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Literary Technique

Led by author Richard Bausch, local writers hone their craft.

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I'm going to let you in on a little secret: When I'm not writing fact, I'm writing fiction.

I've always loved to read, so much so that if I want to sleep, I can't be in the middle of a book. It seemed natural that I would be a writer, but I went into journalism because I thought the odds were better it would pay the bills.

But I've continued to write fiction over the years, albeit, as my writing group will tell you, I work very, very slowly.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in the Moss Workshop in Fiction at the University of Memphis. Started and led by noted author Richard Bausch, the workshop is open to members of the community (not students of the university) and is completely free.

Bausch is the author of 11 novels — including Take Me Back, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Peace, which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize — and eight books of stories.

"With Richard's reputation, being able to take a semester class with him was an unbelievable opportunity," says writer Ellen Morris Prewitt.

Prewitt was a lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi, before she decided to become a writer in 2001. In fact, the first piece she ever submitted won her an honorable mention in Memphis magazine's annual fiction contest.

"Most of my practice involved writing, but when I went to writing fiction, I started over from scratch," she says. "I thought, I cannot go back to school. I have been a partner in a law firm for 13 years. I would not make a good student."

Last year, Prewitt won the Memphis magazine fiction contest with her story "Just Now" about a grieving sister at a Zen retreat. Prewitt says the piece was written the winter she was in the Moss workshop.

"I'm sure that's part of what motivated me," she says. "It makes you demand better of yourself."

Past participants cite different lessons they took from Bausch: dialogue as a way to move the story forward, "writing big," and that a first-person narrator knows at the beginning of a story what happens at the end.

But perhaps just as important as the lessons in story structure or voice is Bausch's support. He selects each of the Moss participants from a submitted manuscript and, in class, sometimes reads published work aloud for comparison to student work.

"Showing us that there wasn't a lot of difference, that's exactly what you need to hear," Prewitt says. "It was such warm encouragement."

Other students agree. Emma French Connolly started writing when she was younger but never pursued it professionally.

"I was a single parent when I submitted my first story," she says. "I knew I had to make a living."

Recently, an essay she submitted more than a year ago was accepted for a book from Catalyst Press.

"Richard is a wonderful nurturer," she says. "I don't know if he would like to be described that way, but he is. He sees talent in a writer when we would normally lose confidence if we don't get something published."

As an editor, Bausch has a knack for pinpointing exactly what works in a draft and what doesn't, especially the little details that seem off but you can't figure out why.

As a gifted storyteller, he has quite the way with a joke. After all, isn't a well-crafted joke just a very succinct short story with a surprise ending?

Since the Memphis Moss Workshop started four years ago, all of the groups have continued meeting to workshop stories on their own. In fact, a similar workshop Bausch did in Virginia 20 years ago is still meeting.

"I was amazed at the level of writing of other members of the class," Prewitt says. "It can only be people in the community and I just thought these are amazing writers."

Though Jan Coleman, the administrator of the school's creative writing program, says the workshop is done as "community outreach," the university has benefited, as well.

In Memphis, five of the students have gone on to enroll in the MFA fiction program at the U of M. Randy Hopkins, who was one of last year's participants, is pondering the idea.

Hopkins initially heard about the Moss workshop after calling one of the university offices. He was put on hold and heard a recording of things going on around the school.

"They played this announcement, and I said, well, I'll just try for that. ... When I got into the Moss workshop, it felt like I was good enough to do it," Hopkins says.

He originally got his BA in creative writing from then-Memphis State but doesn't know if any of his teachers were published writers. If they had published, he says they weren't well known.

"Just the chance to be in a workshop with a well-known writer ... I think that's one of the good things about the workshop. You get to go in there and pick his brain," he says.

The U of M is currently taking applications until July 20th for the fall Moss fiction class. Applicants must submit a manuscript of no more than 20 pages to Richard Bausch, Moss Workshop, Department of English, 429 Patterson Hall, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN 38152.

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