Feed Your Reader: A Workshop with Nathaniel Popkin

by Marcella Haddad on October 14, 2014

I was supposed to tell a story in six pages.

Some people only did one page, others went over, but I was right on the dot. I submitted six pages from the beginning of one of my novels. I sent it in, printed out the submissions from the nine other workshop participants, and nervously waited for Friday, flipping through the pages of writing from my peers. I had no idea what to expect, or what I was supposed to do. All I could do was wait.

Photo by Jennifer Koscis '17.

Friday afternoon, I walked into the conference room in the castle. I could tell which one was Nathaniel Popkin, and I liked him immediately. His hair stuck up a bit, like he’d run his fingers through it or gotten caught in wind, and he was enjoying the complimentary lemonade and potato chips as much as the rest of us. We got started, and immediately the mood in the room was friendly. He treated us more like peers than pupils. We were all bonding as fellow writers, not teacher and students.

We looked at each person’s piece, one at a time. We would share comments, and he would add his own thoughts. After we read Nicole’s short story, Brian asked her if it was part of a longer work.

“It’s the beginning of a novel, I think,” she said softly, looking down at her paper. “But I don’t know much.” She smiled nervously.

Popkin threw his head back and laughed, tilting his chair. “That’s great. Everyone should wake up every morning and say, ‘I don’t know much.’”

The workshop continued, some of us frantically scribbling notes, others listening to their critiques with somber intensity.

“Use details,” Popkin said more than once. “Don’t let them be in the dark. Feed your reader.”

My piece was next, and I was sure that the sound of my heartbeat was echoing throughout the room. I had been working on it for weeks. It was the first six pages of one of my novels, Breathe. It was about a group of people buried with their king in a pyramid in an Egypt-like fantasy world. As students shared their opinions, and I felt my nervousness dissipate.

Photo by Jennifer Koscis '17.

“Good world building.”

“Maybe take out some sentences from this first paragraph, it kind of repeats itself.”

“I want to read more!”

“Could you think of a better word here?”

I scribbled notes in the margins of my own copy, nodding constantly to keep up with the stream of critiques.

The very last piece was only two pages, and it dealt with 9/11. Popkin commended Kyrstan on her treatment of a serious subject, and she shared what is now one of my favorite pieces of writing advice.

“I had a Creative Writing teacher who told us, ‘our fiction is someone else’s fact.’ So I tried my best to really do justice to the experience,” She said.

The workshop ended, and in another hour, we met up again for the reading of Popkin’s new book, Lion and Leopard. At the end he did a book signing.

“Good work today,” he said, as I handed him my copy.

“Thanks,” I said. “It was my first workshop, I was really nervous.”

“It didn’t seem like your first,” he said, scribbling something in my book and then signing his name.

Only later when I opened my copy did I see what he had written.

"To Marcella, Rising Star!"

And that one page meant more to me than six.