My fiction class is workshopping a nice girl’s story. Everything worth saying is said in the first five minutes.
“Nothing interesting happens until the end,” one of my favorite students declares, “until we find out the musician she dropped everything for and ran away with is actually a serial killer.”
I try but cannot fully convince them that serial killers are not, in fact, all that interesting and are even less so when their identity is revealed in the final paragraph via tabloid as the unsuspecting heroine is purchasing Band-Aids and condoms at Walgreens.
“I’m much more interested in the Band-Aids and condoms,” I say.
After a silence, the big yellow guy who’s into science fiction, pipes up, “You should open with the girl reading the magazine and then have her run into the hipster serial killer at the coffee shop.”
Do I let the suggestion go or shoot it down? Is he suggesting the use of foreshadowing as a literary device or is he arguing for more serial killer, more plot twists, less character? Does it matter? The writer does not look up. I have no read on how she’s taking this. What she meant. Where she wants this to go.
The class falls into another silence. Why aren’t they saying more? Did they read? Do they think the story is hopeless? Are they afraid to talk?
Adonis walks in late, backs one of the desks into the perimeter of the circle, and sits hard, then slouches. Today he’s wearing a dingy ‘70’s style tank top that has a band of several thin, dark stripes across the chest. His Jim Morrison hair is held back by a navy blue bandana and he wears a leather necklace with a circular silver charm. It’s like looking into the sun.
“What else?” I ask. “Does anyone have any other suggestions for Jackie? How can she make this better?” I’m pulling teeth. Roy raises his hand again.
“Go ahead, Roy. You don’t have to raise your hand,” I say for the seventh week in a row. He’s one of the older guys in my class, in his sixties maybe.
“Okay, now I know this is sexist. But hey, I’m a sexist. But when she looked down at the couch—between her legs—” He smirks and looks at us like he’s expecting a response.
“Are you saying you like that part?” I ask. His comments are often loose associations, difficult to interpret.
“You need to repeat that word you call her. I’m not going to say it.”
“Slut?” I say, to speed things up.
“Yeah. Now who wrote this again?”
“Jackie,” I say.
Jackie looks up and waves her hand.
“You’re bad. But that’s good—not many people will go for this sort of thing. You need to repeat that word. ‘Slut.’ Over and over again. Really drive it home. I work in movies and when we get a script like that. Well…” He smirks again and looks up. He always ends with an ellipsis. I have to look away from their faces when Roy talks otherwise I start laughing. Roy is not oblivious to this, but he’s game.
I give his comment some space. “What else? What moments stick out to you as particularly good? Or problematic?” They’re bored. I’m bored.
Adonis yawns and leans his long torso back, stretches his skinny arms over his head and I see his armpit hair. Zing. I have one of those moments where I see myself (TA extraordinaire) staring at this kid’s armpits. Chemically speaking, it’s the best moment of my day and I’m wondering—just a little—about what that might mean, and the thought triggers something.
“Let’s think about the other characters for a moment. Why is Becky in here? What does she want that she’s not supposed to want?” We get into a discussion about characters as props versus characters as humans. “Don’t profile,” I say. “Don’t tell us Becky is average height with brown hair and blue eyes. Tell us she’s always rolling her neck and fiddling with the rubber band around her wrist.” They’re taking notes now. They’re tuned in.
The writing workshop is a weird animal, as anyone who has taken, taught, or observed one can tell you. I’ve taken twenty-one since becoming a creative writing major and have looked forward all seven of those years to being on the other side of the table. This is the first college-level workshop I’ve led and while I’m not exactly sure what I expected, this is different. I have approximately twenty students, mostly sophomores and upperclassmen. There are two older, non-traditional students and one freshman, Addie, who is also taking my entry-level Composition class. She is the best writer in both classes. Last month she published an essay she wrote for my Comp class in a literary journal.
