Sometimes, when you’re in the darkest and gloomiest part of the writing process, the workshop cliche is what saves you

Source: The Gnomon Workshop
Source: The Gnomon Workshop

Usually, the suggested fixes that you’re given by a writing workshop are pretty mechanical and, oftentimes, not very coherent. The thing that workshop does well, though, is diagnose the problems that need to be fixed. Because stories are so complicated and need to work on so many levels, it’s very possible to create a story that’s all tone or all setting or all language or all concept and neglect the other elements.

Which is exactly when your workshop comes in and says something like ,”What are the stakes here? Why should the main character care about this? And why should I care” or “What does this main character want?”

I’ve heard those complaints so many times in so many different critique groups and workshops. These sentiments are the definition of workshop cliche: a generic thing that you say about a piece of writing that you don’t really like. And it’s very easy for a writer to dismiss these criticisms with some glib tossed-off answer: “They’re interested in seeing whether their philosophy works” or “They want to be alone.”

Sometimes, though, these phrases come back to you when you’re stuck. And questions that seem like cliches can become very powerful when you take them seriously and use them to interrogate your text. When you use them to cut through the easy, glib answers and really examine, “Why does this matter?” and “What does the character want?”

Writing this book, in particular, has meant abandoning two dozen different paths that were very defensible and plausible ways to go, except that they just weren’t the right thing to do. But if I didn’t have the sense of the basics that I got from workshop, then I don’t know that I would’ve been able to recognize or articulate what was wrong with what I was writing.

 

You know where I had a really excellent time? The Clarion Writer’s Workshop

How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop
How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop

Clarion and Clarion West (for those not in the know) are six-week summer workshops for science fiction and fantasy writers. You go, you live in a dorm with twenty other writers, you get instructed by a different professor each week, and every week you write a story and have your story critiqued.

It’s a pretty intense experience, for three reasons: a) it’s not that easy to write a story every week; b) it’s very emotionally trying to finish a story in a flush of inspiration and then, almost immediately, have it be ripped apart by twenty other people; and c) you’re separated from your friends and family, and are forced to live with people who start to, at times, feel like your rivals for the approval of the world-famous writing instructors.

(Oh yeah, the teachers at Clarion are amazing. They’re usually people you’ve heard of and admired. And if they’re not, then they’re people you should have heard of. My year, it was Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, Samuel Delany, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, and Holly Black. Even when I was a callow and poorly-read twenty year old, that list included several authors whose work I loved.)

Anyway, so, long story short…Clarion can be pretty terrible. The worst thing it can do is tear you down and shake your confidence in your own voice and your own subject matter. My Clarion workshop was much more reductive than most workshops I’ve been in. There was no hesitation about rewriting peoples’ stories and critiquing their core elements. And that’s hard. I mean, I think we were generally fairly decent at spotting when a story was working. But when a story’s not working, it can be for two different reasons: a) it’s trying to do something that shouldn’t or can’t be done; or b) it hasn’t yet figured out how to do the thing that it wants to do.

And I don’t think we were that great at spotting or identifying b).

However, I had a really good time there. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did. Memory is a pretty hazy thing, you know. And I got very sick right after coming back from Clarion. And I wrote nearly nothing for the whole year that came afterwards. But I think it was very good for my writing. Before I went to Clarion, I wasn’t really writing stories–most of my work was missing either plot or character motivation or concept or setting. But when you’re getting your stories torn apart week after week, then you realize that you just can’t get away with that crap. After I left, my stories were much better. I feel like I advanced about two years while I was there.

So I do still recommend it. I would say, though, that I recommend it more for earlier-stage writers than for later-stage ones, because early-stage writers are more likely to actually have the sorts of problems that a workshop is going to try to find. I know a few fairly-advanced writers who’ve gone to Clarion, and I question that decision a little bit, because it feels like they’re almost going there in search of validation. Which is fine and natural…but I think it can be a pretty shattering experience to expect validation and not get it.

