Monday, August 27, 2012

Interview with Alexander Weinstein, Director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing

Alexander Weinstein is the Director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and works as a professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.  He leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe and lives in Ann Arbor.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Cream City Review, Sou'Wester, Notre-Dame Review, Rio Grande Review, Zone 3 and other journals.  He is currently finishing his first short story collection.

1) Talk to us about the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing; what went into its development (from selection/planning of workshops to instructors to choice of location) and what writers, books, experiences informed your outlook?

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing came about from my years of teaching writing on the Vineyard.  I’ve spent summers at the Vineyard since I was born—my family has a house in Aquinnah—and the Vineyard is one of my favorite places in the world, so part of my dream was to create a center for writers in order to share the beauty and creativity of Martha’s Vineyard with others.  In 2005 and 2006 I taught fiction writing workshops at Featherstone Center for the Arts on the Vineyard.  This led to my forming a writing group of Vineyard writers to teach deeper level craft techniques and help them produce new work, edit, and finish novels.  From these experiences the idea of creating the institute emerged.   There was a real need for a place where writers could gain both artistic and professional writing experience on the Vineyard and so, in 2009 I began planning for our first year. 

My goal was to create an intimate program, one which broke down the boundaries between published writers and aspiring writers, and which helped to nurture an artistic literary community.  From my experiences in academia and publishing, I felt that one of the most vital elements, often missing for the writer, is community.  Artists need to receive guidance and support in their craft, and to celebrate creative expression together.  And so I founded the MVICW in order to create a place where writers and their art could flourish.  The first faculty was selected from my fellow fiction and poetry writers/teachers at Indiana University.  What better way to create community than invite my closest friends to launch the MVICW! 

In our second year I expanded the program to include The MVICW High School Writers’ Collaborative, a creative writing summer camp for students in 8th-12th grade.  Supporting young writers is of great importance, and I wanted to contribute to the student community on Martha's Vineyard.  Many of my friends are school teachers on the island, and I greatly respect the work they do.  Working with students is essential to nurturing art.  These students are the future artists of the world, and the more I can do to support and encourage their artistic expression, the richer the world becomes.

I’m happy to say that our first three years have met with great success, and I couldn’t be happier and more thankful to all the writers and faculty who have helped to make it so. 

2) You discuss the importance and oft-time difficulty of writers finding the space and the hours to devote to their craft and the workshop’s mission in helping them do just that.  How do you instruct writers to continue some of the practices of the workshop in relation to organization, goals and schedules once they return home?  Do writers leave with a heightened awareness about making the time for their work?

One of the greatest hurdles I’ve encountered during my years of teaching writing is confidence.  The writer is unfortunately always beset by an untrained inner critic—a voice which is all too ready to lambast one’s own creativity and keep the writer from producing.  For this reason I address the importance of separating the writer into two parts: the writer and the critic, so that the fear of failure can be put aside.   The underlying fear is, if you begin writing and it turns out not as good as you’d hoped, then this might prove you’re not really cut out for writing.  This is, of course, nonsense—but it’s a powerful fear all the same.   In order to help mitigate these fears, we write a lot during the MVICW workshops.  We practice craft exercises, take risks, and share our work, and this models the work ethic and attitude necessary to continue producing work throughout the year.   As I tell students, if you’re doing things right you’ll produce bad work.  The reason for this is that you’re writing so much that some material will naturally be bad.   And we need to allow ourselves the space to write poorly if we want the inspirational work to emerge. 

Our panel discussion and publishing/editing workshops directly address how to keep the writing practice alive, and it allows students to hear the strategies and methods that all the visiting faculty have used to pursue successful careers in writing.   Outlining, drafting, the submission process, dealing with both the rejection and acceptance of one’s work, are addressed by the faculty, and the attendees go home with a writing plan for the coming year.  Many of the writers form online writing groups with the other attendees, in order to keep working on their materials outside of the MVICW.

3) One of the unique qualities about the MVICW is the intimate atmosphere in which attendees can interact with faculty outside of workshop hours at nightly activities (including readings, discussions and editing sessions).  How do you feel this impacts the attendants’ overall experience and understanding of their workshop subject matter/ideologies?  What are some additional ways in which the MVICW is unique?

