10 Things You Should Know About The Burlington Writer’s Workshop
Two weeks ago, Erin and I stayed at the Hotel Vermont, in Burlington, VT. The hotel was incredible in many ways (the restaurant, the aesthetic, the location, the free Keurigs) but most the most notable quality for us was that every room comes with a complimentary zine-style literary journal from the Burlington Writer’s Workshop. Equally exciting, the room also came with a small journal to record thoughts/ideas during our stay. The booklet featured four writers, clocking in around 18 pages. It gave us a glimpse into the valued literary community in this quaint, hip, lakeshore town called Burlington.
We had to investigate. What was the Burlington Writer’s Workshop? Why does the top-rated hotel in the state carry a sampling of their work in every room? How did this happen? As we explored the local bookstores we found this name—Burlington Writer’s Workshop—on the cover of two anthologies. In the lobbies of restaurant we saw the same name on fliers promoting local readings. Twitter connected us to Peter Biello, founder and head of the organization, who made time to meet up and chat with us on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s what we discovered about this impressive group of writers:
1. It has existed, in one form or another, for 5 years. The workshop started as an informal, weekly meeting of a half a dozen writers. Biello and a few friends met in bars and coffee shops at first, sharing and writing. More of a generative workshop at first, the early participants did writing prompts and activities to create new work. Soon they began workshopping these pieces by giving constructive feedback, suggesting edits, and coming to the workshop prepared to talk about one or two pre-submitted pieces. “It evolved pretty quickly,” says Biello, modestly, as today the workshop has about 600 of local and regional members.
2. They use meetup.com to schedule workshops 3-5 times a week. Through the site, they schedule meetings at 9:30am or 6:30pm. There are two writers workshopped per meeting and they submit one poem or story each. Then, 13 more people sign up. These 13 people will print out the two pieces being workshopped that week, read them, make comments in the margins, and write a response at the end.
3. They use an MFA-type workshop model. When the workshop date rolls around, the writers of the two pieces and the 13 other participants show up at the chosen location (now always at Studio 266 off of Pine St.). During the hour and a half meeting, members discuss the writing. A writer being workshopped at a given meeting will provide some direction for what kind of feedback they are looking for and then will read their piece aloud. After reading, the writer sits down and does not speak. Instead, they listen to the work being discussed by the other writers. When the discussion comes to an end, the writer is brought back into the conversation and asked, “Is there anything you need us to elaborate on? Any questions for us?” Biello explains that it benefits everyone to take the author out of the conversation. This way, there is no authorial explanations, defenses, or corrections of interpretation. It’s as if the readers are meeting to discuss a novel at a book club—the author isn’t there to comment.
4. Their motto is, “We’ll tell you what works well and what works less well.” Biello says, “We’re all about getting better. We’re all apprentices. We aren’t discouraging. We focus on what works well, and what works less well. We tend to not even use the word critique.” This isn’t to say that the writers here aren’t serious or talented (you can check out what many of these accomplished writers are up to here); it’s that the workshop is founded on the principal that everyone can use help. He continues, “We don’t talk about if things are good or bad. It’s not a judgment, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and suggestions for things that are working and what things might work better.”
5. Anyone can attend. Ages of active writers involved with the Burlington Writer’s Workshop range from sixteen to seventy. With no admission fee and no mandatory membership fee, financial situation doesn’t affect a writer’s ability to enter the workshop.
6. Did we mention this whole thing is free? Members do frequently donate via Paypal, and there’s also a monthly payment option available through meetup.com. This way, the organization has been receiving enough money to rent their own workshop space—open Monday through Friday for twelve hours a day—right in downtown Burlington. “I tend to feel like you shouldn’t have to pay for something like this,” says Biello. “People should be able to come and go as they like, for free.”
7. In 2013 they released their first anthology, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. They have now released two anthologies and plan to continue making a book a year. The sales of the first book have covered the cost of printing the 2014 edition, which was just released last month. We brought home a copy if you want to check it out!
8. They do local readings roughly once a month. Often times, they bring an author or poet who then does a reading at (none other than…) the Hotel Vermont, who not only provides the performance venue but a complimentary overnight stay for the reader.
9. Next year they’ll be debuting a literary magazine called Mud Season Review. We’re excited to see how this thing continues to grow.
10. Founder Peter Biello encourages writers from other cities to take what the Burlington Writer’s Workshop has done and do it themselves. “Steal it, please,” he told us, “It takes time, but it is worth it.”