The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Summer School, Part 2: Workshopping Sex

by Tricia Dower

By my reckoning I was the oldest member of Charlotte Gill’s workshop at the Victoria School of Writing’s summer session. And Charlotte, who’s already published a prize-winning short story collection called Ladykiller, is younger than either of my children.

One of the workshop members was still in university; another, newly hatched from high school. I met the latter at the meet and greet Sunday night before the session began. He was the one not drinking wine. I immediately had second thoughts about what I’d submitted for workshopping. A story about a child who’s sold into sexual slavery. A story in which I use the word penis. More than once. What could I have been thinking? Why hadn’t I selected something more grandmotherly?

On Monday morning, packages containing everyone’s submissions sat on the table in front of Charlotte as we launched into an ice-breaking exercise. My partner was a lovely, young woman from Montreal, an artist who does screen printing like my daughter-in-law. I had difficulty hearing everything she said because the room echoed and all of us were noisily breaking the ice at the same time. I kept saying, Pardon? Sorry? What was that? I imagined her thinking, ‘deaf as a white cat, poor old dear.’ I looked over at the recent high school grad. Pictured him fleeing the room when we discussed my story. Recalled how mortified my daughter had been as a teenager when I wanted to watch Prince’s Purple Rain with her.

At the break, I cornered Charlotte and suggested she remove my story before distributing the package. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They grow up fast these days.” She conducts writing workshops for high school students.

On Monday afternoon, she led us through another ice-breaker and a timed writing exercise. She showed the opening scene from the movie Master and Commander and asked us to analyze it for mood setting and character introduction. The packages remained in front of her. (Charlotte may be young but she’s savvy. She was giving us time to build rapport and safety before setting us loose on the submissions. We weren’t yet saving each other seats at lunch and dinner.)

Tuesday morning she showed scenes from It’s All Gone Pete Tong. We were into character = plot at that point. The film is about a DJ named Frankie Wilde whose lifestyle can only be described as excessive. It’s rated R due to ‘pervasive drug and alcohol abuse, language and some sexual content/nudity.’ No one seemed to have a problem with that. At noon Charlotte handed out the packages. Critiques would begin the next day. We huddled over lunch in nervous anticipation of mutual exposure.

I need not have worried about my piece. The university student’s story opened with a couple in a stall in the men’s room of a noisy bar. We spent a fair amount of time on the verisimilitude of the opening scene. If he was entering her from behind, how could she have seen his eyes? What did the words trying to keep it down mean? Curiously enough, the women in our group offered more opinions than the men on whether the come from behind position required the man to keep “it” down as well as up. The writer appreciated the discussion, being unacquainted with the precise situation she’d written about. “Help me out,” she said. “Give me the words to use.” My ancient history came in handy.

As the story progresses, the woman thinks she’s pregnant. Someone asked how we could know from what was written that it was vaginal and not anal sex. Charlotte said, “I wish I had a tape recorder. You should hear yourselves.” Even the newly-graduated high school student had jumped into the discussion.

My story came across as having been handled with a delicate touch. The gang was moved by it, but, as far as I could tell, not the least bit uncomfortable.

At dinner one evening I found myself next to a retired biologist – someone even older than I – who was enjoying his workshop, led by another of the seven faculty members. He particularly enjoyed reading what other students had written. “One of the ladies submitted a work of erotica,” he said, an honest to goodness glint in his eye.

Photo: Charlotte Gill’s workshop team. Seated, left to right are Lisa, me, Annie, Liz and Elaine. Standing, left to right are Jody, Charlotte, Ed, Jim, Talleen and Jesse.


Blogger Patricia said...

Tricia, this sounds great, I would have loved to be there, very motivational I think, great energy...wonderful xo

Tue Aug 15, 01:09:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Great post. I hope more of your workshop experiences are coming. I've never taken a writing workshop and you are making me think I've missed out on some fun.

Tue Aug 15, 07:42:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

This takes me back. I can even see the room you were likely in. Plus, it made me laugh. I remember having that same fear...come to think of it, I remember a similar sort of conversation. It's all so clinical, sometimes, eh?

I'm so glad you're sharing these workshops with us, Tricia. It's fun.

(Btw, I loved It's All Gone, Pete Tong)

Tue Aug 15, 02:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks P,A and T. So glad it made you laugh, Tamara. It was my feeble attempt at "light." I probably don't do that well, although Charlotte Gill read it and told me she thought it was a "funny little piece." She has not yet typecast me as Always Serious.

As to sharing more about the workshops, would you really be interested? Maybe it's time for me to move on.

Tue Aug 15, 11:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tue Aug 15, 11:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...


I'm pretty much tabooless, but it sounds like an awesome workshop experience. I've only done a couple group things (writing you sickos) but I've learned alot in each of them, and come away with some great friends.

Great post!

Wed Aug 16, 02:48:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

I love reading about your workshop experiences, Tricia. Please feel free to continue!

Wed Aug 16, 05:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Mel. I'll do one more if I think it would give all of you something of meaning.

Tabooless, are you, Steve? You must have had an enviably liberal upbringing.

Wed Aug 16, 07:22:00 pm GMT-4  
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