As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next on the dock, Justin Hocking.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Justin Hocking: Sophomore year at the University of Colorado, over twenty years ago. I studied psychology, but my first writing workshop felt much more important and consequential than Behavioral Neuroscience or Statistics. I wrote a poem, in ALL CAPS, about the Buick I drove at the time. The title of the piece was, unsurprisingly, “MY BIG ASS BUICK.” During workshop, the instructor said the the piece had “pizazz.” I savored his words for days afterward—my poetry has pizazz! It’s all a little embarrassing to think of now. But it was the only class where my own life seemed to matter, beyond my ability to memorize facts and fill out scantron tests. It taught me the importance of meeting students where they’re at, giving gentle encouragement, and staying open to every writer’s creative potential.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
JH: I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Barry Lopez. He entered the classroom and immediately began futzing with the computer monitor connected to the overhead projector. We thought he was getting his Powerpoint ready, but in fact he was removing the entire computer from the classroom. He just carried it out into the hall and left it there. It was his way of meeting us on an authentic, human level, without the ever-present distraction of technology. He also wanted us, as writers, to bust out of the one-dimensional mindset that so often sets in when we stare at a computer screen for hours on end. I’m also consistently blown away by Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing and unconventional teaching methods. I once heard her tell a group of young writers not to worry so much about genre boundaries or labels when you’re drafting, to instead just let the language and images and stories pour out of you onto the page, without inhibition, like water. That’s some of the best and boldest advice I’ve heard.
TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
JH: My roommate in graduate school had an unusual writing practice. It began in the late afternoon, when he spent an hour or so online, pricing out the best champagne for under $20. Later, he’d come home from the liquor store with two bottles of bubbly in his knapsack. Over the course of the evening and well into the night, he drank all the champagne and typed up short stories that were part Hunter S. Thompson, part Dudley Moore. They made for some strange workshops, indeed.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
JH: I’m a fan of Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola—lots of solid advice re: drafting, revising and publishing creative nonfiction. It also contains one of my favorite craft essays of all time: “A Braided Heart” by Brenda Miller. In it, the author recalls the revelation of discovering lyric essayists like Albert Goldbarth, who braid in multiple narrative threads, themes, images, etc. into single works. The concept of braiding sparked a major breakthrough for Miller—her essays began diving into more deeply personal material, while simultaneously expanding farther outward, weaving in news of the wider world. Miller relates all of this via a brilliant craft essay that is itself braided with multiple sections about the collage artist Joseph Cornell, French braids, and even recipes for challah bread.
Justin Hocking served as Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center from 2006 to mid-2014. His his work has appeared in the Rumpus, Orion, Thrasher, The Normal School, the Portland Review, Portland Noir, Poets and Writers, and elsewhere. His memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014. Wonderworld was a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers’ 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing and teaching. He is a cofounder, with A.M. O’Malley, of the yearlong Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and also teaches in the Wilderness Writing MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.