A new look at the tools of a writer’s craft by
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OK, I admit it. I’m not competent at assembly projects, although I do live with one gigantic IKEA wardrobe that I managed to put together by dint of much time, sweat, and profanity.  I am repurposing for “Retrospect” this poem that I wrote a number of years ago.

WRITER’S WORKSHOP (Deer Isle, Maine)

The view across the bay is stunning
The dormitories spare but inviting
The grounds are festooned with a cornucopia
Of sessions in sculpture, and painting, and woodworking, and glass blowing.

I ask if I may visit the writers' workshop
And am directed to slide open a tall, hefty door
Wooden, with vertical slats
I can barely move it.
Have I opened the wrong door, then?
The students in this workshop
And perhaps the instructors, too, for I cannot tell which are which
Are busy with chisels and hammers and files and wire cutters
At first they appear to be carpenters or sculptors or metal workers
OR laboring perhaps at a medieval craft I'm not familiar with
"I was looking for the writing workshop," I say
To a pony-tailed fellow
Who's cranking a vise gently but firmly closed
"You're in the right place," he tells me
"We wrote rough drafts last week, and now we're getting them smoothed up a bit."

I move around the workshop
A woman with goggles and an apron 
Has the first chapter of a novel
Whirring around a metal lathe
She pokes at it lovingly, with a file
Shavings fly off in all directions
She clicks the machine off and re-examines her work.
"Still too sentimental," she mutters to herself
And clicks the lathe on again and chooses a flatter, wider file.

A playwright has what look like calipers but are not
"Motif detectors," he rasps
"State of the art
"Hand designed by a guy who used to be a palace guard for the Emperor of Ethiopia"
"I always wondered what happened to those guys after the military coup," I say, and ask him thename of his play
"Renegade," he says.
"I like that," I say. 

There's someone pushing lines of dialogue closer together
By heating them till just below the melting point
And cooling them with a bellows
"The scene was too long," he says
"But not too full"


I return to the pony-tailed fellow
And peer closer at what he's gripping in his vise
It's a short story
He cranks the vise 
Takes out a very delicate-looking saw
Drawing the saw in slow, smooth motions towards his chest
He opens a nice groove in the manuscript
Deftly then he moves the tool forward and back, forward and back
Two paragraphs fall to the floor in one piece
And are tossed in the recycle bin
I ask him if he ever considered drawing a line with a pencil before cutting
Sheepish, he smiles. "Brilliant! I could tell you were a writer when you walked in."
He asks me if by any chance I am Stanley Elkin;
He heard Stanley Elkin might be paying a visit at some point
Tells me I resemble him 

I don't know who Stanley Elkin is
I find out later he writes short stories and novellas
But I tell him I know for a fact
That Elkin always makes his cuts with a pencil

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. What a good-fitting metaphor for workshopping! And you worked every angle with the proper tools. The poem also accurately reflects the madness that workshops can engender! Loved it!

  2. Marian says:

    Really nice, Dale, and any writer can relate to all those activities. Sometimes when revising my short, professional pieces (when limited space is an issue), I envision exacto knives and tweezers.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wonderful poem, Dale, thanks for repurposing it for us. I love all the metaphors for how to workshop a rough draft. And congrats on putting together the gigantic IKEA wardrobe!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Great metaphor, Dale. Reminds me I should use those tools more often.

  5. Good story Dale!
    Have you read the Billy Collins poem
    Introduction to Poetry? Am sure you’ll love it, it’s a take on what you’ve written here.

    As you may know Collins is a former US poet laureate and taught poetry at Lehman College in the Bronx. I had the pleasure of hearing him read there.

    • Thanks, I am not familiar with Collins and did not recognize his name. But I just looked up the poem and read it. Thanks for introducing me to him. Good to know there are great poets teaching in the Bronx! (But his poem had a darker feel to it about writing. Mine, IMHO, has a sweeter tone.)

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for the extended workshop metaphor poem–it takes a lot of finishing work to be a writer! May as well haul out those tools. Well done.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Clever, Dale. Great use of metaphor; I really enjoyed this.

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