(Oh, this post was apropos of two recent online posts. Ferrett posted about getting his novel deal, and how Clarion was the turning point in his writing career. And this queer writer, Nicole Cipri, is hosting an online fundraising campaign [to which I donated] to enable them to go to Clarion).

Coming up on my last workshop at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps my last one for a long time)

workshopAlready some of the other people I’ve spent the last two years with are figuring out their next steps. And I’m working on my final story for workshop. There is a bittersweetness to it, just as there is to all endings. For the last 20 or so months, our MFA workshop has been a constant presence in our life. Even when we’re not actively in workshop (i.e. during the winter breaks or the summer), I’m still very aware that I am going to have to produce work which is going to need to be subjected to workshop.

I don’t believe that I’ve been harmed by workshop (though I do think that it’s possible for a person to be harmed by it). However, it (and this whole environment) has changed me more than I thought it would. The very first story that I turned into workshop was this one, but I also don’t think I could write a story like that today. It has too much exterior and not enough interior. Nowadays, I prefer to write stories that are a bit quieter, and it’d be hard to say that the MFA environment didn’t have an influence on that. It didn’t operate by making me afraid to turn in certain kinds of stories. It operated by changing my value system: my sense of what kinds of stories were good.

I don’t know, maybe that was a certain kind of harm.

All I can say is that I don’t think the stories I was writing before I came here were particularly great, and I’m happy with my creative evolution.

However, I do wonder what it will be like to write without the influence of workshop. I think there’ll be something about it that’s very freeing. Probably I’ll slide into some bad habits. My practice is to make sure that everything I turn into workshop is as perfect as I can make it. And that makes it very difficult for me to ignore the problems that the workshop finds. These aren’t things I haven’t yet gotten around to fixing; they’re things that I never even noticed. However, when I’m writing on my own, I’m never gonna notice those things.

Still, I’ve written and sold plenty of stories (like…almost every story I’ve ever sold) that didn’t go through a critique process, and I have confidence that I can navigate the world on my own.

The truth is that, on a creative level, every year is very different. I am constantly writing this story or that story and saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But even in the moment when I write it, I know that I’ll someday have to write something better. Sometimes I can’t even believe it. Sometimes I look on stories or novels I’ve written, and I don’t even understand how they came out of me: they just don’t seem like things that I could have produced. But what’s even stranger is to know that if I’m ever going to get anywhere, then someday in the future, I’ll need to sit down and produce something that’s even better.

Let go of things you wrote while you were in undergrad

SEMINAR2
These are three of the actual human beings we saw in this play

Just went with my MFA classmates to see a production of Seminar at the Roundhouse Theater in DC. This is a play that’s about four aspiring writers who are in a workshop with a crusty old instructor who alternates merciless abuse with tepid praise. It was extremely enjoyable. However, most of it was not specific to writing. It could’ve been about any creative profession. You could have replaced “writing” with “coding” at any point and made the whole thing about computer programmers and it still would’ve worked (well, except for how computer programmers don’t really struggle economically).

One thing, though, was specific to the writing profession and rang fairly true. The very first week of the seminar, the professor critiques a woman’s story for being incredibly dull and lifeless. And after he leaves, she rails about how she’s spent six years working on that story and about how all these other well-known professors (she mentioned Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff) had really loved it.

That’s something that definitely happens, and I think it’s very particular to the way that people begin writing. When people begin writing, they often only write for class. They might really like to write and really like the feeling that being a writer gives them, but they haven’t yet processed that writing is something you should do all the time and do on your own. They need the motivation of class to produce anything. And, for many people who sort of thought about beginning writing careers, their first writing classes were in college. And then when they leave college, they stop writing, because there’s no more class.

Many writers go through a several year long fallow period before they start to realize that they’re going to need to write for themselves now (I think this also happens to writers who leave their MFA programs). And during this time, they’ll reread, revise, and polish their best undergrad pieces: the ones that brought praise to them from their professors and that made them feel like they could be writers in the first place.

