The Curse of the Workshop: Fighting the Inner Critic
If I count my first undergraduate creative writing workshops and go all the way to the present, where I run a monthly workshop group with friends, I’ve been poking and prodding at peers’ poetry for nearly 30 years. Some of that has been as an equal participant, and others as a teacher guiding newer poets in this or that direction. All that time sitting around a table trying to offer constructive observations has to do something to a person.
In fact, I know exactly what it’s done. It’s made it increasingly hard to read poetry, any poetry, without trying to fix it. I’m not sure, but I believe often that’s a problem, and it’s probably negatively affected my appreciation of poetry. I call it the curse of the workshop. I’ve heard another writer refer to this problem as something like the curse of knowing too much, and I have experience with this in my other line of work.
For the past 18 years my day job has been to write about electronics, and much of that writing is in the form of product reviews. Reviewing televisions had been a specialty of mine for several years, and I’d nitpick over details of the TV’s performance. I spent hours analyzing video test patterns, tweaking settings, looking for errant pixels. Once a fellow TV reviewer confided that he was no longer able to watch TV without watching what the TV was doing. This TV crushes whites. This TV’s processor adds too much edge enhancement. This TV blurs lateral motion.
Audiophiles, and I know many of those eccentrics, who train themselves to appreciate the fine details produced by high-end speakers and $10,000 turntables, can’t enjoy a song on a car radio because they can’t separate the act of passively enjoying something from actively analyzing it.
I fear the same problem can creep into poetry readers who have spent years practicing their workshop strategies. In a workshop, the goal, generally, is to help other people turn their poems into the best poems they can—sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a built-in attitude that once a fresh poem has been passed around the table, it’s the participant’s job to try to fix it. We immediately launch into judgement mode, picking out distracting lines, unclear images, limp stanza breaks.
Of course, that’s what we’re supposed to do—it’s what all the people sitting around the table are there for, but it can also be counter-productive to enjoying the poem. In a workshop with friends recently, we were discussing a poem, and everyone, including myself, zero’d in on a couple of passages that stood out from the rest—the diction seemed a little incongruous to the subject, and so we did what seasoned workshoppers do, we started changing it. What we didn’t do was stop to appreciate what the writer was doing. After a few readings I allowed myself to release my grip on the workshop model, and instead read the poem for the poem.
And there’s the problem with workshop mode, with audiophile mode, with the curse of the expert mode—we read the poem through our current lens, bordered by our own definitions and rules, rather than read the poem on its own merits for the pleasure it produces.
A few weeks ago I was watching the Westminster Dog Show (or something similar—I really don’t remember) as each dog was pranced around the course. Judges, poked, stretched and measured the animals, comparing them to their memorized list of perfect attributes for that breed. These were beautiful dogs, well-groomed, well-trained, pampered, worth thousands of dollars, and yet never did anyone just reach out and hug the dogs. I wanted someone to love the droopy ears, the frantic wag, the smell of having just rolled in the yard. But the judges, the owners, the audience had drilled that appreciation out of themselves by knowing too much.
As a reader of poetry, I try to let myself become the dog lover, not the contest judge. I want to be the person driving around with the sunroof open and the radio blasting, not the audio critic taking notes. It’s this way that we get past the work and back into the poetry and remember what brought us to this wonder in the first place.
San Tan Valley is one of the newer cities in Arizona, but what it lacks in population it makes up for in education and culture. One of the more striking aspects of this burgeoning area is the Combs High School Creative Writing curriculum. While most seniors in high school focus on securing the earliest release possible, the students in Mrs. Burnquist’s Creative Writing class have taken this course to pursue an education in reading and writing literature.
Although much of their time in class is spent discussing stories from established writers and in workshop, these seniors have also been actively engaged in developing the next issue of their own online literary magazine, IMPRINT. As if they hadn’t already impressed us enough! The magazine was started last year by the inaugural Creative Writing class as a way to encourage literature and to provide an outlet for students to “leave their mark”—the slogan of the first issue. The 4th issue of IMPRINT was launched on Monday, February 4th with an Adventure theme and can be viewed online here.
Superstition Review first took an interest in this group after visiting Mrs. Burnquist’s class in the fall to discuss the publication process of our own lit mag. This semester a group of s[r] interns returned to Combs High to participate in small workshop groups—one lit mag to another. We discussed everything from character development to college applications, and had a great time doing it.
