| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews Richard Butner Wants to Never Write the Same Story Twice
In this interview, Kelly Link interviews the author Richard Butner about the short story form, running the Sycamore Hill Writer’s Workshop, and the value of writing with other people.
One summer in the late 1990s, I attended a weeklong workshop where each participant brought a new story for discussion. Also present was Richard Butner, who now keeps Sycamore Hill going—SycHill, as we call it.
While there are any number of retreats in various literary communities, Sycamore Hill is unique in its longevity (it has been around since 1985) and its focus on short fiction written specifically for the workshop. Many of those who attend know each other, but each year Butner extends invitations to newcomers. Current accommodations are far from luxurious—writers share rooms, and there is no air-conditioning, no television, and limited internet and phone signal. There’s little to distract attendees from the ongoing conversations, while the cost is minimal.
Attendees have included Ted Chiang, Karen Joy Fowler, Nalo Hopkinson, Jonathan Lethem, and Carmen Maria Machado. Stories brought to the workshop have won pretty much every award in the fantasy/science fiction genres, and in 1996 Tor published Intersections (edited by John Kessel, Mark Van Name, and Butner), an anthology of stories written for Sycamore Hill.
Butner has recently published The Adventurists , his new story collection from Small Beer Press. Many of the stories included are ones I first read at Sycamore Hill. It’s always seemed to me (and to Butner) that Sycamore Hill offers a model to anyone with a minor talent for organization, an ability to find inexpensive accommodation for a small group, and a desire to discuss new work with other writers of short stories.
I’ve taken this opportunity to ask Butner some questions in the hopes that other writers might feel tempted to put together their own DIY workshop. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Kelly Link: Tell me about the history of Sycamore Hill.
Richard Butner: Sycamore Hill is a workshop for professional writers of science fiction and fantasy (for extremely broad definitions of those terms). It was started in 1985 by John Kessel, Mark Van Name, and Greg Frost. The critique style is modeled on the Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm started decades before. The first Sycamore Hill was at Mark’s house and it was all male writers, almost all of them based in North Carolina. Then it bounced around to different places . . . the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, then for a few years at a dorm, which had originally been a motel, at North Carolina State University. Up to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, then in the early 2000s to a retreat center back here in a remote part of the North Carolina mountains, Wildacres, and we’ve been there ever since. It’s beautiful there. As far as my involvement, I came on board in the 1990s. John Kessel turned the whole thing over to me in 2007. Over a hundred different writers have attended over the years. Plenty of people working in the genre have never even heard of Sycamore Hill. On the other hand, there are probably folks out there who are peeved that they’ve never been invited. A lot of it is down to sheer math. Math and juggling. Note: I cannot actually juggle.
KL: I like the Milford model so much I use a modified form of it whenever I teach. Can you describe it a little, and also the general framework or rubrics that you’ve learned are most helpful to make the week go as smoothly as possible?
RB: Here’s the way we do it. Twelve to fourteen writers, ideally, attend. We all sit in a circle. Critique starts to the author’s left and goes clockwise in order. You can talk for up to ten minutes about the story (no ad hominem stuff). There’s no cross talk during critique. At the very end, the author gets to respond at whatever length they desire. Usually by then, people are champing at the bit to start up a general discussion about some topic that’s come up, so once the author has had their say, it goes free-form. We usually spend two to three hours on a story and the issues it brings up.
Does this method have flaws? Yes, but overall it’s worked well for us. I’ve experienced other genre workshops such as Turkey City , and I’ve heard about others. I’m sure they all have a different feel. I have very little interest in the “you’ve got to break their kneecaps to get them to pay attention to you” style of critique. But we do bear down on the stories, maybe more so than at some workshops where, as the writer Charles Sheffield once said, they mostly “argue about where to put the comma.” We cap story length at fifteen thousand words. You might read 150,000 words over the course of the week, but it’s still manageable. So in general we use the Milford model, but most years there are often tiny little course corrections. Having all the extra time outside of the fairly formal structure of the critique circle really helps too.
KL: In my memory, most people stop around the five-minute mark. One of the things we’ve talked about is how often there’s a turn as the critiques proceed, where an interesting reading or question opens up discussion. The modification to the Milford approach I like best allows anyone at anyplace in the circle to raise their hand to be called upon, at whatever point they wish to pick up on or to investigate a point someone else has raised.
