The 2014 Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat will be held August 2-7 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, the perfect summer escape. There’s something truly special and one of a kind about the stunning landscape of mountainous West Texas — not to mention the refreshing afternoon showers and cool summer evenings — that inspires writers to commune with each other and their natural surroundings and to, most importantly, dig deep and hone their craft.
During this six-day retreat, five intensive writing workshops will be taught simultaneously by five of Texas’ premier authors, offering a unique experience for participants to enjoy an intimate class setting during the day and a larger group dynamic outside of the classroom throughout the week. Open to all genres and categories within fiction, non-fiction, memoir and poetry, with classes for both beginners and more seasoned writers, this retreat is singular in its focus, its emphasis on community, and its low registration rates.
We’re fortunate to have Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall returning this year to teach a terrific class on non-fiction, “Capturing Real Life: Long-Form Narrative in a Short-Form World.” Read his Q&A below to learn more:
An Interview with Michael Hall
How do you think long-form narratives fit into the modern-day world of short attention spans and instant gratification? What can they achieve that maybe other writing styles can’t?
Michael Hall: I think that all the short pieces that everyone today loves—from tweets to Facebook posts to the shorter pieces on most online sites—have only made people want to read the longer stories even more. It’s not like we’ve evolved away from loving stories; everyone still loves a good narrative, and you just can’t do that in a tweet or in a 750-word entry in Slate or the Daily Beast. People love stories, whether hearing them or reading them, and good stories with compelling characters who do strange and noble and terrible things, stories that take time to write and read, will always be with us. It’s funny, but the short platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become signposts for the longer stories—a way to tell people about the longform things out there. And the growth and popularity of sites like longform.org and longreads.com show just how vital the long story is.
What’s one of the most rewarding or exciting experiences you’ve had as a journalist?
MH: I did a story in December 2002 about problems with the death penalty in Texas called “Death Isn’t Fair” that focused on a man named Ernest Willis, who, after six months of reporting, I was certain was innocent. I visited him twice and got to know him pretty well. After the story came out, a federal judge ordered that Willis get a new trial and the Texas attorney general decided not to appeal, leading to the DA dismissing the indictment. Willis walked out in October 2004. I’m not positive my story led to his freedom but I’m guessing it factored into the equation the authorities were factoring. I stayed in touch with Ernie afterward and did a couple of follow-ups on him.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you encounter when writing narrative nonfiction, and how do you overcome it?
MH: My biggest challenge is always organizing my notes and getting them into a reasonable system so that when it’s time to write, I can make sense of it all. I usually try to nip this in the bud by doing as much writing as I can as I go along, but that has its own problems—like way too many words. But better too many than not enough.
In your opinion, what’s the future of long-form?
MH: I think the future is good—I think long-form is going to stick around. I’m not positive about the future of paper magazines, but people are becoming more and more accustomed to reading online, and the web is, of course, infinite—stories can be as long as you want them to be. As long as people want to read good stories they will want to read long stories.
As a preview for your upcoming summer class, what’s one invaluable tip for writing meaningful and relatable long-form narratives?
MH: The most important thing to writing great long stories is writing scenes that play out in the head of the reader. If you the writer can get in the habit of creating movie-like scenes so that the reader isn’t even aware he/she is reading—he/she is so immersed in your words that he/she feels like he/she is watching it—everyone is going to want to read your story.
More information on the Summer Writing Retreat, including how to register for Michael Hall’s class, can be found here: 2014 Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat.
One of Michael’s students from last year, Joyce Boatright, was kind enough to share with us this great piece she wrote:
PIECE BY PIECE
By Joyce Boatright
“Are you Leon Hale?”
If you’ve ever met the famed columnist of three Houston dailies, most recently the Chronicle, you know Hale has a distinctive face, flat and craggy, with intelligent eyes, so approaching him with the friendly question was an easy opener for conversation. I spotted him in the Holiday Inn Express on Hwy 67 in Alpine, TX, across from Sul Ross State University, where I was attending a summer writers’ retreat, sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas.
He turned, not just his head but his whole lanky frame, and admitted with a nod, “What’s left of him.”
Rewind 49 years. I’m a sophomore in college sitting in Leon Hale’s feature writing class at Sam Houston State University. He is a daily columnist for the Houston Post, owned by Ovetta Culp Hobby, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in Eisenhower’s cabinet, and he supplements his newspaper salary with adjunct faculty pay from Sam Houston’s School of Journalism. He isn’t a lecturer and doesn’t pretend to be. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he brings in a couple of his columns and gives us the backstory before reading them to us.
My parents are avid readers, but I’m a journalism major who doesn’t read the newspaper. I’m too busy playing shuffleboard or dominoes and drinking Schlitz from icy cold long-necks at the Paper Moon in Trinity, or Borski’s outside Willis or the Magnolia in Conroe.
Leon Hale frequents those places, too, looking for copy to fill his column. He takes the class on an occasional field trip, like to the Martin Boarding House on the corner of 15th Street and Avenue K. Mrs. Martin gives us a tour of her two-story hardwood house with its peeling paint exterior and peeling flower wallpaper interior. She rents rooms to college boys, mostly ag majors, who park their pickups off the street and on the grass-stripped, red dirt backyard. Their rooms are decorated with Playboy center-folds.
Hale has told us to take in the details. He says it’s the detail’s that make a feature story come alive. Maybe not those exact words, but something close enough because I’m jotting down the way Leta Martin is dressed in a man’s coveralls, how her red hair is a tussle of curls, how her pale freckled face is bare of makeup, how she smokes unfiltered hand rolled cigarettes. Leon Hale teaches us by example and then leads us to the small-town, ordinary folks he writes about and challenges us to describe them in detail so that the reader can see their character.
In the breakfast area of the Holiday Inn Express, I re-introduced myself to Hale as a former student from 1965. He asked my name, I told him, and he smiled politely. I looked past him toward the lobby, and he moved around me. “Here, let me get out of your way.”
I took the comment as a polite way to send me off. “Okay. It was so good to see you again.”
“Wait. What are you doing here?”
I was reminded of his journalistic curiosity and I thought to myself, a true journalist never loses that curiosity.
I told him I was at a retreat sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas, taking a course in the long narrative from Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall, and then I asked what he was doing in Alpine.
“My wife is at the same outfit, taking an editing course in fiction for a novel she’s written.”
I said goodbye for real—I didn’t want to be late for my class.
Back in class, Michael Hall’s teaching methodology reminds me of Hale’s teaching style. The class picks at Hall the same way we picked at Leon Hale, hungry for the details of the story behind the story, the story of how and why he wrote about the topics and themes he did.
Yep, we took pieces of Leon Hale like we take pieces of Mike Hall, and one day, maybe four decades from now, he may run into Suzanne Haberman, the youngest in the class, and she’ll ask, “Are you Mike Hall?” And he may well reply with a nod, “What’s left of him.”