About their magazine, one of Mrs. Burnquist’s students, Kat Johnson, stated, “I am interested in the production of our own literary magazine because it allows me to leave my own ‘imprint’ in Combs history. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.” As it should, Kat. And to the rest of the Combs High students who have participated in this impressive endeavor, the pen doesn’t stop here. We look forward to seeing great things from all of you.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Deborah Bogen.
Deborah Bogen is the author of three prize-winning works: Living by the Children’s Cemetery (2000 Byline Press), Landscape With Silos (2006 Texas Review Press) and the forthcoming Let Me Open You a Swan (April 2010, Elixir Press). Her poetry and reviews appear widely in journals like Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, New Letters, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review and others. For the past 10 years she’s conducted free writing workshops in her Pittsburgh living room.
AFFINITY: An LGBTQ Writer’s Workshop for the Greater Phoenix Community
When: Every Sunday in April, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: ASU Tempe Campus Memorial Union (café near Starbucks)
Who: LGBTQIA identified writers of Arizona
Hosted by: Avery Radclyffe (Cat) Klotsche
Affinity is a four week writer’s workshop that intends to document and share the experience of LGBTQIA writers. All readings and writing prompts will be specific to personal LGBTQIA issues and experiences.
Weeks One and Three (April 8th &April 22nd)
A 45 minute long group discussion on selections of literature by LGBTQIA writers (chosen and provided by the facilitator).
Writing prompts for poems or creative non-fiction based on writer’s experience as an LGBTQIA identified person. We will have time to share our drafts and initial creative feedback.
Weeks Two & Four (April 15th & April 29th)
Sharing of revised drafts, further discussion of creative feedback for final drafts.
Friday, May 4th
Participants from both workshop sequences will showcase their final work at the First Friday reading in Heritage Square.
What to Bring: something to write with (pen, paper, laptop, etc.), creative enthusiasm, and their LGBTQIA wit and colorful nature! There is no cost to attend, and previous workshop or publishing experience is not required.
About the Facilitator: Avery (Cat) Radclyffe Klotsche is a transgendered writer who has resided in Arizona for ten years. His recent publications include Merge Magazine and TransAnthology, but he was once a member of the Mesa National Slam team. Over the years, he’s facilitated many writing workshops for high risk individuals including LGBTQIA youth. While Affinity is the product of Klotsche’s personal interests, it’s also part of his capstone project for his Bachelor’s Degree in English (Creative Writing) and Certificate in LGBT Studies at Arizona State University.
RSVP: If you’re interested in participating, you must RSVP via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the email, please include a brief bio.
Pima Community College West Campus is hosting a wide array of weekend writing workshops ranging from Memoir Crafting to Poetry Workshops. Led by authors and professional writers, these workshops offer an opportunity to get hands-on experience and explore a variety of creative writing topics.
On April 13-15, Mary Sojourner, Issue 3 contributor, will lead the in-depth writing workshop, w(Rite): A Workshop in Deep Writing and Craft. The workshop will feature exercises and activities that help writers craft and “move personal writing into publishable work.”
Mary Sojourner is the author of novels Sisters of the Dream and Going Through Ghosts, and short story collection, Delicate. Sojourner is also known for her essay collection Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest and memoirs, Solace: rituals of loss and desire and She Bets Her Life. She has appeared as a commentator on NPR and teaches writing at colleges, universities, writing conferences, and privately. You can read her blog at marysojourner.com, or the November SR interview with Sojourner here.
Michael Croley grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He holds graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Florida State and the University of Memphis. In 2011, Narrative Magazine named him to its list of “Best New Writers.” He has won awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released as part of Narrative’s Library Series in 2012. He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. www.michaelcroley.com
SR: Your story “Two Lives,” published in Blackbird, contains two distinct stories: a metafictional narrative in which the narrator talks about his writing life (or lack thereof) and the actual text of the story this character wrote. When you began this story, did you set out with the intention of blending two narratives, or did the story evolve into its current form?
