By Tamara LeeThis 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