Tag Archives: workshop

…and an amazing time was had: VONA 2011 + Pride

VONA 2011: advanced fiction alum workshop

This was the BEST.VONA.EVAR. (I think I say this every year).

But really: the fucking lightbulb went on over my head during my week at VONA. Junot took me by the shoulders and pointed me in a direction I hadn’t yet seen–and then he and my workshop peers took a metaphorical flashlight and turned it on. And there it was: a path. I now know the way to the end of my novel, through all the revisions ahead. And I’m going to do it, knowing that there are people who believe in me, and in this manuscript. Who “get it.”

I can’t even tell you the sense of relief and elation and gratitude I feel.

You see, my goal for this revision was to work on characterization. I knew the characters lacked 3D…but I learned what lacked was STORY. Their stories. Ding ding ding!

I’ve been writing this thing for nearly 7 years. Not a straight 7 years, as I took a 2 year break from the novel while I recovered from a freaky deaky left thalamic stroke that left me with no short term memory (something, I cruelly discovered, that is critical to writing narrative). But still: 7 years. And I can now see my destination.

It’s still a ways off in the distance–and there’s still a lot of work and revision ahead of me–but it’s just work. And more importantly, I am almost done (almost being at least 3 more revisions). Just being able to see the Emerald City on the horizon after all this time on the yellow brick road (or if you prefer another metaphor–the New World after sailing across the ocean)–feels like relief. And hope. And joy. I’ve got my second wind now. And with that second wind, I hope I breath more life and stories into my characters. And that my readers will feel that second wind!

Now I’m experiencing re-entry into my world. The last time I had such a hard time re-adjusting was after my three week residency at Hedgebrook. I was changed then, and I am changed now. But nothing else has changed. And no one seems to know I’ve changed. Things feel out of sync. I’m bewildered and bewildering.

And so I find myself taking a deep breath. I’m saving that breath for my novel. And in my real life, I am settling back into normal patterns, so that I can fit back into my real life.

Immediately upon my return to NYC this weekend, I went to Pride–in my 20+ years in the SF Bay Area, I’d never been to a Pride Parade, for no good reason other than not wanting to deal with traffic, which is like–a really bad reason. So like with yoga, it took NYC to get me to Pride. And what a Pride it was! The jubilance in the wake of the passage of NY’s Marriage Equality Law was amazing. I cried tears of joy, and my voice went hoarse along the parade route.

But I gotta admit–I think some of those tears of pride were for myself. I’m a self-critical writer, and I rarely feel proud of myself as a writer–but in that moment along the parade route, in the wake of immense writing encouragement and support at VONA, I felt rare pride in my writing. And it took Pride to swallow me up and allow me room for my private moment of pride.

"I'll see your Prop8...and raise you New York!"

I also went to the Alexander McQueen show at the Met yesterday afternoon (like I said, I’m not jumping straight back into my writing–I’ve gotta digest all the epiphanies from last week)–and that show is a masterpiece. All those beautiful, groundbreaking clothes–created from the dark places in McQueen’s heart. It was like a torch for me and my writing.

Afterword:
If you are a writer of color serious about your craft and seeking community and mentorship…get thee to VONA. Apply. It happens every summer in the SF Bay Area (this summer, VONA moved to the Berkeley campus). It’s been life changing for me, and game changing for my writing. If you have attended VONA in the past and/or want to support writers of color, consider making a donation to VONA.

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Groupthink and critique

rooftops of Balham

I’m a writer/teacher whose first 10 years of vigorous employment were spent in the land of business, and there are times that I think the industry verticals (business and education and the arts) could really learn a lesson from each other. The clarity and product-focused nature of business serves me well as a teacher…and writing/teaching’s orientation towards process and patience informs me as a Director of HR.

I often use lingo from one to describe another. Like in workshop, I used to say, “Real estate is really precious in a short story, and I’m not sure this [add whatever is relevant here] deserves all the real estate it’s been given.” I got a few giggles about the term “real estate.” But it’s true. It’s all real estate, because any space is precious, especially in a story.

Then there’s the term Groupthink, a word that describes reaching consensus with minimal conflict and minimal contest. It is a word often used in business, and groupthink is dangerous in the way that Vonnegut describes in Sirens of Titan the antennas in the brains of the soldiers of Mars, listening to one voice and following directions without protest. Groupthink is bending to peer pressure, groupthink is mindless, and groupthink is dangerous to art and creativity. Groupthink means writing by consensus.

Groupthink happens, for instance, in meetings where an exec throws out an idea, and no one is brave enough to disagree, or no one dares to pay attention to dissenting opinion. Groupthink is believed to have brought down NASA years ago, leading to the tragic Challenger disaster. No one listened to the feedback of an engineer pointing out flaws in the design of the O-rings. NASA has since become not only a cautionary tale regarding groupthink, but also a case study in how NOT to build a corporate culture. You should have an environment in which people can disagree and bring up alternative ideas and thoughts.

