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.

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

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