The biggest mistake I made at the Summer Writers Institute was to try to keep working (a little) throughout. I went in to the office for a few hours at least a couple of evenings a week during both weeks of the workshop, and that was exhausting.
Even without trying to split my focus in yet another direction, I was trying to complete coursework for a 3 credit graduate-level course in two weeks, which sounds insane. (I have one follow-up book to read and paper to write, as well as a revision of some of my previous work, then I'm all done.) Many nights during the second week, I passed out, exhausted, well after midnight without having completed quite all of the required reading. The first week was much the same, except that my stamina was greater and I always finished everything. Next time I hope to go away for a workshop, so that my focus is not at all split.
It worked like this: The Institute comprised four workshop groups: Fiction, Advanced Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Non-Fiction. Every morning, we met in our individual workshop groups for 3 hours, then broke for lunch. After lunch, we met all together to hear speakers and have panel discussions.
The morning sessions varied depending on which "class" you were in. Some groups workshopped every day; mine didn't. We watched a fascinating documentary, did in-class writing exercises, discussed published pieces (the nightly reading assignments) and had class-type discussions every day. 3 days a week, we also workshopped each others' work.
We spent 1/2 hour on each workshopped piece, and we each had a piece workshopped once each week. I spent about an hour reading each piece and preparing my thoughts for every workshop, and I think that was probably typical.
The level of participation in my group was quite impressive, and I'll talk about that more tomorrow, including who led the workshop, who else participated, and what sorts of things they were writing.
The afternoon sessions were fascinating. We had published writers talk about Craft, we had writers reading from their own work, we had a panel of literary journal editors (all men, all white, all in their 30s /early 40s, a highly representative sample). We had a notable publisher from an academic press, we had a food critic from Sauce magazine, we had a relatively useless talk about creating an author website (useless because none of the panel participants understood even basic web design). The directors of the MFA programs at Wash U and UMSL spoke, as did a couple of instructors.
Perhaps the most useful thing of all, especially with the afternoon sessions, was that I was surrounded by writers, real writers, all of whom kept referring to all of us as writers, real writers. And that was really something to contemplate.