Writing workshops with Cary Tennis

The Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method helps people write. It’s that simple.

•It helps beginners and it helps professionals.
•Plus it’s fun!

How does it work? Well, I’ve been leading AWA workshops for over seven years and what I’ve seen in those seven years is people coming in who may have written a lot in the past and got stuck, or are currently writing but troubled with anxiety or blocks, or people who have never written a lot but always thought they’d like to. And what happens as we write together in a group and then read aloud, commenting only on what we remember and what sticks with us, is that people loosen up and begin to write more fluidly and with ease. That’s what I’ve observed.

How does it do that? Well, I’d suggest you read Writing Alone and With Others, the book by Pat Schneider, who created this method. I read it in 2007 and then took a week-long workshop with Pat Schneider in Berkeley, California, and subsequently became a certified workshop leader. I use her method because it works. It is best experienced rather than explained. Join us for a session and see if it doesn’t open up new creative vistas for you as it has for me and many others.

Sign up for our Writing Workshop and see what it can do for you!




Why the Creative Getaway is so great

Yesterday in my intro to the column I mentioned “how we need to fill the January getaway,” and that apparently set off some worries, like, it won’t be cancelled, will it?

Of course not. The Creative Getaway Jan. 17-20, 2014 at Marconi Conference Center is definitely happening. It’s just that some people who were hoping to make it found they couldn’t come, so there are some open slots.

Norma said to me, What will we do if there are only 5 people? And I said, Well, they’ll get a very good workshop! They’ll get a lot of attention and will have a lot of time to write! And what if there was only one person? Then we might lose money! It would never occur to me to cancel.

And then I thought, why is that? Why would it never even occur to me to cancel? Am I not thinking enough about the bottom line? And I realized: I’ve never been motivated by money — even when doing business. Business is just a way to make great things happen.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s what it comes down: I don’t do things for money. I do things for their social utility, or for their beauty, or for love. And then I try to figure out how to make the money work. Usually if something is socially useful or beautiful or if there is love involved the money part can be made to work.

It’s so funny what you think of as business expertise — the other night I was at a dinner in San Francisco with some experienced, cosmopolitan people from the world of business journalism — much more sophisticated in the world than I am — a speechwriter for the head of the Federal Reserve, a business editor for a major metropolitan daily newspaper and now for the Wall Street Journal, that kind of person.

You should have seen them trying to figure out the check.

Heck, I can do the arithmetic. But that’s not what the getaway is about. The getaway, if I may be so bold, is really a spiritual and aesthetic experience.

So why is Marconi so special?

Come to think of it, what happens at Marconi fulfills all three of my values mentioned above: It is socially useful, it is beautiful, and it is done with love. That’s why we do it.

It is also a response, a critical response, to contemporary American culture. It is a brief respite from life in America. Most of the time it is like we live in pressure cookers. We run around taking care of business and then we sleep. Underneath all this frenetic activity, our best and highest thoughts, our creative dreams, and our deep pains — the stuff of our souls, basically — simmer, shut off, made to wait. As what is delayed or put aside for later or repressed continues to press against us, at times will become a shadow, threatening and perverse. And that is how we live in America day to day: overworked, insecure, unloved, delaying the best parts of ourselves, hindered in our dreams. And yes, I say, unloved in a way. Unloved for that creative part: the part that dreams.

I feel this. I feel it intensely. But because of the unusual, countercultural way I grew up, because I always assumed I would be an artist, an outsider, mostly broke, because it never occurred to me that I might have a comfortable and secure life, because I never worried about that so much, I take material deprivations with good cheer, feeling essentially taken care of and lucky to live amidst so much luxury and splendor in the U.S. I always go for the risky but true aspiration, the dream that is underneath the daily grind. That seems the natural path. But it is a different path.

That path is what Marconi is about: It is about taking this chance, for just a few days, to live in the realm of the creative, the possible, and the true.

What we do at Marconi is provide a setting in which one can put one’s inchoate dreams first. When that happens energy is released. People make plans and change their lives.

