Sunday, June 12, 2016

Stories from Workshop

This post is for the writers.

I’ve considered myself a writer since long before I probably had any right to--when I concocted stories derivative of the video games I played and the shows I watched on TV, scrawling them longhand on the gridded pads of paper my mother brought home from work.

But I consider my life as a writer to have started more in earnest when I started participating in writing workshops.

Writing workshops encapsulate so much of the writing life. The need to generate material, and to have it in presentable form by a deadline. The audience of amateur critics plus one professional--the teacher who has graduated from this model, and who is now deemed fit to run the asylum. Some encouragement. A lot more criticism, some of it on point, some of it just pointed; some of it constructive; some of it, from what I can gather, based in nothing more than an interest in tearing down another aspiring writer so she won’t dream she’s more accomplished than you.

I don’t mean to suggest that people who haven’t participated in writing workshops aren’t real writers--that’s not only elitist, but just plain inaccurate. But for me, it was the workshop model more than any other that pushed my craft, sharpened my aesthetic, and lent me a sense of working within a community of writers.

I’ve experienced workshops now in my undergrad, two graduate programs, and another grad program in which I back-doored my way into some classes. I've also led workshops for college undergraduates, ex-offenders and teenagers. I learned from each of these experiences, and I found that the workshops yielded some stories in their own right.

Here are three.


“The problem is that real people don’t talk like that,” Richard said. He parted his hair anachronistically, like one of the guys from Mad Men, and wore a friendship bracelet his girlfriend from his dorm had woven for him, and sported jeans that were frayed at their cuffs, and one in a rotation of band t-shirts--this day was Sublime. He picked up Cherise’s story and read in the flattest monotone. “You ain’t know me, bitch. I oughta beat you silly.”

“So, it doesn’t feel authentic to you.” Angela did her job--assistant professor and moderator of these discussions about aesthetic, verisimilitude, and syntax.

“I agree.” Nisha crossed her legs. She was an Indian woman who couldn’t have stood more than five-feet tall but compulsively wore heels in all weather. “It’s like she’s trying to appropriate language from people she’s never actually been around.”

From what I can recall, the story in question--a family drama that culminated in a stepfather and teenage stepdaughter cursing each other out, and the young woman taking her five-year-old brother away from the house for his protection--got a thrashing in workshop, and not an altogether undeserved one. The author, Rita, a woman with puffy blond hair, round features, and perennially rosy cheeks had stared down each participant in the bashing, then stared at her notebook and ceased any pretense of taking notes in favor digging her ballpoint pen into the page, threatening to bore all the way through that and the remaining sheets, through the cardboard backing, and into the oak table beneath it.

And it was that comment that took her from passive rage to an explosion. That comment from Nisha--who so rarely contributed to the workshop conversation, and spoke in a quiet, high-pitched voice--after which Rita broke the cardinal rule of most workshops: that the writer herself shall not speak.

“This all happened! This all happened! This all happened!” She spoke the words in a rhythm, pounding the side of her fist against the table in time. By the fourth iteration, the first tears streaked her cheeks.

When the rhythm broke, Angela made an effort. “Sometimes, real-life experiences inform our fiction.” She spoke more slowly than I’d ever heard her before. The voice of a negotiator trying to talk down someone with a bomb strapped to her chest. “And sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But that means it’s the author’s job to use the real-life experience, and craft it in a way that it will read as true for the readers.”

“This all happened,” Rita said one more time.

And I witnessed one of my own great fears, realized. Not only that a piece of writing I felt proud of would get shredded by a jury of my peers, but that my actual experiences might fall under scrutiny. That I would be made less--as a writer and a human being.

I saw the ruination the workshop could bring upon someone.

Though, to be fair, I also thought Rita’s story was awful.

Cutting the Drama

A fairly typical workshop convention: after everyone has read a writer’s work, before the group discusses it, the author reads an excerpt to refresh the workshop’s memory about what everyone is talking about, and to breathe some new life into a work by hearing the work, literally, in the author’s own voice--paced the way it was intended, ideally capturing an essence of the prose only the author really knows.

Kathleen didn’t settle for reading. She performed.