These pieces, though, are, almost invariably, not very good. What people don’t understand is that when a professor says something is “good,” what they really mean is “better than I expected.” And sometimes (oftentimes) professors’ expectations are very low. It’s certainly a good thing to write one of the best stories in an undergrad workshop (better than writing one of the worst ones), but even the best story in an undergrad workshop usually doesn’t come close to actually being a good story.

Part of the process of becoming a writer is learning to replace the professor’s judgment with your own. Because, in most cases, professors aren’t going to be nearly hard on you as they ought to be. In most cases (and for most people), it would be counterproductive for a professor to be as hard on you as they ought to be. You will accept criticism from yourself that you would never accept from another person. I can dismiss an entire novel as garbage. But if another person told me it was garbage, that’d be devastating (and I probably wouldn’t listen).

I’ve never really heard another writer talk about this (in fact, I’ve heard the opposite. I’ve heard many writers talk about how they don’t know when their work is good and when it’s bad), but I think it’s very important to have your own independent sense of your work’s value. I don’t understand how people can write something if they’re not, on some level (even if it’s only in a relative sense like ‘this part is better than that part’ or ‘this story is better than that story’) able to evaluate it.

Anyway, part of the process of acquiring your own sense of judgment is learning to let go of stories that your professors told you were good. There’s something very comforting about that seal of approval. It feels like a promise. But it’s not. A professor’s judgments are meant to guide you; they’re not meant to override your values.

You would think that _knowing_ you’re going to feel bad would somehow inoculate you against feeling bad

th_BadStoryDroWhen I was in the final stages of writing the first draft of the novel, I was feeling so good that I knew the feeling couldn’t last. When you’re in a good mood, it’s impossible to fathom a bad mood coming. But I knew it was on its way! I had no idea what I was going to feel unhappy about, because there’s really nothing in my life that is particularly bad, but I knew it was coming.

And here it is.

Now that the semester has started, I need to write some short stories for workshop, and it is proving to be extremely slow going. Last semester, I was on fire, producing much more than I needed to for workshop. This semester, not so much. The world simply seems drained of meaning. I can imagine all kinds of stories, but they don’t seem interesting. It’s hard for me to imagine what a person could care about or why they would bother.

It’s not a depressed mood, so much as a mild anhedonia.

Still, when I was in this mood last year, I produced at least one extremely good story, so we’ll see. There are only two ways to write when you’re in this mood: the first is to go deeper inside and try to pin down the thing that you need right at this moment; and the second is to get further from yourself and immerse yourself in the richness and specificity of the world.

I am alternating between doing the two.

Writing requires a lot of faith. When you’re working on a story, you need to have faith that it’ll come together (even though there’s a very good chance that it won’t). And when you’re between stories, you need to have faith that something will come along. Without that faith, you end up spending way too much time chasing down every mirage because the act of writing a bad story so much like the act of writing a good one that, as long as you don’t allow yourself to slow down and think, you can very easily convince yourself that you’re doing the latter instead of the former.

Anatomy of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience

24resizedJust saw my friend Alex Kane’s blog post about the aftermath of going to Clarion West (which is a six-week summer workshop for SF writing that was taught, this year, by Neil Gaiman and a lot of other good writers who are about a tenth as famous as Neil Gaiman). He had a really good time and posted a very solid and moving description of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience.

I myself went to Clarion when I was just a lad. Only 20 years old. Couldn’t even go to the bars. It was very hot in East Lansing. And I definitely had a good time. But, well, here’s the last mention of my Clarion experience in my journal (from 17 hours before I left).*

“Perhaps the happiest moment of my Clarion experience was when I discovered that two months ago I booked my departure ticket for Friday evening rather than Saturday, as I had thought. Mentally, I never want to leave Clarion. But physically, I need to get the fuck out of here. My body is completely breaking down on me. I can’t sleep more than three hours a night due to horrendous coughing fits. I’m suffering from a low-grade fever and I think I’m getting an ear infection. Since [I’m] going to Europe on the 8th of August, it’s really great to know that I’m going to be able to get an additional night of sleep.”

