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this one time, at story camp
all my compliments and cutting remarks
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

Gee, it's been swell here at Story Camp this summer. All my friends came again this time and I made lots of new friends too! But let me tell you all about it from the beginning…

Sunday started with the long drive to camp. Actually it was such a long trip that we had to start it on Saturday. But all my counselor stressed to us the importance of cutting back on needless exposition, so I'm gonna just skip Saturday. (One time on the way, I had to get out of the car and pee behind a tree because there wasn't a bathroom for miles, and that's all I'm gonna say about Saturday.)

Then Sunday we got to our cabin, but they said we couldn't get in yet. So we went to find another friend we knew who was getting ready to leave camp that day (his name's Jason, and he's really cool and he likes Beck and Stevie Wonder). It took forever to find him but when we did we got our first glimpse of this really cool counselor. He must be an Indian or something, 'cause he's got one of those Indian names: Three Name Man. (I never had the guts to ask him what tribe he was from.)

So Jason left, but then our other friend Roger showed up and we were all of us in the same cabin, but we had different counselors. That's how it works sometimes. Last time, we were in different cabins but we had the same counselor. Weird, huh?

Anyway, all the campers and counselors had a big dinner Sunday night before we got sent off to orientation. Not much else happens other than meeting your counselor and everyone else in your group. Most of the night was just unpacking and hanging out in the cabin, although I think some of the others had stuff to read. I didn't have anything to do. Little did I realize that was foreshadowing (a literary device).

I'm not gonna go into detail on Monday through Friday even though that's like the entire camp. Pretty much all days are the same. Breakfast, reading or writing, Elevenses (someone smart gives a talk about something) if you want to go to that, lunch and then class with your counselor 'til dinner. Everyone was busy most days but me (see? did you see it coming?) with critiquing. Roger and Tracey had Three Name Man and they came out of class every day practically bouncing up and down they had so much fun. They had lots of funny stories to tell, but even more stories to read. I think they were reading every time I saw them. Jael read a lot too, though I never heard a whole lot about her class or her counselor.

My class, though, was so boring. I think my counselor thought it was LISTEN Camp. As in we all sat around and listened to her talk. We didn't have to write or read anything for class, ever, the whole week! That was crazy! Last time at camp I spent so much time reading and critiquing and writing and revising it's a wonder I remembered to eat. She didn't even actually read anything we DID write, just sat there and LISTENED to us read it aloud. She even yelled at us a couple of times that we weren't reading enough. I know she meant books but I thought it was ironic that she would say that but she wasn't having us read each other's writing. We sure heard all about her books, though. Toward the end we just started passing each other stuff when she wasn't around, exchanging excerpts and chapters so we could critique each other for real.

After class, though, was when the real fun would start. Dinnertime was always great, meeting up with everyone and talking about what you did (or didn't, in my case) do that day, and eating all kinds of stuff. Like a burrito with mashed potatoes in it! I'd never get anything like that at home. You'd think, "Iowa City, isn't that just pork and corn?" but I didn't eat either all week (except bacon and sausage at breakfast). Instead I ate lots of weird seafood — tempura shrimp, sushi and squid. And snacked on hummus and wasabi cashews and WAY too much cheese. We also had lots to drink. We had orange beer and peach beer and so much wine. I think the last day I had something that was just called "XXX."

Believe me, with some of the stories I read (borrowed from my friends because, of course, we got nothing in our class) we needed to drink just to get through them. Some of it's just basic writing stuff — too much exposition, boring characters, no clear direction. Other times though, I swear… Okay, it's like this: someone really needs to do a camp session just on S-E-X. There's more bad sex in some stories than in any five issues of Penthouse Forum (and don't ask me how I know about that). Nipples getting chewed on, vibrators the size of a man's forearm, and a guy ejaculating into a condom in midair. No joke. I'm gonna sound like my cliché-spouting counselor here, but my advice to you people is: write what you know.

Finally it was Friday night, and camp was finally over. Jael's folks showed up just like last time and took us out to eat. That's really cool of them because they always make sure we're not too depressed when it's time to say goodbye. We laughed and drank at the restaurant and then went back and laughed and drank while we packed up. Roger left way early in the morning, and Tracey and Jael left after breakfast. Now it's just me in the cabin, waiting for my family and the long drive home. (I'm going to the bathroom a lot so there's no repeat of the tree incident.)

Even though I think my class was a bust, I'm still glad I came. It's like a big vacation and everyone you see is there for the same thing — to become a better writer. You can talk to just about anyone you run into and their eyes light up when you ask them about their work. Try doing that at the grocery store or the bank where you live. Writing is a pretty solitary thing, usually, but for one week at camp, it's a group effort, and it's just about the coolest thing I know. I hope I can go next year.


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr


columnus interruptus
hey, russ, ya got a minute?
by russ carr
topic: writing
published: 7.23.08

ten lines about two lines
party's over!
by russ carr
topic: writing
published: 3.28.02


robert melos
7.25.05 @ 3:55a

You've actually given me some inspiration within your final paragraph. Cool.

jael mchenry
7.25.05 @ 9:35a

I told you all about my class... it's just harder to remember me saying things like "We discussed the author's decision not to ground the story in a particular time or place" when other people are saying things like "And then he barked for, like, 15 seconds. And not just woof-woof-woof either. That dog had DIALOGUE!"

Sanity is not memorable.

roger striffler
7.25.05 @ 10:58a

Russ is right - story camp ROCKED. I feel bad that his class sucked so bad, and I really hope he can come back next year because I really think his class was the exception. Three Name Man was great, and this one week did more for my writing than anything I've done in years. I highly recommend it to everyone who's even remotely serious about their writing. I mean, how often do you get to spend an entire week completely focused on reading and writing?

