The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, March 24, 2008

Workshop notes: IV - Performance anxiety, revisited

By Tamara Lee

This is the fourth of a series of posts reflecting upon a writing workshop I am taking with Nancy Lee. Click here for the first, second, and third segments.

Here we are on the other side of halfway through the workshop, and I’m feeling anxious. This is not a reflection of the workshop, exactly, which has been both informative and often encouraging. My feeling, Doc, seems to be a reflection of my own ‘blocks’ and projections.

From what I can self-diagnose, I’m recalling years of workshop experiences, where I felt ill prepared, uncertain, and subsequently uninspired. The next sub will be my last for the class, and so it feels necessary to ‘make it good,’ whatever the hell that means. Perhaps I want the sub to be so ‘good’ it’s near bullet proof, or perhaps I want to ‘make it count,' to feel as though I’m somehow challenging myself. Maybe it’s something else.

I have a sense, though, I’m not the only one in the group feeling this way, since those who are also on their last sub appear to be stretching their creative selves, trying new genres or voices on for size. As for me, I’m loath to hand in anything I have, a familiar state of mind since I always manage to bear down for complete disappointment about mid-way through workshops.

It’s occurred to me that perhaps I'm experiencing something Nancy mentioned recently about characterization: Find the dualism in the character, then scene by scene push-pull him so that the reader feels she likes the character in one scene, then in the next she feels uncertain how she feels about the character.

Enthusiastic after last class, I headed to my favourite café and wrote for nearly two hours. I went about the rest of the day in high spirits, fully expecting the next writing session to be a breeze. But the following day, as I tried to manipulate the plot, clean up the awkward sentences, and otherwise rebuild Pompeii, I found myself wondering: How is it we can continue to learn and not-learn over and over again? We can be instructed how to tell an effective story, be reminded how to challenge ourselves to tell a better story, and then we completely forget it all once we’re at home, facing down a deadline that feels like a pending performance?

I closed my laptop in disgust and haven’t revisited the piece of shite since. Instead I surfed, in search of inspiration or commiseration.

In his essay “Writers and Mentors”, Rick Moody describes his undergrad experience studying with, among others, Angela Carter at Brown:

I felt not only that I grew as a writer but that I improved as a person… I read every book she told me to read… In fact, I did more or less whatever Carter told me to do… I don't think that Carter, if she were still alive, would admit to having mentored me—to having explained to me how to live a little bit, and how to act like a writer, instead of merely dreaming of being one. But she did all these things, regardless of how much or how little work I turned in, or how bad the work was.

Moody goes on to describe the competitive pressures he then felt while pursuing his MFA at Columbia, and the ultimately disappointing ‘creative writing by committee’ style of workshops he encountered.

This kind of push-pull depiction of workshops has been my experience, also. But I can’t blame the workshops I’ve taken over the last few years—which have mostly followed this model—or the instructors, or my fellow workshoppers. It's something else that has me here/not-here.

In what I’m starting to think of as an 11th-hour epiphany, I know I’ll revisit the sloppy work I liked well enough a couple of weeks ago, and it still will be in ruins. From it, though, I will extract a crucial find: that the push-pull of characterization in fiction writing is not merely author manipulation, but a manifestation of a writer’s character growth as well.

(Image credit, 'The Entrance to Pompeii': Lucy in London)


Blogger jsnider said...

You are not the only one experiencing these feelings believe me!

I am in a short story class that is devastating for its honesty. I've had nightmares about being critiqued (by eleven other writers!),left feeling shell-shocked and broken open after being critiqued and I have yet to dig in to the story that as you so aptly put 'is now in ruins.'

I also think it is a wonderful learning experience, but because critiquing is very subjective I take the other writer's comments with a grain of salt.

Mon Mar 24, 08:48:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Love Angela Carter! So great to read her mentioned.

Great topic!

I've just finished Michael Cunningham's "Specimen Days" and I was aware of the push-pull of all his characters. He does this so well. They don't seem to be changing from scene to scene, but rather the light is falling on them in different ways, so that in one scene the very same qualities can read positively and in the next negatively. It's jolting and I think it's the secret juice that keeps his writing electric even though it is SO lyrical. The beautiful prose never seems to slow down the forward drive and that's a direct result of the fascination we have with the characters.