Michael Croley: I always remember how this story came to life because it was the first story I ever wrote that made me get out of bed to complete it. I started with the story’s first line, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in the bed as a child and feel the air of fall enter your room and hear the dishes in the cabinets of your home rattle, their doors slammed by some drunk looking for a fresh bottle of liquor.” I wanted the second person to implicate the reader, to say, “Dear Reader, you know nothing.” As I wrote the story and came to the end of the first space break, another voice entered my head with that line, “Years ago, I tried to write this.” Rather than fight the new voice, I went with it and suddenly I realized I was writing two stories inside of one. I’m not really into meta-fiction. I believe that a writer’s allegiance is to the reader, to guiding them through the story, and I don’t find this story to be of the smarty-pants variety, but even I knew this one had a weird structure as I was going through it but I didn’t let myself worry about it too much. I just knew both of these voices were speaking to me (and I hate putting that out there because it makes the writing process sound so new age-ish, but there is some truth to this concept) and I followed them through. As the story went on and I got near the end, I realized that both stories, both threads, had to have equal time on the page in order for the story as a whole to have maximum impact. So as I started revising, I actually cut and pasted all the second-person threads into a new document and made sure that both stories read like fully-formed, complete stories. Then it was just a matter of weaving the threads together at the right moments so that the reader would be doubly haunted by both the second-person story and the first-person narrative and how both of those ended.
I’d never written a story, structurally, like this before—and haven’t since—and one of things that I do pat myself on the back about in regard to this story is that the structure seems really unique to me. But I’m sure I ripped it off from somebody unconsciously because that’s what we do as writers. We steal. This is also the first story I ever had published and that was pretty damn cool.
SR: Your story “Insulation” in Blackbird is one of those rare short stories with a happy ending. The main character, Lynn, seems to get what she wants, and the marriage that seems on the verge of breaking up appears to actually be strengthened at the end. When you began writing the story, is this the ending you envisioned? Do you feel that there is a risk involved in writing so-called happy endings?
MC: Here’s an instance of when you give a story to the world, it is no longer yours to decide what it is to the reader or what it could be. I don’t know that I ever saw this couple on the verge of breaking up. I saw them as struggling, yes, but I never believed Lynn would leave him. In my mind, from the beginning, she was upset and frustrated and wanted her husband to stand up and take care of her but she loved him and wasn’t going to leave him. She loved him too much to do that. She wanted to push him to be more, to reach his potential and she takes that on as her task, as her role in this marriage. I wanted them to come to an understanding, for him to see her strength and resilience and for him to acknowledge that. Once Allen picked Lynn up from her job I knew they would go home and that the change, if we subscribe to the idea that all stories are about change, would have to come from him—and it does because he sees what the reader sees in her—and that’s what I had happen. But this is Lynn’s story, so we had to end with her and I lifted the image of her in the tub from a really bad poem I wrote (I still thought I could write poetry at the time), imagining a woman coming home at the end of a long day.
I don’t know if there is a risk involved with happy endings. I know my students often ask why all the stories I assign to read are sad, but I don’t think of an ending that doesn’t end with everyone getting what they want as sad. Not always. All I want is for a character to have some realization or knowledge he or she didn’t have when the story began. I often tell my students that the writer’s job is to make her characters hit that higher plane of knowledge then pull the ripcord on the story. Get out. You’ve done your work. Lynn realizes that Allen does love her. That he isn’t immune to her struggles and how she works herself like a mule for the both of them. When she sees that she is able to face her life in ways she couldn’t before and that’s more important than Allen’s change in behavior. And when that happened in the story, that’s how I knew it was complete.
As a side note, when I first workshopped this piece, it got really beat up by several women in the class who didn’t understand why Lynn remained with Allen to which the workshop leader (my mentor Richard Bausch) said, “Did you ever think she loves him?” I mention this because we are subject to overthinking this pursuit from time to time, to letting our own personal feelings about the way the world should be rather than it is invade our work and reading. But stories, at their heart, are about “news of the spirit” as the late George Garrett said, and what we do as writers is to imagine ourselves into that spirit without any judgments.
SR: Many of your stories take place in Fordyce, Kentucky. How does a sense of place impact the stories you choose to tell?