Her first-person narrator had already lost her daughter to a miscarriage and was in the process of, by degrees losing the husband who rarely spoke to her--who abstractly blamed her for the loss and for her absence of libido and for, in the scene she read, refusing to do the dishes even after her husband cooked the entire stir-fry dinner himself.

I’m so sorry, the narrator thought, but could not say. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I’m broken. Everything is broken. Please, won’t you come and fix me?

Kathleen’s voice trembled. I needed to look closely to confirm she wasn’t actually crying..

There were dramatic pauses between paragraphs. Deep sighs. A whimper. When she finished, the room hesitated to speak, uncertain if she might go on, uncertain if this were fiction or we were privy to an uncomfortable new truth.

And in that silence, the last fluttering breath settled. And Anish bit into an apple.

The crispest, most casual and apathetic of bites, apple juice spraining an inch from every direction of his mouth. All eyes turned to him. His buddy, Tony snorted and did his best to stifle a chuckle. Too late, as the uncomfortable laughter spread like wildfire, until Kathleen herself, still red in the face, laughed, and we all knew it would be all right.

The Fight

It was one of those workshop sessions.

They aren’t common, but if you take enough workshops you’re bound to come upon at least one. The discussion begins and, right or wrong, takes a turn for the negative. And despite what workshop etiquette would suggest about the author remaining silent, she can’t contain her thoughts on the conversation.

“Did any of you really read this?” Annette asked.

The room was a mix of nods and scrunched up faces of confusion.

“My cousin read it, and it made sense. I didn’t have to explain it to her. How could it not make sense to you?”

It was a riddle embedded in the story--as best I could tell, the whole story had been a riddle, in which cats mewed on a beach represented someone’s dead grandfather, and his spirit had risen in line with the background Creole folklore. “Obviously.”

The workshop continued. A hesitant, stuttering conversation in which some parties tried to justify their point of view, others ignored the outburst, and the overwhelming majority of students looked down at their manuscripts, either trying to determine if they had missed something (they hadn’t) or avoiding eye contact. Unfortunately, that last group included the instructor, Jim, thus ensuring a lack of any meaningful resolution.

The next time Jim spoke, in fact, was to offer a last call for comments before we turned back to Annette to ask about any unresolved questions from the workshop discussion. This is the point at which Jenny raised her hand.

“I’d like to complain,” she said. “A workshop depends on the author trusting the class and listening to what we have to say. When someone isn’t mature enough to listen to feedback, why should we bother reading her story.”

“Then don’t bother.” Annette pointed her finger from a space of two seats away. I occupied one of the desks in between them. “I sat through your story, I thought you could read mine.”

“I did read yours. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

And they were on their feet. First Annette, then Jenny leaning and then stepping toward each other as the argument turned shrill and less focused on writing. Dorian, who occupied the other desk next to me, in between the women, put on his teacher’s voice--he taught eighth grade English during the day--saying, “Ladies, let’s have a seat.”

Resorting to the tactics I used at a volunteer gig, where fifth graders regularly cursed out one another and threatened to brawl, I stood in between them--far from barrel chested, but broad and tall enough to block their view of another and offer a second of disruption. “Why don’t we all listen to Jim?” I deflected. When they went on I said it again. Louder. Almost at a yell myself as I motioned a hand toward Jim.

And remarkably, both women did. The space settled back into a classroom with the teacher at it’s center, and we listened to Jim, the brilliant novelist who read student work carefully but had rarely demonstrated a real grasp on classroom management or watching the clock carefully enough to keep our night class from running fifteen minutes over on a regular basis.

“It’s good to have passion for your work. Both as a writer and a critic,” he said. “And it’s important that we all respect each other.” I waited for more. For him to weave some profound lesson from the mayhem, or to offer a formal reprimand about people needing to conduct themselves as adults. “Let’s all pass our manuscripts to Annette and take a five minute break.”

The class moved on. No further war of words and no punches thrown. And it occurred to me that maybe ignoring the problem had been the right decision. After break we were on to a new story, the only sign of the previous tension Annette’s sharp inhales and exhales, and her not contributing that discussion. She breathed as loudly as an elephant in the room.

No comments:

Post a Comment