What are creative writing workshops good for?

People bemoan workshop as tedious, cutting, or writing by committee. I beg to differ. Writing workshops make me a better ally. In workshops the writer sits in a cone of silence as her fellow writers talk about the work. When the writer can’t talk, she can’t influence the discussion, and thus (the theory goes) she sees an honest unbiased discussion of her work. And no matter how enlightened we all think ourselves to be, our first reaction to criticism is “Nuh-uh, you got it wrong!” The cone of silence allows us to suffer through the first stage of denial until we get to acceptance.

If one has taken numerous workshops, one becomes intimately familiar with that feeling of denial. Sometimes our denial is justified, but more often after a few minutes, months, years, we realize that in fact rhyming “true” with “blue” is not an ironic sendup of Hallmark sentiments, but irritating and wrong. [Note: Indy Clause would never rhyme true and blue.]

An ally is a person with privilege who tries to stand in solidarity with people who are oppressed. I waded into a facebook argument yesterday. Someone posted a critique of white liberals, and someone else waded in and said, “But! I’m an ally!” [Note: The conversation was more pointed, interesting, and in-depth than the example above, but I’m trying to hold onto my fraying anonymity.] This is the natural reaction, the denial, the very familiar feeling of, you got it wrong, you don’t mean me, I’m different, a special snowflake, this is not how I am.

Facebook is a place of lightning reactions, so easy to say something cutting or ironic, no time to stop and think. As a creative writing workshop veteran, my jaw aches from clenching my teeth; however, if something bothers me, I know that sometimes if I wait I will understand it. Let’s take microaggressions—this was a topic that I understood intellectually but not emotionally for many years. However, as I do more reading and work for my (fucking awesome) gender studies class, I have come to understand it emotionally.

It’s that old feeling of denial. But the cone of silence, the time it takes to sift through responses to your writing apart from the emotions evoked by the responses, is what Mia McKenzie means, I think, when she says, “Shut up and listen.” So next time a person calls you out on your privilege, remember the cone of silence. An essential part of privilege is that those who have it do not see that they have it. Think it through. Minutes, months, years later you may see it.

What have you learned recently?

High Tonight, Low Tomorrow. Precipitation Is Not Expected.

Shrink: How’s your concentration?

Indy Clause (pausing to consider that she can’t concentrate enough on her mood to even answer the question): Fair to middling.

Shrink: Is your lack of concentration causing you problems?

Indy Clause: I feel as if it’s situational lack of concentration.

Shrink stares patiently at Indy, waiting for her to explain.

Indy: I mean, I just went to a big writing conference. I made some new friends and one of them in particular has been feeding me a lot of opportunities. Actually, she’s my friend from grad school, not one of my new friends [barely restrains herself from telling Shrink four more stories about her new friends]. And my reader just sent my book back to me [barely restrains herself from telling Shrink three stories about her manuscript and/or her beta reader], so I want to work on that. And I have actual paying work to do. [Falls silent.] [Reflects on the fact that she’s sounding more ADD than usual.]

*

I have no idea how talk therapists deal with writers. I once had a therapist who asked me how I felt about being an orphan. “Oh it’s romantic. Positively Victorian!” He stopped me right in my tracks. “What about the concept rather than the word?” Oh. That man was worth his weight in pre-tax healthcare savings account dollars.

*

But why should I suffer alone? Here is some of the fantastic stuff I’ve been reading in my headlong rampage across the Internet. I first read Vanessa Martir’s account of AWP, where white male writers were stepping over a black man lying on the ground outside the men’s bathroom. Then I found her blog. And writing tips.

I have discovered places to submit researchy nonfiction [Management: Yes, that’s a term.]

CougarSon is not the bratty adoring and adorable boy I grew up with anymore. He is now a man with a family and a Ph.D., and we’re facebook friends. I like reading his links to long intellectual pieces about race and politics. CougarSon is interested in politics, but I got caught up in the discussion of Cornell West and scholarly writing in the middle of the article.

Here is the song referenced in the title.

*

What’s been distracting you recently?