It is groupthink that can make workshopping so dangerous.

Years after workshops, I found a stack of critiques and saved the feedback, knowing that what didn’t pierce my psyche constructively then, might pierce my psyche in the future. But now years later again, I see the symptoms of groupthink throughout the feedback.

In workshops where writers are requested to bring in written critiques before workshops begin, groupthink is not so prevalent, because those critiques were composed before entering the group.

But in workshops where writers were not asked to bring in written critique workshops to workshop, and where people just spew their thoughts spontaneously, groupthink evades the feedback. I see it in my notes. The Famous Writer workshop leader says one thing–and everyone bends to the will/opinion of that one person. The workshop leader doesn’t even have to force this behavior; since most writers in an MFA workshop are emerging writers, if not downright beginning writers, they simply don’t have the confidence behind their opinions to contest that of someone more experienced.

Even in workshops where writers bring written feedback to class, there will always be an unexpected topic of discussion. The workshop leader will point to a passage or scene and say something like, “What do you think about this?” A good workshop leader may not throw out her/his opinion right away. S/he will wait to hear all the feedback.

But when I see feedback on my novel in those notes–I can see that after the workshop leader said something like, “It’s hard to write a scene inside a traincar–it’s real static–unless the train is crashing,” everyone immediately agreed.

In the case of my novel, I promptly deleted that chapter. Years later, I put that scene back in my novel, only condensed. It was important, but just didn’t work as written.

I’m glad I saved my workshop feedback all these years. I understand things now that I didn’t understand back then. Elizabeth Stark addressed the topic of responding to critique:

In order to be helpful, critique must be absorbed. What is unhelpful must be disregarded, and a writer does well to build up a strong instinct for what must be disregarded. What remains, then, is an arrow, pointing to a hidden door in the text that needs to be opened, or a hidden wall that needs to be removed.

One final note: we rarely know if what we are writing is good or significant while we are writing it or shortly after. The voice that judges the work is not that of our deep reader self but the anxious harping of some face concerned about the public eye. So you will not know right away if the changes you are making work. That, too, will take time, will take absorption, will lack efficiency.

In workshop, be aware of groupthink. Save your notes. Read them later. Later, as in weeks, not days. Later, as in months, not weeks. Later, as in years, not months. Do not ever delete something without leaving a backup. You may want it back, years later.

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Filed under MFA, Writing

Short Story Paradox

Foyles Bookstore

1.
The Rejectionist assesses the realistic odds of having a short story collection published. It ain’t pretty. Even if you get a collection published, you’ll probably have to sign a 2-book deal in which you obligate yourself to writing a novel. In sum: if you want to publish a book, you’re better off trying to publish a novel. Even if you publish a short story collection, you’ll have to publish a novel.

2.
But here’s the paradox. The workshop format, prevalent in MFA programs, is way more short story friendly than it is accommodating of novels. How do you read a novel in 30 page chunks and provide feedback based on a 30 page excerpt? The best MFA novel writing workshop ever was run by a visiting writer who asked for 60 pages, minimum, per workshop; we each went two times that semester, and so by the end of the semester, we each workshopped 120 pages of our novels. Even if the feedback wasn’t perfect, having workshopped 120 pages of our novels covered substantial real estate. And the feedback was way more useful for having covered 120 pages.

But every other workshop asked for a thirty page maximum. Ridiculous, if you’re workshopping a novel. And besides, the format itself is ridiculous for novels–because it’s hard to workshop the damn thing unless you’ve read the entire draft.

In sum thus far: Despite the publishing industry’s predilection for novels, MFA programs are structured to help students produce short stories.

3.
As you might know, I signed up with Writer’s Relief a few months ago–I haven’t gotten many responses from litmags yet, but I’ve, so far, really appreciated all the legwork that Writer’s Relief provides when it comes to the submissions process, especially with research as to where I should submit a particular story. So much so, that I signed up for another round with them.

For my second round, I sent them a story that had a word count of 6,200 words. It was, they said, too long for many litmags to consider. (It’s true–litmags that come out in hardcopy have to consider the price per page of a piece; additionally, the attention span of editors is very very short). Could I possibly shorten it to less than 4,000 words, possibly less than 3,000 words?

Egads. But I did shorten the story down to less than 3,000 words–it became an entirely different story (instead of a father and son story–it became a story solely about the father). It made me sad to do this, but I sent it off to much happier response.

In sum: Publishing houses prefer novels to short stories. MFA programs nurture short stories more than they do novels. But the only welcome venue for short story publication, litmags, prefers very short stories.

4.
In sum: Don’t write short stories. But if you do, write very very short ones. If you like to write short stories that are over 6,000 words (like I do), or if you like writing novellas…you’re screwed. Have a nice day!

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Filed under Publishing, Writing