This bears a strong resemblance to my feelings at the end of Sewanee and at the end of pretty much every writing workshop I’ve ever been in. I start off feeling all comradely and wonderful. But by the end, it’s become a grim, nightmareish affair. And when it’s all over, I feel only a tiny bit better than when I started. I think this might just be a personality quirk, since other people seem to have Semi-Mystical Workshop Experiences all the time.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s like, when you go to a workshop and you come back feeling inspired and transformed and utterly different as a writer.

For me, the things I’ve experienced that’ve been closest to SMWE’s have been the two learning experiences that’ve been the least like a traditional workshop.

The first was Nick Mamatas’ 9-week class. There were only 4 people in the class, so everyone could be workshopped every week, if they wanted. And I did want! There was no week in which I didn’t turn in something (although one week, what I turned in didn’t get workshopped by the whole group). And (in my recollection), for the last 5 weeks, what I turned in were stories that I’d written during the class.

Three of the stories that I workshopped in that class (“The Snake King Sells Out”, “Inside The Mind of the Bear”, and “A House, Drifting Sideways”) sold, as did several of the stories I wrote, but did not turn in, while the class was going on (“What Everyone Remembers”, “The Ships That Stir Upon The Shore”, and “No Victims”) . As did four of the six stories I wrote right after finishing the class (“Man-Eater”, “Another Prison”, “Tomorrow’s Dictator”, and “An Early Adoption”). All of these, except “A House…” and “No Victims”, were at more than five cents a word.

What made the class good is that the workshop experience wasn’t a traditional one. Because the class was so small, the workshop was fairly short (maybe 20 minutes) and instructor comments tended to predominate. In most cases, while the comments were good, they didn’t lead me to make massive revisions to the stories in question.

The other great class I took was last semester, when I took a distance-learning class with David Marusek, through a writing center in Alaska (where he lives). David is one of my favorite SF writers, so when I saw on his blog that he was offering one-on-one tutorials, I knew I had to take one.

For that class, I started by turning in a story. Then he gave comments. Then I revised the story and turned it in again. Then he gave more comments. And I revised it yet another time. And then he gave me final comments and the class was over.

For this one, the key was the second revision. For both revisions, what I ended up doing was a total rewrite (I could submit all three versions to a magazine, and no editor would know that they were related). But the second rewrite really forced me to abandon some of the lazy, poorly thought-out stuff I’d allowed to bog me down between the first and second rewrites. And the result was a much more rigorously thought-out story than I’d previously been used to producing.

The habits of mind I got in that class have helped me in all my fiction since then (even realist fictions). It’s just the habit of knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know and knowing what I need to know. Now, whenever I am bogged down with a story, I try to think about what questions remain unanswered.

Anyway, I think that, for me, a good class is one that doesn’t let me get away with stuff and one that inspires me to write better stuff. And most workshops at least attempt to do that. But they also come with all kinds of other stuff that bogs you down. For instance, summer writing seminars require you to leave your home and go to a strange place. That seems very counterproductive to me. They’re also a huge social scene. Which is great, but also complicates the writing. And, finally, the workshops themselves are often punishing experiences that operate, on some level, by battering you down. When you have 22 people giving comments on your story (as was the case in my Clarion), it’s just a lot going on, a lot of opinions, a lot to take in.

My MFA workshop definitely falls somewhere in the midpoint. It inspires me to produce better work and it doesn’t let me get away with stuff. Nor is it too complicated by personalities. However, the fact that you spend years in the same program as the people you’re workshopping with does tend to take the edge off it, in some ways. Like, in most workshops, at the end of the class, you might be friends with the people, but you’re definitely not in workshop with them anymore. In an MFA program, you’re gonna be doing this together for week after week after week.