Only thing missing was more of you kids.

tracey kelley
7.25.05 @ 11:20a

I just had spicy nuts with my mid-morning apple. MMMMmm!

Story camp gives us an opportunity to put everything else aside and talk, eat, (pretend to) sleep writing. To share that with other enthusiastic people is so invaluable - when some of them are good friends, it's incredible.

We're thinking Three Name Man did not like that moniker so much, but since he wanted to go out with us a lot, I think he forgave us for it. When you get an instructor that is guiding and purposeful, it can really add to the experience of Story Camp, and I think he did that quite well. I would workshop with him again in a heartbeat.

What did we miss? More Jason love.

jason gilmore
7.25.05 @ 11:35a

That settles it.

I've got to go for a whole week next year.


roger striffler
7.25.05 @ 11:36a

Definitely. I was just hitting my stride on day 3. You need a week. It's incredible.

tracey kelley
7.25.05 @ 12:09p

Then it's settled! Intrepidites take over Three Name Man next year!!

jael mchenry
7.25.05 @ 2:09p

The really unfortunate thing about the negative instructor experience is that Iowa is generally such a well-run festival. With so many classes running for so many weeks, it's like a well-oiled machine. A shame when the more questionable counselors sneak through. At least there were other enjoyable things, like, well, us. And that burrito with the potatoes in it.

Also, just in case there was any doubt, I would like to agree with Russ that my parents totally ROCK.

russ carr
7.25.05 @ 2:14p

Dining with Jael's folks each year is like the closing banquet scene at Hogwarts at the end of each Harry Potter movie. Iowa just wouldn't be the same experience without it.

To their credit, the ISWF planners take the students' comments seriously. It's inevitable -- and constructive! -- that new blood come in to lead workshops. It's our responsibility to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, to ensure that subsequent classes get the very best writers in the country to advise them. And I think the continued success of Iowa is proof that this system works.

tracey kelley
7.25.05 @ 2:18p

We love Mom and Dad McHenry! And not just because they, you know, buy us things like dinner 'n wine 'n stuff.

Or what Russ said, only cuter.

The majority of the instructors at the Iowa Summer Writers' Festival are spot-on professionals (WITH THE EXCEPTION OF BARBARA JONES, another ego who short-sheeted the attendees one year) who have a genuine interest in the craft and helping you make it better. Classes are structured to handle the opinions and outbursts of 12 distinct personalities at various levels of completion and experience: to handle a class like that and increase the motivation of each individual writer is a real feat if you plan on getting any work done in a balanced and fair way.


sandra thompson
7.25.05 @ 7:34p

I'm jealous of alla y'all who got to go to Iowa. Sour, sour grapes!

jael mchenry
7.26.05 @ 3:21p

I've had people who aren't even writers tell me they wish they were writers so they could go to Iowa. So at least you're not alone!

I've heard some pretty terrible horror stories about workshop, though, so you never know what you're going to get. People tearing each other down to make themselves feel better, or instructors who aren't putting forth any effort, or people who just fundamentally don't get it and are only there to talk about themselves.

And, of course, there's the story of how I was told I didn't belong in an MFA program. So THAT was a fun workshop. Shameless promotion linkety!

russ carr
7.26.05 @ 3:33p

On the other hand, there's something very reaffirming about being judged by a jury of your peers, as opposed to just getting the token rejection form letter.

To get the kind of constructive criticism you get at ISWF, usually from at least a dozen other writers/authors, you'd have to be really deep into the publishing process (read: having an editor) in the real world. There's also the advantage of multiple perspectives that one lone editor isn't going to be able to bring.

I may not always agree with the critiques and recommendations I hear there, but I do respect them, because these people are informing me from the standpoint of readers AND writers.

jael mchenry
7.26.05 @ 3:43p

Yes and no. I respect almost all of them, but again, sometimes I think there are people who just don't get it. People who don't know how to workshop, so they can only say "I liked it" or "I hated it" without details, without discriminating, without describing. Or they say nothing at all, which isn't fair to anyone.

And I would say that even that is better than nothing, but we had a couple of people in our class this time who had gotten bad advice from previous workshoppers, and then rewritten their pieces to conform to that advice, and then got all 10 of us telling them to go the opposite way.

Multiple perspectives are really key. One person's advice can be good or bad. 10 people's advice is usually good because there are options.

russ carr
7.26.05 @ 4:02p

Well, yes, sorry...I thought "I do respect them (except for the loonies)" was implied.

jael mchenry
7.26.05 @ 5:33p

Loonies and neophytes and narcissists.

(Oh my!)

albert garcia
7.28.05 @ 11:26p

Story Camp did rock. It was a great week. I also took Three Name Man's class and he should have an action figure out within the year. But what about the Mexican who got flashed by Jonathan Frank. He didn't drink Jager out of a plastic shot cup for nothing.

russ carr
7.29.05 @ 12:35a

I didn't think he drank Jager at all. I remember something about Maker's Mark and a LOT of free beer.

tracey kelley
7.29.05 @ 9:42a

I also took Three Name Man's class and he should have an action figure out within the year.

HA! No doubt!

Welcome to the fold, Albert, bearer of the AAA "get all the free beer you want" card.

I still think you're shilling for Jager, tho. Look at my ch-ch-ch-ch-changes column, and you'll appreciate the drop in that.

jael mchenry
7.29.05 @ 1:14p

Two shameless promotion things, but only one of them is self-promotion, so they should balance each other out. Or something.

Shameless promotion of my column on workshopping...

... and shameless promotion of Three Name Man's site as well. Under "Sample Work" he includes the hilarious and heartening essay on rejection that was part of his reading at Prairie Lights.

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