I have been dreaming of a student like Addie since I began teaching. I’ve had plenty of students who are intelligent, creative, talented—but Addie’s the first student I’ve had who has let me make a difference. Over coffee the other day, she thanked me for getting her into writing. We actually had one of those teacher-student moments where she bemoaned her high school experience, teachers who told her she was no good, and then spoke excitedly about how she believes in her writing now and plans to pursue it, thanks to me. A TV special couldn’t have scripted it better.
I met with three other workshop students that afternoon. Tommy asked me about dialogue tags and if I’d like to join his Wu-Tang cover band. Eric, who never looks up and turns red when he talks, brought in an idea for a story about Rednecks and a snake-charming hardware store clerk they mistake for a psychic Satanist. He asked me to help him develop the plot, how to make it meaningful. Later, Holly talked excitedly about her story that would be workshopped the following week and her plans for the undergraduate reading she’d asked me to help coordinate.
This was the fifth Friday in a row I’ve held “office hours” at a coffee shop near campus: “I’ll be there from one to five. Feel free to stop by to talk about a past, present, or future story or if you have specific questions about the workshop or if you just want to say hi.” It’s sad and uncomfortable to admit, but mostly I just want them to say hi. I want them to want to follow me outside of class. I’ve let myself get overly involved, a fact that doesn’t bother me until I think about my own workshops and how much I loved them and how different mine is turning out to be.
I took my first workshop the junior year of undergrad. The professor was a well-established writer with a thin smile and crazy, blue poet-eyes. Manson lamps, one of my peers used to say. He began the first workshop by telling us how terrible we were.
“Raise your hand if your mom or a high school teacher or your friends have ever told you could write.” We raised our hands. “Well, they lied.” He told us we were too new to writing to be any good at it. He said if we start from the premise that everything we write is flawed, we’ll save a lot of time.
“You should limit your comments only to the problems you see in the work. We don’t have time to talk about the good and the bad. It’s a short class. The writer will benefit more from negative criticism than praise.” He finished explaining the rules of the workshop and didn’t ask if we had questions. “Bring in a poem about food for next week. Don’t put your name on it. We will be reading the work anonymously so that you don’t withhold your criticism for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.”
It was, as one might expect, a harsh workshop. We were negative and we had no idea what we were talking about. People said things like, “The writer’s use of commas here comes across as juvenile.” What’s a juvenile comma? “I know we were supposed to write a poem about clichés, but, this one is just a little too cliché.” How helpful. Sometimes we got competitive with our comments. Instead of trying to help the writer, we were going for zingers: “This final stanza is tight, but it reads like the answer to a question the poem didn’t make me ask.”
The weird thing is that the meaner the workshop got, the more we loved it. There were exceptions of course, a few students who could not separate themselves (or their egos) from their work, but most of us thrived. We bonded. It was like Basic Training: The professor, our drill sergeant, demoralized and beat down the new recruits to weed out the dilettantes and hobby writers. I’d never taken a class where honest effort and Shakespearean sonnets didn’t earn me a pat on the head. He told us we sucked and then convinced us he was right. We loved him for it.
I took a workshop with him every semester for the next two years. His advanced workshops followed a more traditional model. Our work was no longer anonymous, and we were free to point out what we admired in another’s work.
I took my first fiction workshop my senior year. My professor was a notable New Zealand novelist. In addition to workshopping stories by our peers on a weekly basis, we were assigned a short story by an established writer and asked to consider a particular element of craft—William Trevor’s method of character development in “Sacred Statues,” Alice Munro’s manipulation of time in “The Runaway.”
This professor was in her mid-thirties, tall, attractive, impossibly cool. At the end of the semester she invited us to her house. It was a second-story shotgun apartment she shared with her husband. Their house had pop art on the walls, chairs designed by nameable architects, and walls of books running the length of her house. She and the husband had constructed the built-ins themselves. She gave us wine and talked to us like we’d read as much as she had, like we were legitimate. I had been waiting four years for that moment.