MC: Well, for me, it impacts everything. Fordyce is stand-in for my own hometown right down to topography and landmarks, but it has that fictional name so that I can blend different elements into the town from surrounding areas from time to time and because I didn’t want to be too constrained by the “facts” of Corbin, Kentucky, where I was raised. But place is something I’ve always been drawn to. Because my mother is Korean (my father grew up out in the country near Corbin) I think I always felt out of place there. I looked different from all my classmates. Corbin has a history of racism that’s pretty well-known throughout the state and I can only remember going to school with two other people of color growing up. So things weren’t always necessarily easy for my mother or my brother and me. I think that sense of identity that I received from that place has had a large effect on my work, especially in the two novels I’ve written. I never looked at things with strictly an insider’s viewpoint, though I like to think I have that viewpoint as well. I saw lots of good people in Corbin who were hardworking, blue-collar types and I admired their grit and what I saw as even-mindedness. Practical might be a good way to put it. And at the same time, a lot of my friends’ parents were bankers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists. That’s one of the hidden truths about Appalachia, that not everyone is poor and backward. We’re not all the sons and daughters of miners and laborers.
I think that kind of place is ripe for storytelling because it’s relative smallness allows for the pecking order and machinations of the town to be clearly visible if you’re paying attention. Corbin isn’t so small that you know everyone but it is small enough that you probably know someone who knows the person you don’t. Because of that you’re never out of the reach of a story to be heard about So-and-so and what he’s doing. When I started writing as an undergraduate I was very conscious about honoring this place where I’d grown up and telling the stories that I thought were worth telling that I never saw in Esquire or The New Yorker. There’s a reason in the two stories you’ve mentioned that the characters are college educated. I was tired (and still am) of reading only about backward hillbillies in rural areas. My father was a man who worked his way through a good school and chose to come back to that part of the world. And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I see how the dual nature of ethnicity has played a large role in how I write my stories. My characters always seem in between worlds, pulled in different directions by different desires. So to answer your question briefly (and to stop going on), I think I’m trying to figure out in a lot of ways of how place shapes us. How does the place where we mature get into our bloodstream? I don’t think we ever escape our childhoods and a lot of what I see myself doing is exploring Fordyce as Corbin and asking the question, What has this place done to this character for good or ill?
SR: You published an “iStory” in Narrative – a new type of micro-fiction created by the magazine to coincide with their new digital App. These stories are all under 150 words. Do you find it more or less difficult to write micro-fiction like your story “One Such as This” than your longer pieces? Did writing with the digital App in mind change anything about the writing process?
MC: Well, first off I just want to say that Narrative has been a great venue to me. Very supportive of my work and I think the world of what Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian are trying to do with literature in this electronic age. I think they’ve been very visionary and the idea of an iStory seemed gimmicky to me at first because I just didn’t think you could tell a story in such a small amount of space. That was/is the challenging part. It’s like “Name that Tune.” How many notes does it take to tell your story? Less notes, to me, is often better. So that’s what I tried to do and that was the challenge of it. A lot of times I have a great image but not a great story to tell. And because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a very good poet, I wanted to use this image I had of an alley in back of my favorite movie theater in Cleveland where I used to live. I just liked the idea of two people in this very dark alley making out and then moving them through the night and into the morning. So, in one sense, the piece was easier because there was less I had to do, but harder because the word limit magnifies your choice of diction, your details, and your sense of emotion in the piece.
I don’t often write micro-fiction because I’m interested in really playing the characters’ lives out as much as I can. As far as I want to go. For instance, neither character gets a name in that iStory, which gives me more observational distance and less attachment to seeing their lives come together or undone as you might in a longer piece. And the iStory seems to me to be less about narrative arc than a singular moment that lingers in the reader’s mind and imagination after what they’re done being a witness to the story.
SR: What are you working on at the moment?
MC: Well, I have an agreement with Narrative to release my first novel After the Sun Fell as part of their new Library Series. I’m really excited about that because everything they do is so good and I’m flattered that Tom Jenks wanted to first look at the novel then said he wanted to work with me on it. That book is based in small part on my mother’s move to southeastern Kentucky from Masan, South Korea after she married my father. An excerpt of it is up on Narrative as a contained story entitled, “Washed Away.” As long as Tom and I can find some time to work on this soon, I think that book will be released in 2012, but that’ll, ultimately, be up to Tom and I’ve learned to listen to him as much as possible.
And my agent is currently shopping my second novel around. It’s about a family that’s moved out of Fordyce to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 right before the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which indirectly led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is narrated by Ben Hamlin who was 12 when his father moved the family to Memphis. A grown man now, Ben is looking back on that year when his family—and their hopes—began to unravel as their own personal tragedies get entangled with the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest tragedy.
