The Horror! The Horror!
What did I learn at a prestigious fiction-writing workshop? That the next time I pick up a pen, I might use it to stab myself.
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I’ve wanted to write a novel ever since I started reading, but I wouldn’t call it a lifelong dream so much as a demonic possession. My dreams, such as swimming with manatees or ballroom dancing with Brad Pitt, are pleasant, even if they remain unfulfilled. Dreams do not require exorcisms.Although I tried for years to allay this unwelcome urge by remodeling houses or writing for magazines, I always knew—courtesy of a constant, low-grade anxiety—that release would be possible only after I actually wrote one. I did write a murder mystery, an eco-disaster set in Austin filled with transvestites and scuba deaths, but it was so bad it only made the demon more possessive. I tried again: a coming-of-age exposé based on my hometown of Bellville and peopled by enough easily identifiable real-life characters to guarantee tons of lawsuits. Then I tried again. About 29,761 words into my latest attempt, a conundrum set in the gothic heart of East Texas, I realized I had to get help, something beyond the books and Web sites on writing that I’d been gobbling up. I also needed distance from what I’d begun to believe was the creativity-sapping flatness and heat of Texas. This is how, despite my do-it-yourself DNA and my native Texan chauvinism, I wound up spending a week last summer at a famous ski resort in the mountains of California getting “workshopped,” or as I liked to say, “grouped.”
From among the 60 zillion writers’ workshops offered in the United States and France, I chose the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop because (1) the application consisted entirely of a writing sample (no listing of nonexistent awards and degrees, no disclosure of advancing age), (2) it’s been around for 37 years, (3) there was no mention of journaling or tapping into the monkey mind, (4) even I recognized the names of speakers and staff such as Amy Tan, Janet Fitch, Anthony Swofford, Mark Childress, and Alice Sebold, and (5) I could spend part of August in a cooler clime amid spectacular scenery.
When I was accepted, I was so thrilled you’d have thought a manatee had swum up to my doorstep with Brad on his back.1 Two hundred seventy-five writers had applied, but only 120 had made the cut! I was as good as published! I saw this as my first-class ticket out of writing things like the Shrimp Marketing Program newsletter or “101 Reasons to Visit the Texas Petrochemical Complex”! I was so happy I began using exclamation points!
Once I got to Squaw Valley, I maintained this uncharacteristic level of enthusiasm throughout the registration process, where I was assigned to a group with eleven other writers and handed a copy of their manuscripts—some novel excerpts, some short stories—which we would discuss at a rate of two a day. My excitement never faltered during the welcoming speech warning us about altitude sickness, dehydration, and bears or even through Diane Johnson’s nearly inaudible speech on the overuse of dialogue. I rode my wave of euphoria right through the first few workshops, when our group and our facilitator (a different author, editor, or agent every day) gathered for three hours each morning in Children’s World, the ski resort’s battered nursery, abandoned for the season. In those halcyon days, I found the primitively rendered murals of toothy bears and grinning trees that surrounded us whimsical rather than foreboding. 2
I fell in love with my group. They were encouraging without being cloying, astute without being acerbic, aware without being tragically hip. And so diverse: Anglo, Asian, black, British, Mormon, Jewish, bohemian, young, and crusty. We looked like a scruffy Benetton ad. 3 As the only workshop virgin in the bunch, I was enthralled with their honed critique-speech, peppered with talk of novel-size moral territory, lack of agency in a character, explicit power dynamics, and interiority. By day three, I was parroting them although I wasn’t sure what I meant.
That’s when the High-powered Editor descended on our group and the mood shifted. She spent the first fifteen minutes describing her ballsy climb from broom-closeted editorial assistant to celebrated queen of New York publishing and her incredible knack for discovering international best-sellers. We then critiqued a lovely short story about the terror of parenthood. She liked it so much that most criticism from the group was met with scouring opposition and the admonition that “by now we all know how smart we all are, so you don’t have to say anything if you’re just going to repeat what the last smart person said.”
She hated the next manuscript, a “Howl”-esque piece that was a challenge to decode but certainly had resonance. (See how clever critique-speech sounds?) But this time around, she smacked down any of the group’s attempt at praise. She savaged the author, a gray-haired dude from Mendocino we nicknamed the Big Lebowski, who was left ashen and trembling when she finished.
From then on, the panel discussions and lectures seemed less rousing than soul crushing. Writer after writer, from enviably accomplished to relatively unknown, discussed the difficulties of writing and being a writer. They all said writing never got easier; even after a string of best-sellers, they still had little confidence in their abilities. They rewrote one novel twelve times over a period of ten years. They threw out many completed books, then worried that they might have been their best work. For me, it became a contagion of self-doubt. And, hey, what writer doesn’t need a little more self-doubt? 4
Add to this the overwhelming statistics every speaker spewed—of rejections, of the odds against getting published, of aging writers who have face-lifts before a book tour—and I couldn’t help but wonder, Why bother? Hasn’t it all been written before anyway? Wouldn’t the next ten years be better spent learning to build a car from scratch or becoming a competent cartographer? Really, what the hell’s the point of writing?