What’s at the heart of the workshop for you? What makes it worth continuing?
RB: Why do I keep doing it? Because these things have always been around—Milford, Clarion—in the genre, and I’m perhaps wrong-headedly into preservation (mindful adaptive preservation?). Because it’s an even more concentrated version of a convention [like the International Conference on the Fantastic]. Because I get to hang out in that land where words and stories matter with some old friends and (hopefully) some new friends? I really can’t overemphasize how much of this is about getting together with my friends. Friendship is magic, as My Little Pony teaches us.
And because it’s interesting to watch this thing change over the years? SycHill now isn’t SycHill 1980s. It’s the same DNA, but it’s been pretty heavily irradiated too. We’re not having the cyberpunk/humanist discussions that they had in the 1980s. But there’s always something to talk about. And you can do it in a group of a dozen people instead of hundreds of people like at a con. Or on Twitter. So there’s that ideal I think of: of a range of opinions but without pointless conflict. We just do Pointful conflict.
KL: Can you talk a little about what a peer workshop does differently? I was so taken aback the first time I was invited to Sycamore Hill, as it so happens, that I don’t think I even responded to the invitation. I couldn’t imagine anyone would have meant to invite me. It took another invitation to get me there.
RB: There’s no professor in charge, no one with a final say to put a letter grade on a particular story. You’d think the purpose of the workshop would be to take a story you’ve written and improve it so that it accomplishes some goal you have as a writer: You want to crack a new market, you want to win an award, you want the undying love of millions. But you learn quickly that the workshop is really about something else: The process whereby words are converted into stories is worthy of a sort of surgical attention.
The cliché is true: You learn more about writing from critiquing other people’s stories than you do from having your own work critiqued. And all the hours outside of reading and critique are invaluable too, because you get to talk shop or gossip or bond over the joys and the injustices of the writing life. Also there are silly games and occasionally silly dances too.
The workshop is really about something else: The process whereby words are converted into stories is worthy of a sort of surgical attention.
KL: What’s the appeal to you of short stories? What does the form allow that other structures don’t?
RB: Short stories: Anything can happen and one hopes that they leave the reader feeling a singular or powerful effect. The ending of a novel can do that too, of course, but then you have to write the entire novel to get there. It’s tempting to type “and short stories have no extraneous parts, they’re streamlined and lean,” but I don’t think that’s true. I like stories that have weird junk hanging off the side. Glimpses down corridors that the characters pass by. Clues and tools left behind that the reader can work with or play with that don’t have to be about that one straight line of action. I like short stories that try to imply a world as big and rich as the world of a novel.
KL: I’ve always thought of you as someone with a strong interest in the intersection of community, creativity, and collaboration and how those spaces can be engineered. For example, in the time that I’ve known you, you’ve been immersed in, variously, community theater and improv, Gaga dance, Sleep No More , and Ren Faires. Sycamore Hill is very much a labor of love. Can you talk more about the engineering side of organizing a space where creativity is the focus, the practical logistics?
RB: It’s zero-profit; the fee is just enough to cover what Wildacres charges per person, plus a little extra to buy some snacks and drinks. Once again, this is where having a retreat center with a dining hall is a lifesaver. No time or effort spent buying groceries, cooking, or dishwashing. Yes, I’ve got some work to do—buying the treats we keep in our critique room, doing some paperwork and such. But really the hardest part of the process is figuring out who to invite, putting a group together, bugging folks I invite to get back to me in a timely fashion so I can keep the process moving along.
Total time spent on SycHill business over the year, not writing the story or being at the workshop, I don’t know. Forty hours? A lot depends on what you count. For instance, I’m currently at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. I’m going to a lot of readings, some of which I might not attend, except I’m on the lookout for writers I haven’t heard of or haven’t met, as possible SycHill attendees.
Putting a different group together every year, you get these emergent properties that you weren’t planning on specifically. You find common themes in the stories that people bring. Folks share their own methodologies and tool kits for thinking about stories, for how to take them apart and more importantly how to put them back together. You’re part of a strange organism that will cease to exist after a week and will never be exactly the same when it pops up again the next year.