I’d imagined college as a sort of intellectual country club where the conversations would be engaging, the professors would be peers, the architecture would be gothic, the lighting incandescent. The truth was disappointing—it was school. The professors did their job and went back to their own lives outside the fluorescent-lit classrooms.
My professor’s class and after-party meant a lot to me. It’s that intimacy I love about creative writing workshops. During one of her classes we were discussing a short story by Daniel Mason called “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.” It is based on a true story about a South American man, Arthur Bispo do Rosario, who was institutionalized for mental illness but rose to fame as an artist for making weird little sculptures out of the objects he had access to at the hospital: plastic cutlery, string, buttons, that sort of thing. The story was told from Arthur’s point of view and we were asked to look at it as a model of how to write in the voice of a nontraditional narrator.
Arthur suffers from a compulsion to count and catalogue—clouds, pencils, humans—he can’t stop:
In Sergipe, where I was born, washerwomen lay clothes on the banks to dry. They dry fast, they turn stiff, you shake them before you fold them, they Crack, one of the 4 sounds of clothing.
Mason illustrates Arthur’s insanity by demonstrating his need to organize is divorced from the point of organization—clarity, order, understanding.
Discussing the story in class, someone complained about the ending and how the story didn’t, finally, do much. Paula read the ending aloud. Arthur is nearing the end of his life. He is talking with his favorite intern, Rosario, the beautiful nurse who has always been kind to him:
I said, Maybe I am old enough to slow down. She said, I think you have registered everything. I said, I think my work is almost done.
She said, You could start afresh. I said, Like new. She said, Like a boy again.
I said, I am not so busy anymore. She said, You have time. What do you want most? You have the world, Arthur. I said, Wife. Husband. Baby. Friend. Home.
She said nothing. A quiet came on her face. In it I saw Sadness. Love. Joy. Sorrow. Worry. Completion.
As Paula read the final list, she got choked up. We were quiet and gave her a minute. She wiped her eyes, laughed at herself, and class went on, but that moment made a big impression on me. I, too, had not “gotten” the story or the ending, and I do not fully understand what or how the story changed for me after seeing my professor cry. All I know is that even now, when I get to the end of that story, I cry too. It’s not imitation—or at least not simply that—though I did, and still do, look up to her. I don’t care because she cared; I care because she showed me how to care.
I’ve been thinking about all my workshop professors lately: The cool ones, the crazy ones, the brilliant ones. I want my students to feel the way I feel about workshop and writing. I’m trying to figure out a formula to capture and recreate my experience for them.
I’ve tried being witty: “The opening images are great, Adonis, but doing drugs in the desert died with Hunter S. Thompson.”
I’ve tried being tough: “The ninjas have to go. We’re making stories here, not cartoons. What does this final scene show me that I can’t see better in a Tarantino movie?”
I’ve tried being democratic: “Let’s take a vote. How many of you think Peter should go completely over the top with the action? How many of you think he should reign it in and focus more on the development of his central character?”
I’ve tried diplomacy: “I agree with Mary about the imagery, especially the part where you say the bottle gleamed like a gold tooth, but Derrick has a point about there being so many minute, painstaking details that the plot kind of gets buried.”
Progressive: “The blow-job scene is the best part of this story.”
Repressive: “You need more than explicit sex scenes to establish the nature of the characters’ relationship.”
I even let myself get choked up while discussing the signing monkey in Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.”
There’s nothing, no formula, I’ve found that consistently works. Mostly I try to keep my mouth shut and let them do the talking. Some days they talk, some days they listen, some days they don’t. In our first meeting I explained the rules of workshop. I repeated what I had been taught, that their job is not to “fix” the story or to say something brilliant every time they open their mouths. Their job is to throw energy at the story. Throw energy. They liked the sound of that. So do I.
Lindsay Marianna Doukopoulos teaches creative writing at Auburn. She has published widely and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and fiction. Works of hers are recent or forthcoming in Tin House, Bat City Review, WordRiot, and New World Writing, among others.