Screen Porch

Writing into the Unknown with Visiting Writer Matthew Vollmer


Susannah Felts

On May 24 and 25, The Porch is thrilled to welcome author Matthew Vollmer to Nashville. Vollmer is coming through town in support of his newest book, All of Us Together in the End, an extended meditation on a bizarre occurrence: Just after his mother passed away in 2019, bright, blinking lights began appearing in the woods around Vollmer's father's house in the mountains of Western North Carolina. If that premise isn’t intriguing enough for you (it should be), let me praise Vollmer's telling and reflection on this phenomenon—in which he ponders faith, his religious upbringing, mortality, grief, the unknown, the mystical.

Vollmer will be in conversation with Porch cofounder and codirector Susannah Felts at The Bookshop in East Nashville on May 24 at 6:30 p.m., and he'll teach a class at the Porch House on May 25 from 6 - 8 p.m., "Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction." Here's the full description: 

Ursula K. LeGuin, in her essay "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," says, "I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us." This generative workshop will discuss LeGuin's essay before moving into a series of brainstorming sessions that will help writers envision the fictional worlds of their novels. You don't have to be writing a novel--or even have an idea for one--to participate!

In anticipation of Vollmer's visit, we'd like to share an interview with him by Florence Gonsalves that was recently published at Lit Hub, "Intrigue, Not Critique: On the “Portrait of the Artist” Feedback Model. Here's a taste:

“Why does bringing a piece of writing to a creative writing workshop often feel like delivering it to the hospital, or worse, the morgue?” Professor Matthew Vollmer asked, during one of the first classes I took with him in the second year of my MFA program at Virginia Tech. “I’m not saying that the traditional approach, where you bring in a single piece and ask a bunch of people to read it and give you feedback while you sit there silently, lips zipped, taking notes, isn’t without merit.

Literally any and everything one writes can likely be “improved,” especially with the help of other readers. But at the same time, the constant diagnosing of a work’s illnesses can prove exhausting. It can make workshop feel like something to endure. And at its worst? It can seem like a punishment.”

Um, yeah, I thought. But what to actually do about it?

This issue isn’t new. Many scholars have challenged the “traditional” model—the one popularized by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and championed by countless other universities, MFA programs, and organizations—including Liz Lerman, Matthew Salesses, and Felicia Rose Chavez. While Lerman’s Critical Response Process suggests strategies that implement student agency such as statements of meaning and permissioned feedback, and Chavez and Salesses’s anti-racist pedagogies emphasize a myriad of steps to promote student voices, including post-workshop one-on-one conferences, such workshops still tend to adhere to the prevailing and dominant model: a student brings a single piece of writing to workshop and receives feedback from peers.

In order to honor students of diverse backgrounds, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers who have been traditionally silenced by antiquated, racist pedagogies that push traditional “gag-rule”-style workshops, creative writing educators have a responsibility to uproot the foundations of the creative writing workshop, reimagining the space as an enlightened, democratic counterculture.

What follows is a conversation between Professor Vollmer and myself concerning the origins, components, and impacts of an alternative method of sharing work in creative writing courses called “Portrait of the Artist Workshop” (or “POTA”),the basic structure of which is as follows: The writer who is “up for workshop” shares a Google folder with four sub-categories: “My writing,” “Influences,” “Photos” and “Obsessions.” The student then fills each sub-folder following these loose guidelines, and culminating in a “POTA guide” which reflects on the assemblage of their folder, what the writer wants help with and doesn’t, status/progress on pieces, and how they want to conduct class for their POTA workshop.


Florence Gonsalves: Can you explain the components of the POTA assignment/workshop?

Matthew Vollmer: Sure. It’s basically a scenario that involves the participation—and good will—of everyone in the room. In this version of workshop, the writer not only speaks, but is invited to interrupt—and even guide—the workshop process. And rather than submitting a single piece, the author submits a digital folder that includes copies of their own work, examples of influences and obsessions, and other relevant ephemera, with the understanding that writing is 1. a social act, 2. an art, and 3. an enmeshed web of interconnected energies that, if examined with curiosity and wonder, will reveal trends and patterns the author is already in pursuit of, whether consciously or not. The focus of this workshop, then, is intrigue rather than critique, and its focus is on raw material and process rather than finished product.

Read the rest of the interview right here—then sign up for another class Vollmer is teaching for us online, starting July 10, which happens to be—you guessed it—Portrait of an Artist Workshop!

You can also read an excerpt from All of Us Together in the End in the Southern Foodways Alliance's newsletter Gravy, right here. A taste:

Those hallowed hours between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday always felt like they constituted a kind of sanctuary in time, an invisible cathedral we Adventists constructed with our hearts and minds, the feeling of which I could still summon by listening to “Borrowed Angel,” the opening song of Anita Kerr’s A Sunday Serenade, which my father often placed on the turntable of our hi-fi as the last rays of sun were leaking into the cove where our little house lived. The blank glass of the silent TV reflected our living room, where a fire blazed in the hearth. In the kitchen, a pot of lentils bubbled on the stove. Cheese danishes bloated slowly in the oven. Our expectations—and our meals—were always simple, as they were in the homes of most of the Adventists we’d ever known, the majority of whom avoided “flesh foods” and, following the example of the prophet Daniel, who’d refused the rich food and wine of King Nebuchadnezzar, elected to eat a legume-rich diet of fruits and vegetables. As evening grew nearer, my mother lit candles. My sister set the dining room table. Dad stoked the fire, stabbing cindery logs. Embers wafted like celestial fireflies up the flue. Another week had ended. At some point, we might sing “Day is dying in the west / Heav’n is touching earth with rest / Wait and worship while the night / Sets her evening lamps alight / Through all the sky.”

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