These are the Days

Sometimes we throw our work into the winds. Sometimes we spend all winter blowing off paying work to write a complicated essay. Sometimes we write it from bed with a dog snoozing against our leg because it’s snowing again. Sometimes we beg our friends to read our essays because we think we have something good, but it’s not there yet, and we’re out of ideas. Sometimes we send it out. And sometimes we get acceptances.

[Cue singing, dancing, and some small-scale boasting.]

One of the things you guys as well as AWP and a few select friends have taught me is that I do not self-promote enough. Not that I am trying to sell anything to you at all. But there is no shame in talking about good things.

What good things have happened to you?*

*Don’t worry, cranky Indy will be back to her cranky self soon enough.

Rejecting rejection: Laughing through our tears

As you can see, I’m still stuck on ridiculous panel titles. This ridiculous panel title is in honor of our rejection contest, which was judged by Cougar Clause. [The management would like to add that Indy would have pasted ironic quotes around “judged” if she didn’t hate them.]

Cougar: Nice comments, Brandon, but I don’t think it was rejection.  Right?  You passed?

Indy: You have a point, Cougar.

Cougar: Mine:  terrific.

Indy: *eye roll*

Cougar: Downith 1?  Yeah, that is a good revision report.  I have an even better recent one…

Indy: Cougar! You are not allowed to talk about new rejections during the judging process. Were you raised in a barn?

[Management: Indy and Cougar were not raised in a barn.]

Cougar: Marian,  also not a rejection, but not bad as far as inane comments go.

Indy: That’s because you no longer live in the US and you secretly agree with the comments [huge recurring argument flares up].

The next day:

Cougar: GEW – hmmmm.  A rejection about how much s/he sucks.  I’ve never had a rejection use those words, or say those things.  In fact, I spend all my time in my writing for publication classes explaining that this is NOT what rejection letters say.  They present opportunities (for us to figure out we sent something to the wrong place, that we should go after a better target); they don’t say what we think they said and we should get someone else to read the rejection and make sense of it before we get depressed; they sometimes point out stuff that we needed someone to show us and that we had been working on so long that we couldn’t see it any more.  So, getting a rejection saying s/he sucks is really unusual (and probably not anything near what it actually said).  In the absence of proof to the contrary (s/he didn’t provide), I’d say, this is the most unbelievable rejection and deserves commendation.

Cougar: Downith 2 is a close second (third, depending on whether I won or not).

Indy: Wait, you’re not allowed to win!

Cougar: Why not? Mine was the best.

Indy: But you’re the judge. That’s cheating. You’re not allowed to cheat. No fair, I’m telling! Mo-om, Cougar’s cheating!! [Huge argument flares up.]

Maternal Clause rolls her eyes from the great beyond.

The next day I did an independent third-party review, and it was determined by one very patient human being that, in fact, Cougar’s entry is the very best, most eye-rolling rejection. Congrats, Cougar! Maple sugar candy on its way. It’s like currency among Clauses.

AWP: Did You Have Fun?

Do you do nothing but complain? Probably. However there were some beautiful moments at AWP listed in no particular order.

1. The sun came out.

2. I had lunch twice at an amazing Vietnamese restaurant. Both times I ordered roasted pork salad (with cucumbers, vermicelli, bean sprouts, lettuce, and other goodness). Now I want pork salad for breakfast.

3. I saw college friends I had not seen in years. One gave me a shutterfly pic book about the huge road trip we made west between our junior and senior years. Big tough Indy almost cried.

3a. We went out for lunch and shared beer and food and memories. DP came along. As I left I saw the three of them standing together as they had been together most of my college years and since (two of them were roommates and the third was the boyfriend, now husband, of one of the roommates). This moved me.

4. My broke now-sober friend got to AWP on a kickstarter campaign. He had a great time.

5. The sun came out.

6. My Grad Friend coffees were everything I needed from a writer friend. And I conned her into reading my manuscript. “You’re kinda my perfect reader,” I said. “What do I have to do?” I added melodramatically. “I don’t know,” she said. “Do you like mysteries?” Do I like mysteries? Do I read anything but memoir and mysteries and some poems sometimes? [Spoiler: No.] Done and done.

7. One great consolation for going to terrible poetry readings is bonding with people afterward about how godawful bad poetry readings are.

8. I made three new real friends.

What have you done this week?

