Unexpected Changes: the Workshop

Every summer for the last twelve years, high school students interested in writing from all over Western Washington have attended a two-week program at the University of Washington called the Young Writers Workshop of the Puget Sound Writers Project. For many of those years, I’ve been invited to be a guest writer for a couple hours, using whatever I’m working on at the time as a springboard for a writing exercise.

One year we did a classroom reading of a new play of mine, a four-character werewolf version of the Red Riding Hood story called Red. Another year I demonstrated the step-by-step process of transforming the classic novel of Frankenstein into a theatrical adaptation, a romantic version seen from Elizabeth’s point of view. Another year I worked through the structure of Seattle Ghost Story, my third novel, showing how certain characters were chopped out and why. You get the picture. Whatever I’m working on, I throw something together that I can share with young writers.

This year I’m confronted with a challenge. What I’ve been working on is a very personal sequence of twelve essays, dealing with some new issues in my life after a traumatic last summer. It means opening up in a way I never have before. I’ve selected the second essay of the collection, “My Cancer Summer,” as the piece I’ll share with the students. The topic of the essay for class discussion is how unexpected change can alter the course of your life.

Their instructor, Steve Garmanian, has taught English for the past twenty years at Cascade High in the Everett School District and has been published in a variety of literary magazines. He’s guided the summer youth workshop for twelve years, and will be putting the twenty-two students enrolled this year through an intense two weeks of writing. My date for sharing with the workshop is next Friday.

Steve and I have discussed how we’ll arrange the experience. Steve wants to start with me reading the essay. He wants each student to have the text. I’ll have twenty-two copies, but I’ll hand them out after the essay has been read. You see, I haven’t been completely up front with Steve on this. He thinks he knows what the essay is about, because of the title, but he doesn’t.

Instead of me reading it aloud, I’m going to ask Steve to read the essay. I keep trying to read it myself, but I get so choked up I make these embarrassing noises and can’t talk. I have buried emotions here that I haven’t dealt with. I’m not emotionally detached yet. So I’m going to introduce the series of essays, and explain how I came to write them, and then throw Steve and the students into the experience blind.

Afterward, I’ll pass out copies of the text, we’ll discuss how the essay was constructed, the devices used to create a sense of realism and honesty. I’m sure we’ll also discuss what the essay is about. The students will be given a brief session to write down their own short, spontaneous essay on an unexpected change that altered their own lives. Then we’ll hear some of them read aloud. This could be electrifying.

The text of my 1500-word essay, “My Cancer Summer,” will be my next blog. And then I’ll tell you what kind of experience it triggered in twenty-two high school writers.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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