Writer in the Workshop
Candice Rowe, University of Massachusetts/Boston
Last year in my fiction workshop at Northern Michigan University an enthusiastic and inventive student wrote a "sudden story," a page and a half worth, that used the "f" word eighteen times. When I pointed out that the overuse of the word--and that word could be "doorknob" or "stonewall" for all I cared--rendered the language powerless, the workshop sprang to the young writer's defense. "That's how people really talk," and "He's establishing character" were some of the defenses presented. The episode left me rattled. I'm convinced that I was offended by the overuse, not by the word itself. But that's not how the workshop perceived my criticism. "You're from back East," one said. Another observed that, "Men and women see things differently."
For a while after that workshop I thought about the students' comments and my responses and reactions. Sure, I'm from Boston, no getting around that. I'm also a woman. Again, no apologies offered. I'm also two months away from being half a century old and the mother of a daughter older than most of my students. Certainly these factors have shaped who I am, how I write, what I write, how I view writing, and how I deliver responses to the both the literature we read and the student work I review. But to what extent have these factors shaped my worldview and informed my writing and my reading of student work?
In 1996, I accepted a job teaching creative writing in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For two years I swapped the holy traffic jams and swaggering culture of Boston for pine trees standing sentinel, deer as common as road cones, and snow snow snow. All of this at age 49, mother of an adult daughter and grandmother of three grandsons. When my daughter married an Air Force man, I allowed myself to apply nationwide for a writing/teaching job and was able to accept a position when one was offered. No doubt that at my age I was feeling the shot clock's tick. I'm also aware that for the first time in my adult life, I was doing something important just for me. I don't want to sound like one of those talk-show women sifting on a thousand-dollar couch, neck swathed in a silk designer scarf. But the move was for me.
Initially, the isolation and the climate of the Upper Peninsula provided an ideal opportunity not only for immersion in my own work, reading, and teaching, but for reflection as well. Geographically the UP is more reminiscent of glacial tundra than of Continental USA. The closest city, Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a three-hour drive away. Late in March, every year, a cutter breaks a swath through the ice on Lake Superior's Upper Harbor so the first freighter of the season can berth in Marquette. This is a place where people snowshoe, luge, ski, mush, and skate for much of the year.
So after a fifteen-year career as a part-time college writing teacher and a single mother, I found myself with my first "real" job as a tenure tracked writing professor as well as with my first real opportunity to write full time. And after managing to order my life around what is most important to me, I was faced with a new set of unexpected obstacles. Right along side the pure luxury of having popcorn for dinner and of getting up at 2:00 a.m. to write without disturbing anyone, some little persistent gnats of doubt hatched. I've published prize-winning short stories, a chapbook of poetry, had a one-act play produced off-off-Broadway and had a small nonfiction book accepted for publication.
But along with my stint as a full time writing teacher, a "practitioner of craft," as we writers are called in the university, a new set of worries replaced the familiar dilemma of finding the time and energy to write. I began to wonder to what extent I have been shaped by my age, my gender, the roles I've assumed and played out as well as my life-experiences. Does my age affect my ability to be a convincing mentor to my much younger student writers? As I respond to student work, am I responding intuitively and organically or from a framework deliberately structured to accommodate my self-perceived limitations? As poet Barbara Cully put it while teaching at the University of Arizona, "Our students reflect back to us our own fears and inhibitions, as well as our freedoms." Hefty responsibilities there. So what do I expect my students to reflect back?
A few years ago, I could have answered that question quite easily. Insight into the human condition, a reflection of our humanity in the characters we create, and on a more practical level, understanding and practical application of craft. Stuff like that. Then, during my second semester at Northern, one of my better students wrote a craft paper that analyzed the role of the unreliable narrator in Ron Carlson's imaginative story, "Big Foot Stole My Wife." The student writer did a great job pointing out the subtle way the narrator reveals himself: he is a shabby husband, a gambler who has lost sight of reality. The student writer wrote that Carlson's narrator is "kinda loopy," and "I mean, let's face it, this guy is the epitome of a shiny husband."
