Thursday, April 1, 2010

Discovery Friday: Workshop Leader Dennis Drabelle on the Inspiration for his Forthcoming Book

Today we have a discovery of a different kind. Everyone who has attended a workshop as a participant knows how inspiring workshops can be for your creative work. But what about for the workshop leaders? Can the workshops inspire them to create? For Dennis Drabelle (Book Reviewing), the answer is yes. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization, and Smithsonian. He is a contributing editor for The Washington Post Book World and won the National Book Critics Circle's Award (1996) for excellence in reviewing. And he's the author of Mile High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode. You can read my First Person Plural interview with him here.

Here he discusses how his last workshop inspired him. (Incidentally, I just happened to take this particular workshop.)

I'm hardly the first teacher to find stimulation in interacting with students, but I may be unusual in being able to trace a book idea directly to giving a course at the Writers Center. About every other year, I teach a class in book reviewing. I ask my students to write three reviews (one on a work of nonfiction, one on a work of fiction, and the third on something of their choice), but I know they don't have enough time to read three books in six weeks. So we deem shorter pieces to be full-length books and proceed accordingly.

Two years ago we read an essay by Emerson for the nonfiction review and a story by Ambrose Bierce for the fiction review. Bierce is an old favorite of mine, and I thought that students would be interested to learn that he once took up residence in Washington, with several reporters and a cartoonist in tow, to spearhead a campaign for the Hearst papers against the Southern Pacific Railroad, which sought forgiveness of a $75 million debt owed the United States from the days of building the intercontinental railroad. Day after day, Bierce and company marshaled arguments and poured out invective, and ultimately, in the face of the immense power of the railroad's bribes, Congress voted not to forgive the debt. 

On the way home from class that night, I remembered that the railroad was widely dissed as the Octopus--and that another writer, Frank Norris, wrote a populist novel of that name, in which he attacked the Southern Pacific every bit as vociferously as Bierce. Two great American writers dueling with the same bullying monopoly--it struck me that this material might lend itself to a book about the power of the pen. Now, two years later, I've just signed a contract to write one, "Taming the Octopus." 

As I say, I've cared deeply about Bierce's work for a long time, but the spark that led to the book I'm now working on didn't start to burn until I presented what I knew about the old crusader at the Writers Center. I'm here to tell you that classes at the Center can be as beneficial to teachers as they are to students.

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