What Did You Learn?

Wah, wah, wah, it’s hard to be around a bunch of fucking writers. Nobody cares. What did I learn?

From the memoir panel:

1. We often think the truth is the most obvious simple thing that 6 year olds blurt out constantly, but in fact scientists and scholars will tell you that the only way to arrive to truth is through painstaking work (Richard Hoffman).

2. Expository writing is a man on the stage telling us what happened, what the background of the event was, and how we felt about it all. But how much more compelling is a movie camera that pans over three people talking and lingers on the pained expression on one woman’s face? The camera leads us through the scenes, shows us what to focus on, and gives the writer “freedom from [the] struggle to make meaning” (Meredith Hall).

2a. This is like Socratic thinking. Sure you can tell the student what is wrong with her writing, but if you lead her to the realization through questions and examples, she is a hell of a lot more likely to remember the issue (Yours Truly).

3. Writing about adversity should challenge readers to change the goddamned situation (Hoffman).

4. The ending of a “braided” essay must be strong enough, otherwise the reader won’t trust the writer and her mind (Grad Friend during coffee date before panel).

5. Because writers of a good memoir choose details to tell a story, rather than tell the reader All Things, the writer must be ready to make a story out of our subject (Hall).

6. The story you might be telling might not be someone else’s trauma, but rather why you the writer feel compelled to write about someone else’s trauma (from the questions).

From the race and poetry panel:

1. Note to self: Read A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race.

2. Metaphors that work to help clarify one’s own thinking do not always translate for the audience. I have this problem a lot.

3. Everyone was scared about what to write for this panel, which made this panel much better than Famous Nonfiction Panel I will walk out of the following day.

4. Teaching only black poetry in class is a great way to break down white supremacist language.

5. One shouldn’t coopt experiences, but in fact I can write about why I feel so compelled to write about race (see 6 above).

6. Your innocence or silence will not protect you. “I didn’t realize that was offensive!” is no longer a viable excuse for an educated human in the 21st century.

7. The word “diversity” is a placeholder, so general as to be meaningless.

8. This was a panel about teaching, and was super interesting, but I was looking for a panel about craft.

From the Nonfiction of Famous Writers panel:

1. The room was so packed the fire marshall should have kicked us all out.

2. Someone told his friend, “good luck” at the door and I could hear it all the way up in the nosebleed seats. Acoustics are cool.

3. Claudia Rankine can write Citizen to “disturb” the sentence or to break down the text. I am still trying to find my story. This is what it is like to write a nonfiction book after four or five other books rather than as your first/second book.

4. People tell me to take out research, but in fact these famous writers tell me to put it back in.

5. “Conversations” are bullshit panels because no one prepares for them. They are just talking from the top of their heads. This is why these guys use research. They are much more interesting when talking about research. 

6. Conversations with new and old friends are often just as educational if not more so than panels.

How Was AWP? Part II

Minnesota Public Radio did a segment on AWP. “Thirteen thousand writers descend on Minneapolis!” We were a herd of locusts, bratty talkers filling up the coffeeshops, staying at the Vietnamese restaurant until they kicked us out.

It was like being in college again, only with smart phones. I texted people about meeting for dinner. My grad school friend and another woman, who introduced herself to Grad Friend at a bar the first night of the conference, were my comrades. Going to a panel was fine, but going to a panel with one of them was better. Like college, I had no solitude.

I walked by a thousand famous poets. People checked my badge to see who I was like they might check out my breasts if I had any to speak of. I failed to pitch my work a thousand times. At the end of the day I left a panel (that I had attended alone) before it was over because it was going so very wrong. Instead of going to the networking event I really should have gone to, I collared DP and a man I barely knew. Ten minutes later we were drinking whiskey in the bar.

I had met the man at the bookfair through a friend and, like Grad Friend and me, we didn’t want to leave each other. Old friends. By the end of the night I was holding forth with poets and fiction writers I had met in [City redacted], telling them with beery overconfidence that workshops were full of people not smart enough for them.

At 4 am, hungover and exhausted, I dragged my sorry ass out of bed and left the irritating inspiring hotbed of writers and the place of my youth. Two flights and a car ride later, I am so fucking glad to be home. But I miss my people.