In spite of the fact that the paper demonstrated a certain charm, insight and energy, not to mention its buttonholing of the function of the unreliable narrator and how the writer goes about creating him, when I Xeroxed the analysis and handed it out as a sample craft paper--the student's name deleted--I apologized for the language used in the paper.
In what had to have been an act that was pretty much unconscious on my part, I realized, as I stood distributing the copies to my small group of writers, that I wanted to engage another group in my private dialogue with an issue that had remained unresolved.
Like a badger I slugged away, sitting in my one-piece desk/chair, just one of the group. Look at the insight, the attention to text, the conversational tone, I pointed out to the group. But what about awareness of audience? I asked. The group was silent for a few seconds and one volunteered, "Yeah, we heard you didn't like bad language. But doesn't it sort of work in this case? The language makes us more aware of just how bad this guy is."
Since that day in workshop, I've given thought to the very real notion that I have been irrevocably shaped by my age, my gender, and my experiences to an extent that those influences are unshakable. So am I to think that the very elements that create voice and texture in my writing are extra luggage when I lead a writing workshop? Feeling quite transparent, I realized that both groups of workshoppers were correct in their perceptions of me. In workshop, I really am the square-jawed Yankee who won't admit that three feet of snow in one day is a grim prospect. In retrospect, I wish the writer in me had stepped up in that first workshop and read that piece aloud substituting flashlight or wind chill for the offending "f" word. There at least would have been the opportunity for students to hear the dull repetitiveness of language misused. It was time, I realized, to stop apologizing, and again, using the lingo of the talk shows, time to embrace myself.
If I accept that I was at times indeed that squinty-eyed "Easterner" running their workshop, then it seems natural to assume that sometimes the woman steps in, and then from the bullpen, the mother, the grandmother, the mentor, the old fogey. All aspects of me exist to create the writer, but could I more effectively orchestrate the appearances of these incarnations during workshop?
Then I thought of this. In my fiction workshops we read and discuss as both students of literature and as writers. That semester looked at the works of Richard Wright, Kate Chopin, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Perkins Oilman, and Tillie Olsen, among others. When we read as students of literature a story such as Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" or Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," we are impressed with the germinal importance of such works, of how they served to open the way technically, thematically, stylistically for the writers to follow. We can't help but admire the writers' courage and inventiveness.
In "The Story of an Hour," for example, Chopin wrote openly of her frank explorations of women and their views on love, sex, adultery, and their relationships to others— managing to shock her readers so much so that she was denied membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club. Intensifying the polemic nature of the story, Chopin doesn't give her main character poor Mrs. Mallard a break. Her husband is neither a boor nor a bully; in fact, he has a "face that had never looked save with love upon" his wife. Still Mrs. Mallard doesn't love him and feels liberated as she contemplates the news that he has been killed in a train accident. Within the bounds of marriage. This quiet drama speaks to the repression women feel. Sitting in a literature class we can admire Chopin's deserved place as an influential writer, and certainly we applaud her taking on of a uniquely female dilemma.
As writers, however, we tend to stare at the moles these works can't camouflage. When we read Chopin's story as writers, we note a too-sudden shift in psychic perspective that disorients the reader. We spot another intrusive and clumsy statement of intent. The tone is openly didactic. As writers, we are technically unimpressed by Chopin's "Hour"; in fact, we use such works to shore up our views of what we don't want to do in our own fiction.
If we can look at the same work through this kaleidoscope of writer/student of literature, what other vantage points are not only possible but also inevitable? Our life experiences, our genders, our ages, and our places all serve to shape us. This gets pretty complex. With place alone, we have the geographical spot we will always associate ourselves with, no matter where we might end up. Too, we have all those adopted places that have become a part of us as well. Sure I'm a Boston Yankee, but the two years I spent in the desert of Arizona have been persuasive too. And what of my experiences in the snowy tundra of the Upper Peninsula?
