The Writers Studio

Update, 8/5/19: more than two years on, I’m embarrassed by the writing sample provided below. I’m also embarrassed over my early enthusiasm for the Writers Studio. It can function well as an introduction of sorts for newcomers, but I can’t recommend it for anyone else—student abilities vary widely (and too much time is devoted to those less skilled), instruction can be uneven and the two-page exercises grow tedious over time.

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

“Zuma Beach,” Thomas Pletcher, 2/7/17

American girls want everything in the world
You can possibly imagine.


During my first year at American Newshound I fell in with a couple of womanizers in the Marketing Department. This only seemed natural. There were a lot of good-looking women at the newspaper, which was developing national and even global aspirations in a period when newspapers counted for something. It was an exciting time. There were also plenty of good-looking women in New York at large. Sex was conspicuously in the air back then, along with its confederate, cocaine, and it seemed everyone had a role to play in this atmosphere of nocturnal intensity. I’d go out with these two guys after work sometimes and we’d hit various bars to see what we could turn up. One guy was married, the other wasn’t. My own marriage was less than a year old, but I didn’t see much harm in bar-hopping or indulging in the occasional snort since I’d almost always wind up going home afterwards. Sure, I was tempted at times. But I didn’t feel compelled to follow through the way my two colleagues did, as I was basically content with my wife. Then, as I was winding up my first summer at the paper, management announced that the annual autumn sales meeting would be held in L. A.

The New York summer had been unpleasantly muggy so the climate in Los Angeles—warm, dry, breezy—was a refreshing change. When we made our way out of LAX on that October Monday morning we all took a deep breath. Smog? What smog? Don had rented a car, a Mustang convertible, and as we drove from the airport to our somewhat dingy hotel downtown I thought the palm trees, though not as tall as I’d envisioned, seemed glamorous. Once we got to our rooms we found that management had scheduled an afternoon volleyball game at Zuma Beach, as a kind of get-loose warm-up before the kickoff dinner and call-to-arms speech scheduled for that evening. We quickly changed into our brand new beachwear while sampling the minibar’s cache of little clinking  bottles, then piled back into the convertible. It was a smooth trip down Las Virgenes/Malibu Canyon Road to the Pacific Coast Highway and then on to the beach. Everything we passed seemed mellow and fine and as we drove through the brown hills past stucco bungalows and strip shopping malls and bustling takeout joints we found ourselves growing more and more relaxed. The ocean views along the coast highway only intensified our feeling of well-being and by the time we got to Zuma Beach we felt we’d truly arrived. This was prime time, this was the movies, this was the California we’d imagined.

Don and Kevin and I climbed out of the car. Don, the Marketing Director, was in fact the guy who had hired me. He was a careless dresser (shirt partially untucked, tie askew) and a married suburbanite from Jersey. But his thick, dark mustache and head of tightly sprung curls gave him something of a louche appearance and actually he did somewhat resemble a porn star of the era, at least while clothed. Kevin was his second in command, an Irishman with an undercurrent of anger who prided himself on his Gaelic charm. He too sported curly hair but his quick flirty banter couldn’t quite conceal a nervous fervor that equable Don lacked. The two of them would sometimes compete for the same woman on nights out in New York. As the youngest and lowest-ranking of this trio, I was odd man out. While I did fancy myself possessed of a certain charisma, I had straight hair and a fairly straight reputation and I think Don and Kevin regarded me as a kind of good-luck charm more than anything else.

Down on the beach, a volleyball game was already in progress. As we drew closer, I saw Cheryl—the newest member of the sales team, and a looker—leaping high to spike the ball. She was spectacular in her bikini; I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

I’d spoken with Cheryl back in the office a number of times, and I’d even taken her to lunch once. Of course I felt her physical pull, but Cheryl’s personality was so warm and engaging and her dark blue eyes so lively and intelligent that I found myself treating her as a colleague, albeit a sexy one. Besides, overt hitting on one’s co-workers was frowned upon, even back then. Not that this stopped Don, who went through a whole string of personal secretaries during the time I worked at the Hound.

As Cheryl turned from the net, laughing, blond hair swinging, she caught my eye and held it. That’s all it took; I felt every restriction slide away. No matter what, I had to have her.

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