The gentleness of John Sheehy reveals itself only after the first impression has time to fade. John is a big man with the body of a boxer, triceps that stretch the sleeves of his shirt and bird legs poking out of shorts. He has a shaved head and a graying goatee and a pickup truck and a low voice. None of this screams gentle.

But it is that voice that first betrays the light touch to follow. It is often half-whisper, especially when giving advice to writing students, especially when guiding the hesitant over that swaying rope bridge that connects private creativity to public consumption.

John is a creative writing professor at Marlboro College, a white-clapboard-and-green-shutters oasis on a hill in Vermont. It’s a hardship tour, for all of us, hiking via footpath to an airy library to talk about writing. Seventeen students, John, Maurice Decaul, Matt Gallagher, Jen Percy and I, plus Brandon Willitts of Words After War, planner of the party, at the organization’s first summer writing intensive.

John defaults to generosity. He has few rules in the writing workshop, but these two stand out: respect everyone’s work, and give them a cookie for the good parts of every piece. Harder than it sounds, that last one.

But our students have responded and mirrored his approach. Some are veterans, some are not. They have varied writing interests and goals, but all seem eager to learn and take pieces home with them better than the drafts they brought. I have heard stories of hurricanes and flirting in art galleries, coming out and the old Scots-Irish families in West Virginia. Many don’t contain military themes at all, and yet are informed by that experience, in subtle ways.

I did not enter writing through a traditional academic path, so for me this workshop experience is still somewhat novel. I can count on one hand the number of such sessions I have attended prior to this week. And so I find John guiding me as well, gently and by example, to not assume the familiar role of editor, and instead be facilitator and counselor and coach and motivator and sage that has looked inside the writer’s Bag of Tricks.

It’s timely practice for me – I’ll be teaching another workshop at the Chautauqua Institution next week. Thank you to John and Marlboro and my fellow writers and the students for the on-the-job training.

3 thoughts on “Workshopping in the Woods

  1. Reblogged this on Eclectic Alli and commented:
    Nice to hear this little reflection of a participant in this workshop. I graduated from Marlboro back in ’99, and it is still one of those places that holds my heart. The school demands quality writing from ALL of its students, and I love that they are reaching out to those who are not students to share in writing workshops. I swear, there is something magical about that hill. I cannot count the number of times I have, in recent years, wanted nothing more than to go sit on one of the swings on the hill, in the apple tree in the middle of campus, or in the woods just beyond and let the creative energy flow through me.
    The approach that Brian shares, “facilitator and counselor and coach” is the Marlboro approach to education (at least in my experience), it is what I strive for when I am in an educator role, and what I look for in educators I am working with.
    And that’s my mini-love-letter to Marlboro, spurned by this little blog entry.

  2. On this rainy day in Baltimore, this reflection has me wishing I could time travel a week back to that place. It was an intense and highly reflective week for me. I am still processing it. Thank you so much for your wise counsel and generosity.

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