How incredible, I thought over and over as I stared out of my snow-covered window my first year in the Northwards, how both Boston and the Southwest served to prepare me for the physical isolation I was experiencing in the Upper Peninsula. Just this week I received word that the first story I wrote set in the U.P.--written last spring when the roads were still snow-covered--had won a prize in a national fiction competition. Well, I said to colleagues, reading all those student deer hunting stories and listening to all those dire warnings to motorists broadcast every day during the evening news must have had an effect.
Age is another factor that gains more significance when we think of the events and attitudes of our particular "times" that have served to shape us. Women my age have been conditioned to think of time as the enemy, the great destroyer. We've also been trained to question the value of the "quiet dramas" we witness without ever leaving the sofa. Instead of embracing our collective and individual experiences, celebrating what Anais Nin called "the uniqueness of the female experience," we shuttle them into the corner like old aunts at a social gathering with too much rouge and embarrassingly tight and shiny dresses. We actually accept the indictments of "too late" or women only" in so many areas of our lives. When we think of too-late-to write, we might think of poor Zelda Fitzgerald. Age thirty certainly doesn't seem old at all, but for Fitzgerald it was. Illness, boundaries set by society, her struggles as a Wife and a mother, the very competitive nature of the relationship with her husband F. Scott, all conspired to make age thirty too late for her.
It's not this sort of too-late that I'm concerned with. Circumstances can conspire regardless of age and gender. I'm more concerned with the impediments the writer takes on through the auspices of living (or not living) a "normal" life. Tillie Olsen shows us the model of a woman/mother who wrote Yonnondio to great acclaim at age nineteen, and then was forced through the demands of motherhood and job, to put that same work on the back burner for forty years. With the birth of her daughter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was plunged into a depression. A generic diagnosis of hysteria and her subsequent "treatment" plunged her further into despair. Her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" must certainly have been shaped by these life experiences.
This is what these anecdotal observations mean to me. Culling through piles of old manuscripts I came upon a handwritten note from a Boston University writing workshop peer, circa 1981, written in response to a piece of fiction I had submitted. He notes, "It is a shock to my sensibility that a woman can have such a perception. The washing machine incident with the panties is dynamite. I just think you should tone down the poetry." What astounds me is that I do not recall being offended by the observations at the time.
At the time I was the mother of an eight-year-old, who waited for me at the home of a neighbor every Wednesday afternoon after school until I got out of my workshop and picked her up. I didn't see anything wrong with that picture either. I am, after all, the product of the State-sponsored Training Programs of the '5os otherwise called Home Economics. "Plan ahead," we were taught. "Having dinner ready, the children bathed and quiet, is a way of letting him know you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs." In her essay "One out of Twelve," Tillie Olsen touches on the realities of her time (which certainly touched my time), noting that "the atomic bomb was in manufacture before the first automatic washing machine."
My stories during my Boston University days included the generic failed marriage tales and the missed opportunity sagas. But I longed to write like the guys--wonderfully experimental stuff about John Wayne steering a cigarette boat through choppy symbolic waters. Part of my longing arose simply from the fact that I myself longed for a life with wider opportunities. Part of my response was based on the fact that "quiet" stories weren't all that well received in workshop.
In the Preface to the 1973 edition of Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. describes one of his short stories as a "sickeningly slick love story from the Ladies Home Journal, God help us," which "describes an afternoon I spent with my wife-to-be. Shame, shame, to have lived scenes from a woman's magazine." Vonnegut's works appeared frequently along side Hemingway and Faulkner in the Great Books classes I took during my undergraduate days. It's hard to scuttle out from under the influence of such pervasive cultural training. It's even more difficult to recognize the value in more feminine or domestic experiences or what Jane Smiley called, at the Aspen Writers' Conference, stories that center on the "maternal vision.
In that same Preface, Vonnegut writes, "I never knew a writer's wife who wasn't beautiful." The message for the young, impressionable reader being, so only men are writers. I honestly believed that women with life experiences similar to mine, fortunate even to aspire to be writers, were subsequently relegated theme and subject-wise to the sub-stature of the poor literary regionalists, mapping out their tiny territories with timorous marks. I would have to admit that the workshops I took, both formally and informally reinforced this perception.
