Lately it seems you can barely turn around in Madison without spotting a first-time novelist in the blushful throes of debut publication. Somehow, a fair number of our fellow citizens have made it through the painstaking process of drafting, revision, sending the thing out and finding a home for the finished product. To mere mortals, however, the writing process can seem as flabbergasting as it is appealing. Writers can use all the help and guidance they can get. While we’re fortunate to have a world-class university in Madison with a stellar creative writing faculty, not everyone can afford the time or the tuition involved in a sustained program dedicated to an avocation that’s unlikely to make anyone’s fortune.
Madison novelists Susanna Daniel and Michelle Wildgen have been around this particular block, with the prestigious awards and movie contracts to show for it. The authors have decided to join forces to found the independent Madison Writers Studio, offering classes in fiction, nonfiction and novel writing to committed, serious writers who have the motivation to work but need the guidance and encouragement of a supportive and experienced teacher to get from brilliant idea to finished product.
Daniel's latest novel, "Sea Creatures," just came out this summer to positive reviews, and her first book, "Stiltsville," won the 2011 PEN/Bingham award for best new fiction. Wildgen, whose freelance work appears regularly in national publications, will see the publication of her third book, "Bread & Butter," in 2014. Her first novel, "You’re Not You," is being made into a movie staring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.
So what brought these two lauded novelists — one from the east side, one from the west — together?
“We met because our mutual friends Jesse Lee Kercheval and Judith Claire Mitchell started a novel group,” says Wildgen. The pair came up with the idea for the MWS after realizing that Madison lacked a resource for serious writers comparable to the Story Studio in Minneapolis, to name just one example. It seemed strange that a community like ours, with its wealth of talent, didn’t have something similar.
“We have a great university creative writing program,” says Daniel, “and we also have a smattering of weekend workshops — these short bursts.” She and Wildgen envision their program as “longer term, but without the red tape of the university program.” They will offer three eight-week workshops — Fiction I, Fiction II, and Narrative Nonfiction — and a yearlong program called “Novel in a Year,” designed to help writers complete a first draft of a novel through monthly meetings.
Unlike most university courses, the MWS classes will be taught in the instructors’ homes. “The intimacy is really crucial,” says Wildgen. Adds Daniel, “My MFA was taught in a wooden house. I prefer that.” Combined with small class size (six to eight students per section), Wildgen and Daniel will be able to offer writers a degree of access and personal attention that can be hard to find in an academic setting. Says Daniel, “This is exactly the class I would have wanted 10 years ago. We plan to provide accountability, investment, community and feedback.”
Although Wildgen and Daniel have experience in both learning and teaching writing in a university setting, their classes will be less didactic and more participatory. “For eight weeks,” says Daniel, “this is your writing group.” Future plans for the studio include the possible addition of poetry to the course offerings, as well as the staging of public readings by participating writers.
When asked whether the cost of the classes ($495 for an eight-week session) might be a barrier for attendees, Wildgen, a seasoned food writer, comes up with an apt comparison: “I belong to a CSA, and the check feels pretty big when I write it, but it ends up being a very reasonable deal.” Daniel and Wildgen both agree emphatically when I compare the courses to joining a gym, with its rigors and rewards. But their plan is that the studio will offer more than just instruction and feedback. As Daniel says, “It’s a membership in a community.”
More information about Madison Writers Studio can be found at www.madisonwriters.com.
The “Bookless” event held in the old downtown Madison Public Library, for those who attended it, felt like one of those magical once-in-a-lifetime events. Empty of books but full of art, the entire building was open for the public to roam, dance, eat, drink and revel. When I went, the line of impatient young partygoers extended down the block. If you missed it, the newly revamped library will be open for another shindig on Thursday, Sept. 19 — this one waggishly called “Stacked.” For $12 a ticket, attendees will be able to take in the new library before it’s officially open, listen to live music and DJs on every floor, and purchase food and drinks from local vendors. Tickets can be purchased through its Facebook page.
From fowl to fudge
Madison author and UW-Madison writing teacher Christine DeSmet, whose previous series of Wisconsin-set whodunits features chickens, is moving away from the barnyard and into the kitchen with her brand-new cozy mystery series, the first of which comes out this month. "First-Degree Fudge" kicks off DeSmet’s Fudge Shop Mystery Series, incorporating recipes and lots of local color from its fictional Door County setting, a bait-and-fudge shop near Peninsula State Park. If you’re already missing Wisconsin’s shoreline vacation spot after coming back from vacation, DeSmet’s book, which features a sleuth of Belgian origin, promises fodder for both armchair traveling and sweet-tooth gratification. Hear from DeSmet as you indulge in some free fudge Sunday, Sept. 8, at 1:30 p.m. at the new Mystery to Me bookstore, 1863 Monroe St., and at the Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival in Mineral Point Sept. 14.