Last year was amazing. Seven women — yes, it was economically perilous, like this one because there were only seven participants; I think we made a profit of $24 but that is the nature of the thing. Sometimes we do well; sometimes we make $24. But what made it socially useful, beautiful and full of love was how the seven women (and yes, it happened to be all women, but it is not by any means always women) bonded and shared their stories, which were amazing and inspiring and at times full of pain and doubt and longing. I won’t go into details but I am looking forward to the return of some of them, to try and shepherd along the stories that began to take shape last year. But not all seven can make it. One, on the strength of her experience last year, entered an MFA program in poetry and is taking up seriously her calling, so she is otherwise engaged this year. She’s very talented. But she found the courage to pursue it at Marconi, in our workshops and in our private conversations. She was clearly a person deeply literate, steeped in the American tradition of poetry. But it was sitting in McCargo Hall, with the freedom to improvise and let her voice rise naturally, like that voice of the baby in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song” — “And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.” So we’re happy that she is able to do that. People go back to their lives changed in fundamental ways, renewed, ready to be more authentic and to take some chances, awakened to the fragility and brevity of life and determined to be more alive.

People come and they bond with each other and then go on to do things in their lives with more passion and clarity. Like one of our “people of the week,” Amy Souza. Like Bill Kerr, who is organizing writers workshops in Baltimore to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans speak their war-torn truths to power. Like Brian Herrera, who dazzled us with his voice and his performances and is now teaching drama at Princeton. Like Mary Burnham, who found her voice and style and is writing books about wine. Like Lisa Eldridge and Kathy Doran and Gil Schwartz and Gil Gallagher and many, many others. Something starts at Marconi and it echoes and ripples outward into the culture and that is why we do it.

Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to it, I belly-ache. I kvetch. I pace and worry and pace. So what if we make only $24 or even if we lose money? That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is one of the few things in this world that is socially useful, beautiful to behold, and full of love.

It is also a really enjoyable time for me personally. The people at the front desk who run Marconi — Margaret, Julie, Venta and James — are really sweet, kind and likable people, and we love to see them whenever we come up. And the food is outstanding. It is really, really good to eat.

Here’s one other interesting thing about Marconi, which I just realized it has in common with Burning Man: Basically, you don’t spend any money there. Everything is already paid for. It’s subtle, but I think there is something about being liberated from paying for things that releases one more strand of worry, one more little link to the everyday grind. We just go and eat breakfast and then write. Then we eat lunch and write. Then we eat dinner and gather to read and tell jokes or perform or sing, or just crawl into bed in the great, serene, quiet darkness of Tomales Bay, West Marin, the Point Reyes Peninsula a dark finger jutting north into the Pacific.

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

There might be a better place than Marconi to do these things, but for the price I haven’t seen it. And we looked around. I mean, when we started out in 2008 we looked around. And we looked around again last year when we thought we might not be getting the best deal, or that people might be tired of Marconi. We looked at retreat centers in Napa and up the coast and down the coast; we looked at a number of well-known and well-regarded centers. But nothing beat Marconi. We just love it. The serenity of the location. I mean, you just have to go there and walk about in the morning and you get it. Or at night, walk up Tower Hill — where the first trans-Pacific wireless receiving station stood in the early 20th century (yes, it’s named for that Marconi), and look up at the sky, or down at the few lights twinkling on the bay.

It is always memorable. So that’s why we do it. There’s no better way to start a new year, in my opinion.

And it’s easy. Whatever needs to be done payment-wise, we’ll do. We’re revamping our Internet store but meanwhile, if you want to go, and you’re not sure about the payment options or how to proceed, or how to get there from the airport, just email info@carytennis.com, or just phone. We’ll work it out. We can run your card, or we can take a check. There are no real barriers.

See you there.


New column today? Hmmm …

Write for Advice

Dear Reader,

Well, I’m in Monterey this morning, here to help some writers. Also here to write on my own.

When I was writing the Since You Asked column for Salon.com, which I did for nearly 12 years, every day I wrote it I wanted to be proud. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a writer, for someone who really doesn’t know how to do much else and so has had to find jobs writing and editing and weather the uncertainties and deprivations of such jobs. Having had writing jobs and lost writing jobs I knew also that it would eventually end. That had been my experience and my observation, that writing jobs end. They live at the most 15 or so years, like dogs. So I was ready for it to end.