Just a couple years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, a wide chasm opened to separate two vastly different groups of workshop writers. We called them the six-pack of beer pickup truck writers and they called us the nothing much happens bunch. And interestingly enough, we were not divided by gender. (I have since noticed the same proclivities as students discuss a short story such as Ann Beattie's "Janus." Half the workshop loves the subtlety and shy symbolism; the other half hates the story's lack of plot and stasis of character.) Back at Arizona, if we could have stopped insulting each other long enough, we would have realized that all that separated us was heavily plotted, action-driven narrative and nonlinear, plotless narratives.
The workshop experience during the worst of this feuding was rather unpleasant, but instructive. I learned that I am not a plot-driven writer and I prefer the plotless story, which is sometimes the quiet, domestic drama. A consequence of my age, my upbringing or something to do with right brain/left brain? I've come to see that the divination of the origins of proclivities is not constructive. Aesthetics just are.
I've never passed a math class in my life, I tell my students. I admire plot, but I can't do it, I tell them. This is a great conversation-starter early on in a workshop. By assigning the reading of stories that are both heavily plotted and plotless, I hope only to open the world of possibilities for the students in my workshops. Students not only learn what a plot is, but that there are stories without plots, and most significantly, they decide for themselves where they fall on the continuum. This early exploration and definition of each writer's aesthetic is tied very closely to all the factors I was so concerned with suppressing.
In the midst of all this jolly egalitarianism, though, there is still the issue of good taste and decency, and how to introduce this notion to the workshop writers, hoping all the while to guide them without stifling them. At the Annual AWP Conference last April, I had the chance to speak with other creative writing teachers during a roundtable discussion. Many of us had the same concerns - how to guide our student writers past the language problem but also the problem themes we found repetitive, trite, hard to pull off with panache, or those that are just plain offensive.
We half-jokingly created 'the list,' and this semester I handed it out to my students as a tip Sheet. No talking animals, no waking up from a dream, no "gangsta" saga, no sex scenes unless you've read at least 15 sex scenes written by credible writers, and no killing off a character until at least mid-semester. We had a few laughs as we reviewed the list, and some of the students, with varying degrees of success, have tackled the "problem stories," just to see what they could do with them.
No one ever claimed this job was easy. I recall reading a narrative submitted for a grade that involved killing, beating, drug taking, and raping. The rape scene takes place in an abandoned building, where the young female victim is forced to disrobe. The writer's dialogue for the young woman about to be brutalized: "'Not again,' she sighed. 'Aw, come on, I've got my period."' My heart just about exploded. I was offended as a woman and a mother, but I let the writer in me make the margin comments: not a convincing human reaction to an inherently dangerous situation, I wrote. But I couldn't leave it alone. Next class went something like this:
In his 1950 "Address upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature," William Faulkner said, "the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." It is the poet's and the writer's duty, "his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory, of his past."
Later that week a student brought the Parade magazine to my office. "Take a look at this," he said, offering me Walter Scott's "Personality Parade," a column that answers light, entertaining questions about movie stars. "I like Ransom" but not the constant use of four-letter profanity," a woman from Texas wrote. "Why is that word so special in Hollywood?" And the answer: "Many screenwriters sprinkle their scripts with that word because they lack the talent to write convincing dialogue without it." I could barely suppress a smile.
When I began this self-inquiry, I thought about how my age, my place, my gender, my experiences have all served to shape and will continue to shape my workshop writers. The unexpected joy came when I realized how persuasively my student writers have shaped me--their questions, their arguments, their stubbornness--all have found concrete expression in my recent work.
At the end of the semester, my workshop students, faced with the prospect of writing a piece of flash or sudden fiction, challenged me to write a story along with them. And so I did. Several of the workshoppers wrote respectable stories in less than half an hour. My story was three and a half pages long and took me over fifteen hours to write. "What's that, a word a minute?" one of the workshoppers observed. I presented the story to the class, encouraging students to take their roles as critics seriously. In October, I will be reading the story I wrote for that class, the story I revised according to their suggestions. That story was the one just named a winner in a national fiction competition.Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Rowe, Candice. (1999). "Writer in the Workshop." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 13-17. 17