped everyone’s work.”
My work was the last to be reviewed. The kids next door threw snowballs outside my office window while I scribbled notes. It no longer mattered how many decades it took to get here. Or how nervous I was. Or that all I had was 15 double-spaced pages. With each comment, my sentences and paragraphs were shifting into something that I could never have seen on my own.
Later, I asked Jamie Snead M.A.L.S. ’18, the other Hollins alumna in my workshop, about her experience for her first writing seminar. Like me, she found the cheerleading as beneficial as suggestions on text organization or word choice. “When I’m having a ‘Why am I doing this?’ kind of day, I hear all your voices in my head saying, ‘Keep going,’” she says.
After my critique that snowy Sunday afternoon, we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch (and we have). I gathered my coffee cups and shut off my laptop. Laundry and life were beckoning. And just as I had decades ago when I cut through the quiet of Front Quad after my writing seminar, notes and warm soda can in hand, I knew where I needed to go and was excited for the words to follow.
Sarah Achenbach ’88 is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.
Experience the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop
Virtual Winter Recharge: February 5-6, 2022
Summer Residential Session: June 12-17, 2022
Open to writers of all levels and genres, the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop now offers its traditional one-week summer session as well as a new Virtual Winter Recharge weekend session.
Manuscript and write-now workshops offer opportunities for manuscript reviews or generating new work. The summer workshops include craft talks, readings, and social sessions providing plenty of interaction, ideas, and support, as well as a one-on-one conference with a faculty mentor.
A list of workshops, details, fees, and more information on how to register will be coming soon and added to the TMWW site at www.hollins.edu/tmww, or you can visit by scanning the QR code:
Contact: Chris Powell, director, special programming, Hollins University, firstname.lastname@example.org