While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Deaf Men Talking, Or: An Insider's View on Writing Workshops

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of words spent on the influence writing workshops and MFAs have had on the state of contemporary fiction. But I haven’t really seen is a lot of words from those who’ve gone through the process and come out the other end.

I did a one year Masters in Creative Writing in 2006, and a few years before that I took a one semester short fiction workshop. I’ve also, on occasion, co-ordinated writing workshops for high school students. Now, more than a year after my MA, my novel/thesis remains unpublished and I am taking deep breaths as I prepare for next year’s challenge: writing a million words.

As I sat down to write today, I didn’t feel up to working on anything half-finished or first-drafted and in need of a good going over. I wanted to write something new. I imagine 2008 will be full of these days. The problem with writing something new is the blank page. Often, it’s too much and watching TV or tweaking fantasy basketball lineups is too attractive. This is where the pressure of having to write 2732 words a day will help me put aside whatever mood I’m in and just write. But what do you do when you want to write, but don’t know what you want to write? Me: I start typing. Typing anything.

Today, my first ‘first sentence’ was, “There was something rueful in the dog’s eyes.” My second and third sentences were “Dog’s eyes: full of rue. Some things, you can only just get away with, and the slightest disruption will cause it all to unhinge, unravel, unwind, undo.” In all, I managed 248 words before I decided to start again with something else (the story that evolved, a girl and her depressed dog, kind of finished at word 248).

My second ‘first sentence’ was: “It’s often easiest to start a block of fiction with dialogue.”

Below is a marked up version of the text I managed to write, with my comments on the process of composition (click on it to make it legible). In discussing the process of writing this snippet, I hope to reveal a little of what it is like to be inside the head of this young writer who has been through the workshop gauntlet.

By the time I got to this last sentence, I had more questions which needed answering before I would feel comfortable continuing:

  • Where are they exactly? Rest home? Institution? Country Club?
  • Linked to the above: How old are they?
  • What country’s sign language do they speak? This will affect my description of the gestures to define the made up word/gestures, and it’s something to research (first spurts of stories often stop at the point where I realise I have to research something).

There is also the bigger question of: What is this story about? I’ve written 238 words of text and discovered I was writing about a game two deaf adults play. The heart of the story feels like it lies in the relationship (friendship?) between these two men, and the way being deaf affects this relationship. But I didn’t know this when I started.

When I go back and read the first two sentences which got me writing, my workshopped brain says that these words might not serve the kind of story it looks set to become. When I step back and think about this process, there’s a lot of internalised workshop tendencies at play:

  • The desire to round out characters and settings (to answer all the usual questions people have).
  • The obsession with finding the heart of a story and expanding on it.
  • The tendency to discard metafictional or experimental passages as they interrupt the vivid and continuous dream of your bog standard short story.

I’m not sure if the image of ‘one deaf man making up sign language words for another deaf man to define’ is a workshop-fiction idea or a Craig Cliff idea. I think it’s a bit of both (it’s a false distinction anyway), but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the deaf definition scene (which may well come in the middle or the end of the story, not at the beginning as it stands now) is a distant cousin of the narrator holding the blind man’s hand and helping him sketch in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’. I didn’t rate this story when I first read it, but sitting on the other side of my MA year, I now concede it is one of the best short stories written in the eighties, and possibly any other decade. Is this a result of my maturity as a reader, or my workshop indoctrination? Again, it’s probably both.

This is why I feel torn when it comes to considering those first few ‘How to Write A First Line’ lines. It helped me write over 1000 words (and counting, including this mini-essay of course) and it comes from a place less contrived than two deaf men making up words, though, to a workshop veteran, it looks the most contrived.

I think it’s a question of voice, something bandied around in a lot of workshops but normally in terms of I love the narrator’s voice, or I think the voice slips in the passage with all the adjectives. It is not really a workshop’s role to step back and question the author’s voice: the right they have to inflict more fiction on the world; their staked off area of thoughts and way with words which no one else can replicate. Workshops are quid pro quo affairs, where every comment you make may affect the comments you receive on your own work. And they are limited by time: not just the time in the workshop room, but the time spent reading others’ work amidst the flurry (or lack of flurry and the resulting guilt-induced lassitude) of one’s own writing. So it is rare when a person’s work is ever looked at in terms of authorial right. What right do I have to tell a story about deaf people? Very little, on the face of it. After I research the different sign languages and perhaps read some deaf peoples’ blogs I will be more informed, but I will also be a slightly different person to the one writing to you now: the one who came up with this image but isn’t sure where it will go. The one who is writing a blog entry/essay instead of powering on with the story. But I do have a right to this story because, if I do it properly, only I could have written it. Other people may steal this idea (please don’t, there’s gotta be at least a 12 month statute of limitations on ideas espoused here) but they will all be different stories.

This is why I’m reluctant to cut the first two sentences: because it’s me talking. That’s my voice. It signals to the reader that what follows is the product of my mind, not the reporting of a lived experience. It feels less like lying. Not that the sanded, lacquered and polished banisters of ‘workshop fiction’ are full of lies, just that too much of the author has been sanded away.

I guess that’s what other people are talking about when they say that most contemporary fiction feels clinical and formulaic. Workshops are like lawnmowers: they tend to cut everything above a certain height. The result is a nice, clean looking lawn, but one that very much resembles the neighbour’s.

Don’t get me wrong, the workshops I’ve been in have helped me become more ruthless with my own work and I’m much more perceptive when it comes to picking out the part(s) of a story which are important, and I wouldn’t unlearn all these lessons and unmake all the friends I’ve made and forget the feeling of connectedness I felt when a part of that small community of writers. But now that it’s just me, and I’m the prosecution and the defence, it takes a lot of walking away from the screen and doing something else for a while to decide what’s best for MY stories.

P.S. Hopefully one day I can post a link to the finished, published and lauded ‘Deaf Definition’ story. Once I’ve written it.

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