As far as the writer's confidence waxing and waning in a similar kind of pattern, I'd love for a more one-dimensional experience on that front myself. I get tired of the anxiety. But then again. Sigh. Probably, I wouldn't. It's what keeps us striving for better work. Imagine if we loved everything we wrote? Shudder.

Sighes and Shudders today. Thanks Tamara for sharing this process with us so personally. I'm getting more and more jealous. I want to be in a workshop! Wah!

Mon Mar 24, 02:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hi, J. Actually, the workshop experience itself doesn't devastate me nearly as much any more. Nancy made an excellent point to reviewers when she suggested we all look at the things we say about others' work, and reflect on just how much of what we say is actually speaking to our own work, or anxieties. I've come to prefer a more 'devastating' workshop over a 'gentle' one. We discussed this last week, in fact. How editors, once we get to such a point, will not have time to be gentle with us. It's my own perfectionism that creates this state of performance anxiety.

Mon Mar 24, 05:10:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Andrew, now I must read "Specimen Days." I've been wanting to dig into all this more, but it's difficult when you're writing (or not, as the case may be... Fretting, maybe, is more apt).

By the way, I think you'd be an amazing co-workshopper. I'd be jealous not to be in a workshop with you!

Mon Mar 24, 05:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Oh, as for Angela Carter... I'm such an admirer of her work, I envy Moody for having had that experience. What's your favourite Carter?

Mon Mar 24, 05:18:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger jsnider said...

That's a very interesting point, Tamara. I will pay attention to the comments I make to the other writers about their work.

I think the 'devastatingly honest' workshops work for me. There's nothing like being faced with yourself.

Tue Mar 25, 08:31:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tania Hershman/The Short Review said...

This is a question I have been grappling with recently, too. I discovered after spending a week's holiday somewhere with no phone and Internet that I could suddenly hear my own voice again, and stories started coming back into my head, after months of not really writing anything except 500-word flash stories. I realized that all the writing groups I belong to - the online ones and the face to face ones - had become a throng of voices that were actually serving to drown out my voice. Critique is extremely useful, yes, but listening to your own voice, hearing your characters, that's got to come first, no? Now that I am back in my life, I am trying to hold onto some of that inner quiet. Wish me luck.


Tue Mar 25, 05:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I can relate to your performance anxiety, Tamara. In a group, a competitive urge emerges. Why can't we get whatever we can out of a workshop without feeling the need to prove ourselves to others? Or to "please" the instructor?

I like that idea of push-pull, particularly making a character more or less sympathetic from scene to scene and, thereby, portraying him/her as more fully human. I had fun in my collection portraying not altogether likable characters.

Tue Mar 25, 07:38:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Good luck, Tania. There's much to be said for listening to your own voice and developing a story according to how your voice speaks to you. I belong to a wonderful writing group and their feedback is extremely helpful, but I've gained enough confidence over the past year or so to follow my own instincts more and more.

Tue Mar 25, 07:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Oh, yes, J & Tania, in a way I'm looking forward to not being in the workshop anymore, just so I can incorporate everything I'm learning with my own voice. (Good luck, Tania).

I've been thinking about doing a retreat, too. No Internet... Now that thought's almost anxiety-inducing.

Tue Mar 25, 10:59:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Tricia, I'm really looking forward to your book so I can see more examples of 'not altoghter likeable' characters as protagonists. You're very lucky to have found your writing group. I hope there are some writers in my workshop interested in continuing in some way. It seeems to me there's a difference between workshops and writer's groups. Have you noticed that?

Tue Mar 25, 11:04:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Definitely, Tamara. Workshops end and writing groups go on, for one thing, and that enables the members to get to know each other's unique goals as well as writing style. A group of competent, caring writers can help each other achieve those goals. There's no need to compete or "perform," when you have time. I have found, though, that each member needs to be equally committed to improving for the group to work well.

Wed Mar 26, 12:43:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Tealeaf, I like everything I've read by her. Even if I just pick up a book and read a paragraph. I like her rythems and sensuality. My favourite novel of hers is "Heros and Villians" a post-apocalpytic thing and my favourite collection is the "Bloody Chamber" and the other fairy tale retellings.

Wed Mar 26, 09:15:00 pm GMT-4  

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