But every day until it ended I wanted it to be something I could be proud of. So I never slacked. I never dashed anything off. It may have seemed at times that I did but when the column was sloppy or not well thought out it was just because I reached the limits of my own personal ability. Because I knew it would end and I wanted to serve in that strange army with whatever strange distinction I could muster.

So when I left Salon, when that job ended, I thought at first that the noble and fine thing to do would be to end it. I did not want it to have a sloppy, drawn-out death of half-starts. So if I were to continue, I would have to give it the same effort as before. This I continue to hold to. So if I cannot give it the same attention and care and desperate effort as before, I do not think I should do it.


This raises a problem, because the one reason I was able to throw myself into it every day was that I knew it was paying the bills. I knew that as long as it was a salaried occupation, I could give it everything and be exhausted and unable to do much else for the rest of the day, and that was OK because the nut had been secured.

The nut is now not secured. So when I write the column I must somehow again reach that fevered certainty that what I am doing is vital.

I am going to try to reach that condition by placing “Donate” buttons at the end of the column. I will see if that works. I figure on some days, if the column reaches a person, truly reaches them, changes their life for the moment, as I have been told these columns occasionally do, then it would not be unreasonable to say that such a column might be worth $25, or $50, or more. Not every day of course, but I would like to present that option, that when a column truly moves someone, they can express that, and by doing so, they can keep me writing it. And of course it would also be possible to donate $1, or $5, or nothing. The column would be free. The donation would be like an expression, a statement: Yes, Cary, I want you to keep doing this. Do that again. Here’s some vital inducement to do that again.

Because I really am going to have to figure out how to make a living.

So for today, because I do not feel I can give it everything I have, because I am in Monterey and have to go to breakfast and see if I can be of service to some other writers, because the day is uncertain and I am in a strange hotel, because I never want to rush it or short-change it or cut corners, I do not think I am going to write a column today. Besides, I have to figure out how to work those “Donate” buttons.

Thanks for being there.


p.s. Oh, one other thing. I find that I miss the daily writing for an audience. I have never acquired the habit of blogging about whatever, because that seemed pointless and self-indulgent and also because I had the column as a perfect outlet for my daily writing obsession. But now that I don’t have the column, and I can’t afford, mentally, spiritually and economically, to write the column every day, I may just adopt the habit of blogging every day about just whatever. It would at least give me the illusion of being in touch with others. And the bar would be a bit lower, so that if I had nothing of any consequence to say, I could still meander a bit, like a morning walk with friends, not saying much of anything, just mumbling, but being there.

Anyway, that’s it for today, from me, for real this time, down here in Monterey in the fog, by the beautiful, beautiful sea.

Write for Advice

Acclamations, accolades, encomiums, commendations, panegyrics and nice things people say

Even from as far away as Australia, I could feel the relaxed, open atmosphere he created among us and found it surprisingly easy to get writing.

Alice Allan, Melbourne, Australia

I was writing descriptions without events, like jokes without punch-lines. The workshops led me to try more active, engaging and complex storytelling. I gave up some fixed ideas about what kinds of writing I do and what kinds of writing are worth doing. After a while a novel erupted.


I avoid workshops because of the damage they can do to writers. Cary’s workshops are nothing but helpful, quietly and subtly leading writers to do their best in an open and welcoming environment.

Randy Osborne, Author of Big Pinch World, Made of This, and a forthcoming memoir

It was a cozy place with all of us talking across borders. I felt charged, and my imagination took me to various lands. I could be myself.  I had thought I was a certain kind of a writer and then suddenly I wrote about a Pterodactyl and I was like “Whoa… who wrote that?”

 — Geetanjali Dighe, Mumbai

I hadn’t done any real creative writing in years. If only I could find a workshop where my writing wouldn’t get ripped to shreds and I wouldn’t feel like a loser idiot. Cary’s approach is flexible and supportive. The prompts take the work in interesting and unexpected directions.

Lorri Leon, Pacifica, California

Nobody waits with a red pencil, nobody judges. The comments are limited to what rings true, what strikes your imagination. After a while I noticed I was writing to feel that ring of truth for myself.