Now, anyone who’s set foot in this mental terrain knows it’s all a slippery slope, where you’re one-step-on-a-banana-slug away from wondering what’s the point of dancing, clipping your fingernails, having pets, wearing jewelry, making the bed, or getting out of bed. Then—whoosh—there you go, plunging into the abyss.
Still, I was not yet in the pits the morning I was workshopped. No, I held out hope that praise would soon rain down on me like ticker tape on Neil Armstrong. If I’m honest, I’ll admit I hadn’t come to Squaw looking for even a smidgen of constructive criticism. What I wanted was for a group of strangers to tell me that not only was it okay for me to waste my life chasing novels, but based on my perfect manuscript, it would also be a tragic loss to literature if I did not.
I should’ve run for the hills the instant that day’s facilitator, a novelist of some renown, opened his mouth and told us all once again in gory detail how horrible the writing life is and that a plumber probably makes more per hour than John Grisham. Then the fun began.
A typical group critique starts with everyone saying something nice about the manuscript at hand, a buffer for the hard knocks to come. Yet the facilitator seemed determined to let few compliments of my work go by without attaching a barb. If someone liked how a crowd of people at a press conference moved on cue like a “group of rhythm-challenged backup singers” or how a flower bed outside a hospital had been “seeded entirely with cigarette butts,” he’d add something along the lines of “Yes, but isn’t that really an example of the author trying too hard to be funny or the language interfering with the story?” (It’s also typical for the writer being critiqued to be addressed in the less confrontational third person, as if she’s not there. If only.) By the time the serious slings and arrows were launched, I was already pricked and wincing from the compliments. 5
My admiration for my group members never dimmed during the entire grueling process, as they pointed out confusing passages, clunky similes, and gross inaccuracies in my hospital scene. The troubling aspect of their critiques wasn’t that I thought they were wrong but that I agreed with almost all of them and was stunned that I hadn’t seen these problems myself. I had twelve adverbs on one page alone! Who had written this crap?
And yet their comments were laced with encouragement, a tiny flame that, if fanned when I returned home, might be strong enough to fuel an extensive rewrite and thus accomplish the desired demonic purge. But the facilitator snuffed the flame.
As he talked, I kept my face planted in my notebook, writing down everything he said. When I read those notes even now, months later, all the blood drains from my head: Drove me insane! Can’t combine tragedy and comedy in the same book—much less on the same page!—unless you’re Tom Wolfe. Too self-consciously funny. Too cute. Irritating comic tone. Nobody cares. Take the comedy out of it. Throw the whole book away. My notes stop there, but that’s not the last thing the facilitator said. The last thing he said, before dismissing everyone for a bathroom break, was that he appreciated a writer who tried to exceed her reach.
I made it through the critique of the second manuscript that morning by pretending to be a professional adult but afterward hightailed it to my room for a choking cry. I didn’t quite make it and was marching up the road in full-blown blubber when Oakley Hall, one of the founders of the workshop, passed me in his car on the way down the hill. He looked at me as though I wasn’t the first red-eyed, snot-nosed writer he’d seen stomping up this road over the years. I skipped all the woebegone lectures and gloomy panel discussions that afternoon and the gloppy group dinner that evening and instead took a long hike up a rugged canyon alone, hoping a bear might eat me. 6
The next day I realized I’d never gotten my marked manuscript from the facilitator. Why I wanted it I’ll never know (maybe to sell on eBay?), but I managed to flag the fellow down at the last minute as he was driving off in his convertible, headed to the airport. I asked about the manuscript, and at first he insisted he’d given it back, but then he shuffled through his folder and found it. He handed it to me with a cheery “Good thing you stopped me or it would’ve wound up in the round file!”“
It might wind up there anyway,” I said, without smiling. Inside I was laughing like a maniac because here sat this Times-reviewed, big-movie-deal writer smirking up at me with great gobs of sunscreen gathered in his ears. I hoped there was a body cavity search in his near future.
That night I tried to join in the festive spirit of the Invitational Follies, as the staff performed skits and silliness, but I left early, unable to endure a sing-along to “Union Maid.” As I stood alone on the meeting hall steps, I saw a lumbering form emerge from the shadows and watched as a little black bear ambled through the lit parking lot and disappeared around a building. That alone—and I do mean alone—made the trip from Texas worthwhile.
I have not written another word on my novel since August, but the demon and I are currently in negotiations over a screenplay. 7
This is too over-the-top! Don’t get cute.
Straining. This prose is trying too hard.
No! Watch the pop culture references.
You’re the author! You should know! Ever heard of “show, don’t tell”?
Are you trying to echo Shelley here? It doesn’t work.
Too self-consciously funny.
Not a bad first draft, but maybe we should go in another direction.