A Reflection On Prairie Visions Writing Workshop at the Spirit Room

Last Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of attending a writing workshop conducted by Karla Smart-Morstad, Professor Emeritus at Concordia College. This was a Prairie Visions event hosted by the Spirit Room and supported by the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

The workshop took place among Kimble Bromley’s paintings in the Lotus Studio, where tables, chairs, and refreshments were set up. The tables were covered in quotes from famous writers printed on notecards, some of which had star-shaped stickers on them.

“If it has the two little stars, it’s one of my favorite quotes about the writing process,” Smart-Morstad explained. “If it’s a card that doesn’t have a star on it, it’s one of my favorite quotes about spirit of place.”

Spirit of place was one of the running themes of the workshop, as was sensory detail, descriptive narration, and childhood memory. These themes were inspired by the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Hamlin Garland, who wrote about the trials of Midwestern farmers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Each participant in the workshop got a free copy of Prairie Visions, a compilation of Hamlin Garland’s work complemented by the photographs of Jon Morris, which are currently on display in Gallery I of the Spirit Room. This workshop took place just the day after Morris gave an artist’s talk at the exhibition.

“Something he said just really resonated with me,” Smart-Morstad said of Morris. “He said ‘I wasn’t trying to illustrate Hamlin Garland’s work. I was going to the setting where Garland grew up, the setting that spoke to him and where he was at home’… So today we’re not trying to rewrite Hamlin Garland’s work. We’re going to try to use his style, with loads of sensory detail and snippets of dialogue and a focus on a story that happened once.”

As an example, she read one of her prose pieces, “November,” which focuses on a childhood memory of her father and brother returning from a hunting trip. The five senses are well utilized in the descriptions of the home environment: “The door crashes shut behind me. The garage is cold. It smells like November. Tomato plants hang along the southeast wall… My toes curl across the cement floor.”

After allowing us time to free-write our own childhood memories, Smart-Morstad handed out charts for us to fill out sensory details and enrich the spirit of place in the scenes we’d written.

For more information on workshops and other events taking place at the Spirit Room, head to spiritroom.net or call (701) 237-0230.

For information on the North Dakota Council on the Arts, go to nd.gov/arts or call (701) 328-7590.

“The Sky of Iowa” by Jon Morris. Photo courtesy of the Spirit Room.

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