KL: What advice would you give someone who might be thinking about running a workshop like Sycamore Hill?
RB: You’ve got to find a relatively inexpensive way to house and feed a group of writers for some number of days. The more elusive problem is all about group dynamics. Good writers aren’t necessarily good critiquers.
You want to have a range of opinions, but you want to avoid the kind of pointless conflict that does no one any good. When I came on board with Sycamore Hill, there were already some regular attendees, and having that kind of institutional memory is really helpful. There are common problems and it’s good to try and anticipate them, but it’s also good to cut yourself some slack when they happen. Maybe it turns out that someone doesn’t want to be critiqued at all, but only praised. All the kinds of dynamics you’ve known since high school can pop up when you’re stuck with a group of people for a week. So, yes, it’s good to anticipate situations like the classic workshop where one member is the goat, which can happen either because all the other attendees mark them as such, or because that individual preemptively occupies the role, or a combination of both. I don’t know how to completely prevent that from happening, but it’s good to anticipate it and think about how you’d handle it.
Also you need to be very clear—clearer than you might imagine—when you’re inviting people and telling them what the workshop is. I still get folks who think that Sycamore Hill is a writing retreat, or a class to take, or a class to teach. Or they want to bring their entire novel or their screenplay, when our focus is on short stories and occasionally on novel excerpts.
KL: The first time that I attended Sycamore Hill, I had this idea that my goal ought to be to bring a story other attendees would think was “good.” Some twenty years on, I’m much less interested in whether or not something—my own story or someone else’s—is good and more interested in how a group of well-read writers can encounter the same story and yet in discussion offer up so many wildly varying interpretations of what was at the heart of that story, and where it might still have room for investigation or revision.
What’s your goal with your own writing, now, when you come to Sycamore Hill?
RB: Sure. Goal number one is to have a draft to bring simply so I can attend. Early on, I had some anxiety about wanting to wow everyone, and that’s always going to be there. But as I’ve said many times to attendees, it’s perfectly valid to bring something that’s broken or wounded, something that you don’t quite know how to fix yet.
I guess my other goal is less related to Sycamore Hill and more to writing in general: I don’t want to write the same story twice. Even though I deal with the same themes and material a lot of the time, I don’t want to just repeat myself.
It’s perfectly valid to bring something [to workshop] that’s broken or wounded, something that you don’t quite know how to fix yet.
KL: I still remember Carol Emshwiller describing how, when she first began writing, she was told by editors that she sounded too much like Barthelme, whom she had not read, and that she then read Barthelme and changed her writing so that she sounded less like him. I believe this was addressed to me, because she felt the story I’d brought was too Emshwillerian. Are there things said during Sycamore Hill that have particularly stuck with you?
RB: At one of my first Sycamore Hills, we talked about the flip side of that. How it was a completely valid technique to write a story with another author in mind— this is my Lovecraft story or this is my Le Guin story or this is my Shirley Jackson story . Not empty imitations of voice or character or incident, of course, but material where you use a different set of lenses to put it together, so that it’s this third thing. It’s not a story that you would’ve written without thinking of Barthelme, but it’s not a Barthelme pastiche, either. It’s you trying out some of your moves on Donald’s part of the dance floor.
KL: Which stories in The Adventurists were stories that you brought to Sycamore Hill? Did any change radically postworkshop?
RB: It’s easier to enumerate the stories that didn’t go through a Sycamore Hill: “The Master Key,” “At the Fair,” and “Pete and Earl.” I don’t know that any of the stories changed radically because of the workshop, but they all changed.
For instance, after critique I figured out more about how the two sections of “Adventure” fit together and I made a lot of adjustments. And in general I always get cues and clues for what needs to be cut, what needs to be elucidated, what needs to be occluded. Stepping further back from that, there’s just a sense of permission that comes from hearing how a dozen or so people receive or interpret a dozen or so stories. The borders of what seems possible expand.
KL: How many years, since you took one, has Sycamore Hill gone on hiatus?
RB: I’ve attended every SycHill that’s happened since John and Mark first invited me in 1992. At that point, they were doing alternating years. The Wildacres folks, it’s better for them if we have it every year, which we have done since 2005. Until 2020 and 2021. Fingers crossed for 2022.