Leslie Ingham, Palo Alto

We write together. We’re all in the same boat. Now I’m a writer, because here I am, writing. I wouldn’t take a class from anyone else.  I wouldn’t let anyone else see inside my head.

Judy Evans, Los Angeles

The rules protect the often fragile and sensitive nature of writing.  Cary is the ultimate host and leader. I’ve been in writing workshops for over twenty years. This one, by far, is the best. Norma almost always bakes amazing snacks, and the dogs provide a little levity. I would urge anyone to attend a series of these workshops and feel your soul begin to expand.

Julia Penrose, Half Moon Bay, California

The structure is creative and supportive; I like it so much that I’ve been back every week. Writing is part of my life now. I look forward to those two hours of group writing each week, both to spark my own creativity and to hear the amazing things others write.

 — Molly Mudick, Phoenix, Arizona

We write in warm surrounds of vibrant voices from far away places in an intimate cyber-circle. We write of things, ideas and stories that lure and propel. Cary guides us to ways of knowing each other and remembering ourselves. It’s where I breathe deeply and write.

Treva Stose, Annapolis, Maryland

“A writer is someone who writes.” Hearing that line every week and reading my writing aloud, without fear, made it come true. I write. I am a writer. I want to be a surfer… A surfer is someone who surfs. I’ve been surfing since May 2010. I dance harder and smile while I’m moving and twisting my body, because that is what dancers do. I am a dancer. I took pieces of wood from the basement and painted them and hung them on a fence. It’s my gallery. Open studio is tonight. Or tomorrow. Or whenever anyone passes by. … I am an artist.

— Shannon Weber, San Francisco

Links for Writers–Books, Blogs, Lists, Etc.

Here are some of the links I mentioned in the Santa Barbara Novel Mentor workshop in February 2013, about dialog, pitches, queries and beginnings of novels.


Writing Dialog by Tom Chiarella. I lent this book to somebody and have to get it back. It’s a good book. Useful. Interesting.

“Are we still doing the dishes?” This is the page I took that dialog exercise from that we did in the workshop together. I suspect that it’s something Mr. Butler might use on occasion, as it’s on the FSU site. I liked doing that. I liked the suppressed tension that many of our writings had. And then if you recall I thought, now let’s raise the stakes, and so suggested that we write a dialog between two characters, one of whom asks the other, “What do you want more than anything else in the world … and what are you not willing to do to get it?” That last bit, expressed in the negative, is hard to grasp at first but it’s basically saying, “Would you stop at nothing?”

12 Exercises for improving dialog by John Hewitt. Some of these are pretty good. You can’t go wrong trying things out. The more you do, the more you learn.

And how can you go wrong with dialog advice from Stephen J. Cannell, right?


Here is former agent Nathan Bransford on the one-sentence pitch.

This from writer Hilari Bell on writing a pitch I find useful because it takes us through several iterations of a hypothetical pitch.

Now, of course, this is all in addition to all the things that Michael Neff has to say and all the resources that are on the Algonkian site.


I thought this query letter madlib idea from Nathan Bransford was funny. And it could be useful. As long as what you build on it sounds reasonably like it was written by a human.


I love this long list of novel openings, as well as these 5 ways it can go wrong, both from DarcyPattison.com. Forgive me if I didn’t really know who Darcy Pattison was … I’m not your ideal student of contemporary fiction.

I guess it couldn’t hurt to read this list from the American Book Review of 100 best opening lines, but somehow it leave me flat. I think because there’s no analysis. We don’t really know if those are the best opening lines or they just happen to be the opening lines of some really great novels. Worth thinking about: Would they be in there if the novels that came after them sucked? For instance a couple of them might stop an agent cold. Like No. 65, “You better not never tell nobody but God,” from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Or Saul Bellow’s No. 69, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” If it wasn’t a famous and great novel by a famous and great novelist, would it get recommended as a great first line? I dunno. I’m just saying. Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964). And there are among them, of course, lines I like a whole lot, like: 67. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963) and 75. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929). And here is an appropriately doubting and irreverent take on those same 100 first lines.

