Reflections on a Fiction Workshop
By James Rahn
Paul Dry Books. 254 pp. $20
Reviewed by Kathye Fetsko Petrie
In 1988, James Rahn - a high school dropout turned Penn graduate turned porn writer turned unemployed Columbia MFA - with great trepidation, slim experience, and not much planning, launched a literary fiction workshop called the Rittenhouse Writers' Group.
From the beginning, things go wrong. The door to the Rittenhouse Square building where the first class is to take place is locked. The custodian is recalcitrant. Rahn delivers his planned 30-minute introductory speech in three minutes and has no idea what to do next. When all seven participants fail to show up for the last of their scheduled meetings, Rahn pronounces the endeavor a failure.
But circumstances cause him to persist. Rittenhouse Writers is the story of how Rahn changes and hones the workshop, much as one rewrites a manuscript, so as to make it the best it can be. He succeeds. What began as a shaky experiment is today one of the longest-running independent fiction workshops in the country, with hundreds of former and continuing members, many published and best-selling.
Rahn as narrator immediately endears himself to readers when in the first chapter he confesses - with what we will soon see is his trademark humor and honesty - his panic-attack-level nerves during the first class. "I started to sweat. My heart began to pound," he writes. "I was twitching like a Chihuahua in cold rain - without the little poncho."
Rahn's experience gives hope to aspiring teachers who think they must have no fear at the start of their careers. His openness about his doubts and failures gives his memoir the authenticity he calls on class members to have in their writing, making this a sort of meta-memoir.
Running a workshop is complex: "It's like putting together a band," Rahn tells us. You have to consider the dynamics of the group. People have to be a good fit. There is psychology involved - in fact, Rahn takes a course in psychology to be better equipped to meet certain challenges that can arise in the classroom, such as angry or even dangerous participants.
Eventually, he learns to interview people before they sign up for his course, and he becomes more adept at identifying and steering away troublemakers. He aims to admit only generous people - people who really care about writing, people who want not only to become better writers themselves, but also to help others become better writers. What's best for the group is paramount.
Surprisingly, there is much in this memoir of interest to those who are not writers or workshop leaders. There is the story of Rahn's growing-up years in Atlantic City, the story of his mother's illness and death, the story of his suddenly becoming a father to two of his wife's nieces. Finding "the emotional heart of a story" is a rubric Rahn imparts to workshop members. In recounting these personal parts of his life, Rahn again achieves what he preaches.
Rittenhouse Writers includes 10 pieces of fiction written by former and current members of the Rittenhouse Writers' Group. One is by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, who workshopped her first novel through the group. At the Free Library of Philadelphia recently, McKinney-Whetstone read from her new novel, her seventh. Rahn introduced her. By all appearances (I was in the audience that night), Rahn's many years as a workshop leader have allowed him to evolve as a public speaker. He did not seem nervous.
Kathye Fetsko Petrie is a freelance writer and the editor/founder of Local LIT (www.locallit.com).