The close interaction between faculty and students is certainly one of our defining traits.  After workshops, attendees and faculty go out for drinks/food together, take trips to the local fishing town for a sunset, go on sailing excursions, and the final night I cook dinner for everyone and we celebrate together.  The one-on-one editing sessions also allow writers and faculty to spend significant time talking about poetry and fiction and how to prepare work for publication.  This close connection between faculty and attendees is vital because the central mission to MVICW is to create a nurturing community of writers. 

These more intimate events break down the boundaries between attendees and faculty, and this is essential because it allows attendees to see published and award-winning writers as regular people.  Often times a kind of celebrity culture can form around famous writers, especially at conferences and workshops, and this can lead to a feeling of real separation between aspiring writers and published writers.  It’s important that this sort of separation is broken down, for I believe that now, more than ever, we need to build community, share knowledge, and help one another as artists.  The effect, for both attendees and faculty is magical.  Faculty and attendees often say they feel the MVICW has created a writing family for them.  I couldn’t hope for better praise.

4) Your selection of instructors creates a diversified perspective from various views of the literary world (both from a publishing and academic viewpoint). How did the criteria evolve for choosing instructors?   Do they typically subscribe to similar philosophies on the craft and teaching or do they differ greatly in beliefs and teaching methods?

I aim to create as diverse a program as possible.  While I personally tend to write speculative fiction and fabulism, I aim to bring in writers who work in realism and other genres.  In this way, attendees are exposed to a wide variety of styles and approaches to craft.  I find teachers/writers who have different philosophies on the craft of writing, because these differences make for exciting conversations and discussions—and it drives home the fact that there is no one way to write, no single philosophy which reveals the secret to success; writing is a personal process.  My criteria for choosing faculty is that they are excellent teachers, powerful writers, and warm-hearted, generous instructors.   I seek teachers who are skilled at breaking down the elements of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and who can tailor classes which will challenge both experienced writers and beginners.  And again, I seek writers who are generous with their time and open about their process—writers who are willing to share both their successes and struggles as writers—so that they humanize the art of creative writing. 

5) Within the Specialty Workshops, editing for publication and submitting for publication (taught by Phong Nguyen, who edits the journal, Pleiades) are included for the publishing/business aspect of the craft.  It’s a good balance to have the inclusion of these necessary and pragmatic elements in a creative workshop.  Do the Specialty Workshops rotate based on instructors and might there be future novel/short story collection/poetry anthology pitching or marketing workshops as well?

The MVICW always offers an editing/publication specialty workshop.  For many attendees, the process of submitting their work for publication can be both daunting and mystifying, and so I want to demystify the process, as well as prepare students for how to deal with rejection (which is bound to come if you’re submitting your work for publication).  Having these classes led by faculty with intimate knowledge of the process is helpful because it allows attendees  to get an inside look at the publishing world.

In the past we’ve offered Specialty workshops on The Prose Poem, Science Fiction, Playwriting and Screenwriting, and I hope to offer specialty workshops on Young Adult Literature, Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction, and Marketing in the coming years.  

6) What are some future plans or goals for the MVICW?     

Our next big step is becoming a non-profit.  This will allow for greater funding opportunities from both individuals and organizations, and an expansion of our scholarship program.   I’m proud to have been able to offer scholarships over our first three years, funded entirely by MVICW.   However, even with scholarships, there are still students who cannot afford to attend.  My hope is to begin to secure endowments for the program which would give MVICW the ability to offer many more full scholarships, both for our adult and high-school programs.  Supporting writers is the central mission of MVICW, and it’s my hope to never turn anyone away due to a lack of finances.   I see becoming a non-profit and securing grants and endowments as the next crucial step towards this goal. 

I’m also very excited to be teaming up with the Nathan Mayhew Seminars for next year’s program.  The Nathan Mayhew Seminars has had a long and rich artistic and educational history on the Vineyard, and the MVICW is thrilled to find a home on their Vineyard Haven campus.   The new location will allow us to house the faculty and hold the seminars on the same campus, making for an even more intimate environment.   Being located in Vineyard Haven will make it possible for attendees wishing to commute from the Cape during the week possible.  There are also a number of bed and breakfasts within walking distance, which will allow for easier lodging and travel for attendees.  

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