“Four-days of single-minded focus.” That’s how fiction instructor David Borofka describes the Writers Studio, our four-day intensive workshop running February 4-7 in Westwood Village. This year he’ll teach Making a Scene: Elements of Structure for Story and Novel.
Not only is David an award-winning fiction writer, the recipient of our Outstanding Instructor of the Year award, and a pioneer in online writing workshops, but he’s also a mentor dedicated to helping writers find new ways of looking at craft and moving their writing forward.
We wanted to hear much more about his writing and teaching process and what he looks forward to at the Writers Studio. Enjoy our exclusive Q&A below!
Writers’ Program: What drew you to the Writers Studio? What do you look forward to most about teaching the four-day format?
David Borofka: I’ve been teaching online classes for several years now, and while I enjoy the online environment, I’ve also come to recognize that having some face-to-face contact would be nice; I’m looking forward to being in the same room with other writers!
What are some of the benefits of the four-day workshop versus a longer course?
There are always going to be trade-offs between intensity and duration. While the act of writing is, in general, more of a marathon than a sprint, participating in a four-day workshop can be a way of retreating from the influence of those “life-distractions” that so easily get in the way. Four days of single-minded focus—without picking up the dry-cleaning or paying the Visa bill or mowing the grass—may be just the quick start that a marathoner needs in order to keep going.
What do you hope your students will get out of your workshop in particular?
Fame, fortune, and notoriety will probably not be immediate benefits, but I do hope that following the class, students will have a story or an excerpt that, with a little more polish, they’ll be able to submit to a larger audience. I also hope that they will encounter another writer or two or three with whom they continue to share work. Those are the wishes that are generally true for any writing class; particular to our class, I hope that each student will have a new way of looking at the structure of another author’s story or novel as well as their own works-in-progress.
In your instructor statement, you say that a fiction writer needs: “the willingness to dream, to trust the truthfulness of his or her intuition, and the ability to translate those dreams onto paper.” In what ways do you guide students to dream and learn to trust their gifts? Which of the three is the most difficult to learn?
Each of those three seems to have its own learning curve, and even though they are sequential, I’m not sure that one is more difficult or more important to learn than the others. To my mind, willingness is linked to sitting still long enough to let the imagination work while trust and intuition are the products of practice. Translation, on the other hand, is purely a matter of craft, the discipline of transferring what we see in our mind’s eye into the code of language. How do we do all that? It starts and ends with time and patience and a chair: time set aside for the exclusive purpose of dreaming one’s way toward a story, and it continues with one’s butt in a chair in order to wrestle with sentences, the discipline and determination to practice one’s craft one more hour and, in the process, seek art.
In three of the past four years, one of your former students has been named a top-three finalist for the annual Kirkwood Literary Prize. What’s your secret? How do you bring the best out of your students?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had some very talented Writers’ Program students. Writing teachers can only do so much; they can’t imagine for anyone else, nor can they do the actual writing or revision. I consider my role to be somewhat like the doorman at a fancy hotel; I don’t have any real ownership, but I do get to say “Welcome,” open the door, invite people inside, and point them in the right direction.
You’ve written both a collection of short stories and a novel. How did your writing process differ from form to form? What can a novelist learn from studying short stories, or vice versa, a short story writer studying novels?
I’m not sure that there is a huge difference. At the end of the day, a story and a novel are both narratives that are made up of scenes—isn’t that a timely opportunity to plug my Writers Studio class!—and one is merely longer than the other. The best short stories will suggest the arc of an entire life while a novel has the opportunity to dramatize that arc more explicitly. The story writer can teach the novelist the power of suggestion and inference, while the novelist can teach the story writer the power and grandeur of accretion.
What’s your history with workshops as you were an emerging writer? Did you take them for many years as you honed your voice and craft? Where did you find a writing community?
I’ve taken workshops in a variety of contexts: as an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark College and then in the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Then several years after I had a degree I took more at Fresno State. As an undergraduate, I really didn’t know what was going on, and if anyone bothered to explain the process, I certainly wasn’t listening. During my MFA years, I always felt like I was scrambling to write a story today to submit tomorrow, and the quality of the work was questionable. Since then, however, I’ve come to realize that the best way to take a workshop is to write the stories for workshop at least one semester or quarter in advance. The work, then, is less the result of an assignment and more the product of an artistic impulse, and the workshop becomes one’s first and most immediate audience, a place to display new work and listen to readers’ reactions. I’ve loved the workshops I’ve taken (even those for which I was completely clueless), which means that the downside of graduating and leaving a program is that loss of a ready-made community, those who understand what a writer is, what a writer does, and why writers often behave in odd and mysterious and preoccupied ways. Away from the refuge of a writing program, I’ve had to rely on the willingness of writer-friends at a distance, as well as the kindness of my longsuffering wife, who has learned the tricky nuances of spousal equivocation.
If you weren’t a writer, what other profession would you choose?
Am I bound by time or place? Reality or aptitude? Anything? I think I’d like to go back in time and own a bowling alley, back in the years when the blue haze of cigarette smoke would billow to the ceiling and drift four feet off the floor. I’d own a 1956 Thunderbird with porthole windows and wear two-toned shoes on and off the lanes. Is it too much to ask for a closet full of shirts with a beer distributor’s name embroidered on the back?
Anything you’d like to add?
Maybe one of the great lines for writers… from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice: “Son, write your guts out.” Indeed. We’ll have four days. No reason to leave anything unwritten or unsaid.
Corey Campbell is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Online) and Events.