My next novel is entirely in my head (though I think the opening scene is written) so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be, I hope, both an homage to and a retelling of All the King’s Men with the central figure being more of an LBJ type politician. This is mostly because I love All the King’s Men—I don’t think there’s a bad sentence in the book—and because I think LBJ was a fascinating politician and I think we live in a very politically fractious time, almost as fractious as the ’60s but we’re not quite there yet.
Superstition Review will be hosting Mary Sojourner during our 2011 Fall Reading Series, on Wednesday, November 9 at 7 p.m. on the ASU Tempe Campus in the Pima Auditorium at the Memorial Union Building.
On Thursday, November 10, NPR commentator and novelist Mary Sojourner hosts a writing workshop called The Jump Start Circle “for those,” she says, “who have always wanted to write and somehow haven’t begun; for writers who have blocked; and for writers who want to move to the next level of their work.” The Jump Start Circle is not a lecture workshop—participants write for most of the session. November 10, 6:30-8:30. Cost: $25. Registration and pre-payment at 480.730.0205.
We are incredibly excited to host Mary Sojourner on our campus, and encourage all to come out to see her. Admission is free and anyone can attend.
Superstition Review recently had the opportunity to talk to Sojourner and ask her a few questions, and her answers have us on the edge of our seat, eagerly anticipating more of her insight during her upcoming events in Arizona.
Superstition Review: What got you started as a writer? How did you decide to take that (career) path?
Mary Sojourner: I wrote in my memoir, Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire, about growing up in a frightening childhood. My mother was a brilliant and gifted bi-polar psychotic. Every two years, she would descend toward a suicide attempt and be taken away to the grim shelter of the State Mental Hospital. My dad was terrified and helpless in the face of her illness. I learned fast to disappear into books – and into the safety of the outdoors. That was the beginning. I knew from the time I was 8 years old that I wanted to be a writer – only a little more than I wanted to be a cowboy on the Western plains.
The writing path took me. It is not a career, especially now in these mean days of contemporary publishing. I teach in order to earn my living. Writing is a possession, a torment and the most compelling love I’ve ever known.
SR: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve taken from your career? Is it teaching? Participating in public readings?
MS: Every day I take the knowledge that writing has chosen me. Only a little less, I take the knowledge that teaching other writers also owns me. And, of course, there are those moments when lightning arcs through me and onto the page.
SR: What advice would you offer aspiring writers and artists currently attending undergraduate universities?
MS: Either drop out of school right now or plan to do so once you graduate. Resist the pressure and impulse to get an advanced degree. Apprentice yourself to your creativity. Let it map your route. You – unless you have a trust fund – can plan on being poor, scared, frustrated. You might, if you’re lucky, find yourself walking the blade of an obsidian knife. Howling. Laughing. Being grateful for every breath you take.
“Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” — Albert Einstein. Make beauty. Make change. Make trouble for the settled and secure.
Superstition Reviewwill host its 2011 Fall Reading with special guest author Mary Sojourner.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the essay collection Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest, as well as novels, memoirs and short story collections. She is an NPR commentator and has taught writing throughout the West for 20 years. Please follow this link to read more about Mary Sojourner at: marysojourner.com
Who: Superstition Review Literary Magazine presents Mary Sojourner
On Thursday, November 10 Mary will be offering a workshop at Changing Hands Bookstore.
Jump Start with Mary Sojourner: a writing circle to charge your writing.
The Jump Start circle is for those of you who have always wanted to write and somehow haven’t begun; for writers who have blocked; and for writers who want to move to the next level of their work. Mary Sojourner is a national author and NPR commentator. She has taught writing circles for universities, writing conferences (Desert Nights, Rising Stars, Hassyampa) and in private circles nationally. This is not a lecture workshop – you will write for most of the session. November 10, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Az., 6:30-8:30. fee: $25. Register and pay through Changing Hands.
Mary Sojourner is the author of two novels, Sisters of the Dream (1989) and Going Through Ghosts; the short story collection, Delicate; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest; memoirs, Solace: rituals of loss and desire and She Bets Her Life. She is an intermittent NPR commentator and the author of countless essays, columns and op eds for High Country News, Writers on the Range and dozens of other publications. She teaches writing, in private circles, one-on-one, at colleges and universities, writing conferences and book festivals. She believes in both the limitations and possibilities of healing. Writing is the most powerful tool she has found for doing what is necessary to mend.