Day 22: Anti-Workshops & Icebergs

During my first workshop, I cried.  I mean, literally, cried.

Luckily, I was wearing a baseball cap, and I was able to tuck my chin against my chest as I diligently scribbled notes.  We were workshopping a creative nonfiction piece I had written about my father who had passed away not long before.  I remember the word “Sentimental” and the disgusted way they pointed to a passage and discussed, “Nostalgia,” (though I had no idea why either were wrong).  I remember little else.  From that day forward, I thought crying and workshops were inextricably intertwined.

UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall. My first workshop occurred somewhere in there...

In many ways, I’m jealous of UNM’s creative writing major for undergraduates.  Our students are eased into workshops.  The 200-level course is workshop free.  The 300-course is is half and half (designed to teach them how to workshop).  By the time students move to the advanced 400-level course, they know the drill.   They can hang with the best of them, critiquing like hosts of any BRAVO reality television show.  In the textbook I assigned this semester, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, there’s even a chapter dedicated to the workshop experience (though it masks itself as a chapter on “Revision.”)  Other than Billy Collins’ poem, “Workshop,” this was the first time I’ve ever read anything about what workshops could and should be (and should not be).  Needless to say, my students were not as excited about this chapter as I was.

I was most intrigued by what La Plante calls the “Anti-workshop” or “Exercise-based approach to deep revision.”  As La Plante writes,

In it, rather than directly telling a student writer what to do to a piece, I suggest exercises to be done “in the margins.”  What this means is that the exercises may result in text that never becomes part of the story directly, but somehow informs the writer’s understanding of the work.

She goes on to give the following example:  say a piece revolves around a mother and a daughter but the relationship is underdeveloped.  While the workshop’s job is to explore the problem and recommend ways to fix it, La Plante advocates for the “Anti-workshop,” where students give exercise recommendations instead of narrow specifications to the writer.  These exercises should work to “EXPLODE open” the work, pushing for an deeper exploration of character.    Instead of saying, “I don’t believe that the mother and the daughter hate each other,” the workshop might offer a suggestion to “write five vignettes of the last five times the mother and daughter disagreed.  Or, conversely, the last five times the mother and daughter agreed on something.”  These “margin exercises” may never make it into the final draft, but they will work to deepen the story.

Ernest Hemingway, in his famous iceberg theory, would probably agree with this approach.  As Hemingway says,

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Translation:  The writer’s work is to know 100% about his/her characters and 100% about his/her story.  Even if only 1/8th of the story appears on the page, if the writer has done his/her work, the reader will be able to fully engage with the entire story.  It also means that if a writer does not know 100% of the story, the story will appear flat and unrealized.

Today, writers, in our workshop-free (and tear-free!) environment, why not try writing in the margins?  You don’t need a workshop to tell you places that you can explore, and most of us know all too well the places we find “problematic.”  Rather than worrying, try writing some marginal vignettes through La Plante’s suggestion (5 times when characters agree; 5 times when characters disagree) or perhaps explore other exercises of your own devising (feel free to share them here!) Whatever you do: don’t worry about being “interesting” or “advancing plot” or “fixing problems.”  Give yourself a break.  Remember that writing used to be fun.  Write and enjoy the explosion.

Day 15: Cracking Eggs & Writing Fears

The other day, my friend Michelle and I were having coffee at Java Joes, shooting the shit and talking–as we do–about the general nature of life.  Why is it, we wondered, that people get stuck?

We were talking about the nature of stagnation.  The person who stays in the job they hate even though it is sucking down their soul.  The person sleeping in the bedroom that reminds them of death.  The person in the unfulfilling relationship who stays because it is easy and safe.  Instance after instance, person after person, so many examples it is impossible to count.  Every person rutted.  Every person only moderately happy.

“This is my biggest fear,” I said.  And then, remembering my novel, I asked, “How does one get out of it?”

My novel, The View From Here, is told from the point of view of four different characters.  Each character is stuck in her own way.  Coincidentally, I’ve been spending the last two months working on the chapters for a character who is also named Michelle.  This is what I know about Michelle the character: She works a lot.  She travels a lot.  She is having an affair with a younger woman.  She is married to a very honest and good man named Jim.  She is unhappy.  I know that she and Jim will split (sorry for the spoiler), and though I’ve written many many drafts already, I’m still ironing out HOW this splitting will happen.  And so when I asked Michelle, “How do you get out of it?” I was trying to find an answer to the thing I’ve been struggling with for weeks.

Michelle, in true Michelle fashion, diverted the conversation.  She began talking about something else.  I brought her back.  “I mean it,” I say.  “How does this happen?  Do you know anyone who has gotten out?  Who’s changed their life for the better?”

Michelle shrugged.  She sipped coffee.  “Not really,” she said.

Dan Mueller, one of my teachers/mentors at UNM, likes to describe characters as eggs.  In a story, he says, there are many forces exerted upon a character.  Each one adds more and more pressure to that character’s shell until eventually, the pressure is too much, and the character cracks.

These are eggs from my community garden. They have very hard shells...

We may love our characters, but we want them to crack.  We need them to.  Otherwise, we don’t have a story.  Today, writers, try using the pressure of fear.  Let fear push your writing and your characters closer to that necessary edge.  And to get us there, here’s a writing exercise I snagged from Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story.  I did this one with my English 321 class, and it is, perhaps, my favorite writing exercise ever.  I don’t have the book so this isn’t verbatim, but here is the gist of the exercise:

What’s behind the door of Room 101?

In George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-four, room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most.

  • First, take a character you are working with (or use yourself if you are writing Creative Nonfiction or Poetry), and imagine the character walking into his or her version of Room 101.  What does he/she see?  The key here is to stay specific.  Do not use abstractions (loneliness, anger, lust, etc).  Instead, render through concrete significant details (think of your five senses here.  We want to hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it, and see it).  Write for 10 minutes.
  • Then, for the next ten minutes, render a scene (or poem) in which the character encounters something that reminds him or her of this fear.  DO NOT mention the fear.

Good luck!