OK, so that’s it for now. I just promised at the Santa Barbara conference that I’d get back to you on those links and stuff. You could look forever on the Web for such stuff. I’m not saying all of it is great. I also have some favorite books about writing. Maybe I’ll put some of that together too.


Cary T.




Thank you for the Yelps!

I just checked out our Yelp reviews today and I am honored and grateful for all the really thoughtful, funny and kind reviews we received. Here are a few of my favorite outtakes:

“I still don’t understand exactly how it works, but every Wednesday evening, when I’m tired from the day, not feeling particular creative or even enthusiastic, I sit down to write with Cary and the group and somehow – I don’t know how – within 2 hours we have all created the most unique, incredible, original work.”

“Everyone who comes through the door is treated as a writer, and all voices, levels of experience and styles are welcomed.”

“Cary helped me get my very first story published in a real magazine! He’s the best.”

“if he asked I might give him a kidney. The man is a brilliant muse.”

“If I were a poodle, nothing would make me prouder than to take care of Cary and Norma.”

Here’s the link if you’d like to read the actual reviews. Thanks again. We couldn’t keep this going without such generous and talented people in our lives.



Janine Kovac: “Top 10 Reasons to Love Finishing School”

I’ll be the first to admit it–I have a love/hate relationship with Finishing School. But at the end of last month’s session, I had gleaned 10 great lessons from the experience. Here they are:

1) I increased my tolerance.
I had a fairly clear schedule in April and I thought that I’d just sit down and write for six hours, because that’s the time I’d carved out in my day. But it didn’t work like that. I had trouble focusing. Then I beat myself up for it. “I’m just not the kind of person who can sit and write for six hours.” But then by Week 3, something had shifted. The restlessness was there, but eventually it gave way to sitting and writing.

2) I was able to write in new places.
My new, open schedule meant that I had a new desk to write at. And again, I had trouble focusing. But I had my weekly deadlines and subtly, almost sneakily, the writer part of me took over and the more I wrote, the more I was able to write in new places–the bus stop, a BART station, a cafe, my new desk.

3) I realized that “binge writing” is awesome–but the system I had before worked really well, too.
The thing about writing all the time is that, well, now you’re writing all the time. My writing gathered its own momentum and other parts of my life suffered. Children went without baths. Laundry piled up. My household sorta fell apart. As good as it felt to be writing more, I realized that the balance I’d previously maintained had a lot of advantages as well. (There’s a lot to be said for a functional household!)

4) I learned about how I write.
For example, I don’t tinker with sentences. I’ll rearrange sentences within a paragraph but if a sentence isn’t working and the answer doesn’t come to me, I’ll get further if I just delete the sentence.

5) My writing has a process.
I often write my first drafts in present tense. And then I used to judge myself because I don’t like writing in present tense. But this past month I realized that this is part of my process. Writing a scene first in present tense helps me figure out how I want to manipulate the reader. Then I can go back, shape the text and put it in past tense.

6) The message of my memoir isn’t necessarily the message I learned from the experience.
I don’t have to preach the lesson that I learned from my experience. I am just a character in my memoir and the lesson in the memoir is more universal.

7) I am learning how to write by writing this memoir.
I am learning how to set up a scene, build tension, craft dialogue. I am learning how to absorb feedback and make revisions. It’s easier for me as a memoir because so much is already documented or exists as a strong memory. I don’t have to make anything up. But I am learning how to tell a story.

8) I learned about my ego.
This is examples 6 and 7 combined. The reason a scene is important to me is not why that scene is (or isn’t) important to the story.

9) My writing has phases to it.
I have different phases of writing–a raw-material generation phase, a scratching phase, and a tweaking phase. And if I’m generating raw material, I can’t beat myself up because I’m not tweaking it. By the same token, if I’m writing general topics (the scratching phase), I have to remember that this is still part of the writing, even if it’s jotting down ideas instead of crafting sentences.

10) A writer is someone who writes.
I really got this adage this month! I am a writer. I don’t necessarily have to write this memoir, but this is the story that’s at the front of my brain, so it’s the story that’s coming out first. It’s like the painter whose paintings are all red because all she has at her disposal is red paint. There is a lot of freedom in this realization. This is how I know I will finish this memoir.