A Poet Goes Prose: Field Notes from the Ko`olau Writer’s Workshop

Laptop, check. Overpriced but adorable handmade notebook, check. My favorite blue Papermate pens, check.

On Saturday, March 21st at 8:00am I was out the door, making my way along the coast to join 70 or so other writers at the Koʻolau Writer’s Workshop at Hawaiʻi Pacific University’s Hawaiʻi Loa Campus in beautiful Kāneʻohe. The workshop has been in the hands of novelist Tyler McMahon and scholar Kathy Cassity, HPU faculty, since 2013.

Hoisted on a verdant hill just off Kamehameha highway, with the Koʻolau Mountains hovering in the background, HPU’s satellite campus has been an ideal spot for this creative gathering since 1998.


I started teaching at the workshop four years ago, when HPU sent out an open call for workshop instructors. I was in my second year of my PhD candidacy at the University of Hawaiʻi, looking for any and all teaching and writing opportunities on Oʻahu.

I knew this year would be different, not only because it was the first time that I was participating as an attendee rather than as a workshop facilitator. It was also the first time I’ve attended any kind of workshop outside of academia in over five years.

I was looking forward to sitting back while someone else doled out writing exercises, made pithy comments, and unloaded their writerly knowledge to a roomful of eager creators. I love leading classes, but sometimes it’s nice to live in the audience.

As a Koʻolau Writer’s Workshop facilitator you get 90 minutes to unleash some quick and dirty tricks in the genre. In my poetry classes we did things like write in the register of Shakespeare and Dickinson, construct erasure poems, and scan lines of trochaic tetrameter. I figured people who come to these workshops want to do one thing: write. So this is what I was prepared to do.

The way Koʻolau works is that you have to register for the event, not the particular workshops offered. Before attendees break off and enter the classroom where their workshop of choice is held, facilitators step up to the podium to say a few words about their class, hoping to rally students to their classes.

The line-up included fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and screenwriting workshops. You could go to one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. One by one, instructors walked up to podium to talk about their classes. I was surprised to find a common thread in their offerings. Instead of craft workshops (e.g. “how to construct a plot,” “dialogue to catch your readers’ attention,” “sonnets for the 21st century,” or “the transformative memoir”) most instructors were advertising Buzzfeed-like how-to guides for writing and publishing.

I was skeptical, of course. There’s been a shift in topics in the literary community these days. From the MFA debates to the sexual harassment scandals, it’s been a difficult year for the creatively inclined. And while the move from craft to industry has probably been happening slowly but surely for over a decade, it’s still shocking to see technique take a backseat to the business of writing.

Even though I was surprised by the workshop descriptions, I was not unwilling to go along for the ride.

I am a poet. I like prose—especially reading it, and I have a few prose poems under my belt, so I decided to try my hand at something different, the fiction and nonfiction workshops.

Shawna Yang Ryan, Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, led the fiction workshop. Shawna is also the author of Water Ghosts (Penguin, 2010) and her novel Green Island is forthcoming from Knopf.

Shawna was a visiting professor at UH while I was a student there, but I never had the opportunity to take a class with her. I’ve heard students rave about her workshops, so I was super excited.

Shawna’s workshop focused on “The Five Things I Wish I Knew” before writing her novel, and the room—a small stadium-like auditorium on the first floor—was packed. Three quarters of all the Koʻolau attendees, about 50 people, sat with their backs erect in tiny desk chairs. Shawna stood in front of an enormous floor-to-ceiling white board. I opened my laptop to take notes.

The five topics included the entire gamut: writing process, craft, writer’s block, revising, and publishing. I was impressed by the way Shawna organized her talk—including exercises per topic, like writing down your writing habits and then writing down how you can improve upon them.

My favorite exercise was summarizing your novel in two or three sentences, then turning to your neighbor and reading him or her your summary. The goal was for your neighbor to ask questions: What details does he or she want to know? What questions do you have about the story? This exercise translates perfectly to poets like me who have projects that are experimental but narrative. Sometimes the “story” doesn’t come across, and having to articulate that to someone else is so helpful.

Another exercise that was fun and challenging is what Shawna calls the “Fortunately/Unfortunately” game. She suggests using this strategy for writer’s block where something has to happen—fortunately or unfortunately—to the character. We went around the room, each student offering a scenario. Although we haphazardly ended up with a lonely woman at a bus who somehow spoke the same language as a dragon, the exercise was a good example of how to generate ideas that help you get unstuck.

I’m not going to reveal all of Shawna’s tips, but it was the best hour and a half of my day. The workshop definitely wasn’t something I was expecting. Even though I didn’t write a character sketch or ten ideas for a novel, I walked away feeling full and inspired.

The second workshop I attended was creative nonfiction, led by Susan Scott, who writes the weekly “Ocean Watch” column for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and has written seven books about nature in Hawaii. Her most recent book is called Call Me Captain, A Memoir of a Woman at Sea (she admitted in the workshop that her dream title was Sailing Through Menopause, but her publisher shut that down.)

In this workshop Susan promised to give the class the best advice and worst advice she’s received throughout her writing career.

Lots of the same writers from Shawna’s workshop now sat in the tinier classroom upstairs to hear Susan talk. We went around the room, introducing ourselves and discussing our writing backgrounds. It seemed like everyone who was working on a novel also had memoirs in their back pockets.

I began feeling a bit more like a poet again.

It was difficult for me to relate at first—Susan is what she calls herself a “trained” writer, and being fresh out of academia, I felt like maybe she was giving off an anti-academic vibe reminiscent of the 90’s. But that’s okay—I’ve been there too.

Susan’s advice came in practical waves—make sure you have a hook, each chapter needs to thread at least one theme throughout the book, write like everyone you know is dead. The worst advice she ever received was to take a basic writing class—something an editor suggested she do after she wrote her memoir.

I was entertained by her hilarious story-telling and friendly demeanor. Susan’s strength as a workshop leader is her honesty—she put everything on the table—and told students what works for her. No frills.

But overall, I left Susan’s talk feeling less full and inspired and more stuffed and overwhelmed by a day of nonstop workshopping. My brain was starting to crave a Netflix marathon and bowl of popcorn.

What Susan’s workshop did make me realize is that writers want to be around other writers—soak up their experiences, trade advice, talk about their struggles with their own work.

Both workshops performed something integral to the Koʻolau gathering: community. I’ve been thinking about the word “community” for many years, and most seriously when I started Mixing Innovative Arts in 2009. What makes up a writing community? What forms do they take? How do genre, gender, race, and place construct and deconstruct ideas about communal writing?

What I’ve learned is that in most cases politics eventually enter writing communities or become the foundation for creating writing communities. People band together under activism, not just aesthetics. It’s pretty amazing to see writers come together with a mission, but it’s also really nice to be able to count on something like the Koʻolau Writers Workshop to attract people from a variety of communities for one simple reason: the love of writing.

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