Winter Workshop Buoy: Mitchell S. Jackson



As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction coastal workshops, we decided to check in with a few of our winter captains to get their perspective on the workshop experience.

First at the helm, Portland’s finest, Mitchell S. Jackson, who will be teaching during Session One. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?

Mitchell S. Jackson: I can’t really remember who was my first workshop leader, but I want to say it was Mark Poirier. I’m guessing this would have been my first semester at Portland State. What I do remember is feeling nervous because I’d never been in a workshop and because I wasn’t even sure if I had what it took to make it as a writer. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I knew what it took to write a short story. At that time, I hadn’t even written a complete short story in my life (why they hell I was in a grad writing program is still somewhat of a mystery).

I remember being unsure of how to respond to the work of my peers. I was also super nervous about sharing my work. One reason is because it was so autobiographical and I thought I was exposing myself, but the other reason was I wasn’t sure how it would rank in the class. I had like .01 confidence in my writing back then. I was bluffing, bigtime.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?

MSJ: One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve been given in a workshop is that the story can’t save you. Gordon Lish told us that in a workshop I had with him back in ’08. I think plenty people think they can create an awesome story and that the language of the story, the delivery system, is almost beside the point. I don’t believe plot can save me, but I think language has the opportunity to do so; therefore I put supreme emphasis on my sentences. Some people might argue against this, but I can’t see another way for me. I want to sing.


TH: Strangest or most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MSJ: The most terrifying experience I had as a participant was also in that Lish workshop. It was at the end of the first workshop, which really wasn’t a workshop, but a lecture, where he told us all to go home and write one good sentence. The catch was that we were supposed to read them the next class, and if he didn’t like them we wouldn’t get to read a second sentence. What he didn’t tell us was that if he didn’t like the beginning of the first sentence, we wouldn’t even get to read the rest of it. Talk about putting emphasis on the sentence. It don’t get no more emphatic.

TH: One of your favorite quotes on writing?

MSJ: I love the Baudelaire quote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.” See my earlier answers as to why.


Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of the e-book Oversoul: Stories and Essays, and the novel The Residue Years, which received The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It was also a finalist for the Center For Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, the PEN/ Hemingway award for first fiction, The Hurston / Wright Legacy Award for best fiction by a writer of African descent. Jackson has become a well-regarded speaker who was read and/or and lectured at institutions including Brown University, Columbia University, Yale University, Middlebury College, and UMASS; at events including The Brooklyn Book Festival, The Miami Book Festival, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival; at various adult prisons and youth facilities; and for organizations including The Pathfinders of Oregon, The PEN / Faulkner Foundation, and The Volunteers of America. He serves on the faculty of New York University and Columbia University.