Also, the pace of an MFA workshop isn’t quite fast enough to create that euphoric cascade of realizations that is necessary for a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience. If you’re turning in a story every month, then your blood doesn’t get up and your adrenaline doesn’t pump in the same way that it does when you’re turning in a story every week or when you need to do a complete rewrite over a weekend.

 

*My Clarion posts are the oldest thing on this journal that a person can access. I cringe when I read them. The person who wrote them seems so callow. I wonder if I’ll someday cringe when I read posts like this one?

Being willing to learn whatever the instructor is able to teach

My class had its first workshop last Friday. My students performed admirably. Their stories were interesting and their comments were perceptive. And, in the process of conducting the workshop, I learned something about what it means to teach writing.

In some ways, it’s a little odd that I’m allowed to teach people how to write. I’m not bad at most aspects of writing, and I’m very good at some aspects of it, but there are plenty of areas where I don’t really know how to fix someone’s issues. Like, if someone’s sentence-level writing is awkward or their characterization is thin or their descriptions are redundant, I can (sometimes) note the problems, but I’m not very sure how to fix them.

This is a picture of a blackboard that I inserted in order to spice up the post, because I do that now.

But, as I was teaching, I realized that there are plenty of areas where I can immediately diagnose a problem and can offer solutions. For instance, I’m fairly good at structural issues: seeing how the parts of a story fit together and figuring out how to move the plot along. I also understand when a story is hampered by exposition and when it should be written in scene. And I’m down like the devil on cliché story elements, characters, etc. Not only can I diagnose these issues, but I also have some sense of how to fix them.

In some ways, I think the way that I’m focused on these things could be frustrating for students. Because even as I make these suggestions, it’s obvious that they’re not universally true. I mean, it’s obvious that many clichéd stories work very well (every character and story element in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work seems, to me, to be quite clichéd). And there are many less-plotted (Joyce) and/or primarily-narrative (Borges) stories that work well, too.

The common rejoinder to students who want to do these things is, “Oh, well, if you’re as good as Lahiri or Borges or Joyce, then you can do that stuff, but until then, you need to learn how to do it the ordinary way.”

I don’t agree with that. I’m not sure that there’s a hierarchy of writing, and that you need to tick off all the lower boxes in order to get to the more advanced stuff. Actually, I’d say that the way writing works is that you do what you want to do, and you do it very badly for a very long time, and then you finally start doing it right.

But refusing to make that excuse leaves an instructor in a hard place, because it strips you of the authority to make the suggestions that you know how to make. I tell my students to search harder and look for more original premises and write in scene, because I know that if they do those things, they’ll write better stories. And I’m right, they will write better stories…but they won’t necessarily write the stories that they want to write.

Having this experience gives me a lot more empathy for everyone who’s ever critiqued my own work. Even in the cases when they were flat-out wrong (in terms of offering suggestions that would not have furthered my vision for my story), they were trying to offer me to the wisdom that they knew how to offer. In many cases, I’d probably have become a better writer if I’d been capable of integrating their perspective on things.

My teaching experience has made me realize that while the instructor has a duty to try to understand and assist a student’s intentions, a student should also do their best to learn whatever the instructor is capable of teaching. For my intro to fiction students, that’s not important, obviously. They’re just beginning their education. But I think it’s very important for someone at my level to be able to just relax and really try to understand the instructor feedback that he receives.

Actually, it’s a bit annoying that I didn’t get my act together and post this yesterday, because now this looks like a response to my own workshop experience yesterday evening. That is certainly not what it was intended to be! However, I will say that being workshopped was very interesting and helpful and not at all painful. I think I’m going to learn a lot this year. Workshop has taught me a lot about all the kinds of different things that it’s possible to learn. I don’t come from a workshop-heavy background, so perhaps everything I’m getting is just a workshop truism, but I think my classmates and our workshop leader bring some very interesting perspectives, and I am looking forward to learning what they have to teach me.

 

P.S. I think I’ve made progress on my horrible sleep problems! For the first time in five days, I think I’m going to eschew the Nap Option.