You would think after my super-intense year of workshops and deadlines at The CUNY Writers’ Institute, I would have some sort of a system: a writing schedule of sorts. Nope. When I had deadlines, I was a maniac, staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning, clicking away at my computer. As soon as April came around and the workshops abruptly ended, I made plans to keep writing. And I did for a few weeks, until some minor event sent me back into the world of dawdling about.
I forget the details. Probably a family gathering, or some trivial drama that put a minor spanner into my routine, that resulted in me going back to that thing I dread: complete inactivity. I’ve tried them all, libraries, coffee shops, my desk at home. They all work fine when I actually make the time to go sit down and write.
But without deadlines, other work takes over – work I’m being paid for, whether it’s grading or writing articles for Mom.me. It’s a terrible habit and one I’ve tried many strategies to counteract, and they’ve all worked for a short time, but nothing long-term has lasted. If I were an anesthesiologist or a banker, things would be different . . . .
Towards the end of summer when it was clear I wasn’t going to get shit done with my writing, Sona sent me a link to a workshop at the Center for Fiction, called, “The Sweet Spot” by Marie-Helene Bertino, a name I hadn’t heard before. Initially, I dismissed it because it was all the way out in Midtown, my least favourite part of the City, and it was going to be a knackering commute from New Jersey City University – first a bus, then a train, then another train.
So, I googled her, ordered her short story collection, “Safe As Houses,” from Barnes and Noble, and after I read the first story, “Free Ham,” I immediately signed up. It was, in short, the greatest thing I have read in many, many years. It’s filled with dark humour, and brilliant one liners, with ridiculous Monty Python type of situations to get at a deeper truth. Like a mute Bob Dylan coming to Thanksgiving to explore a strained brother-sister relationship, and a really sad one about an Alien, who is incredibly lonely.
We’ve only had one class session so far, but the students all seem fun and passionate about writing, rather than jaded by being in too long. The technique we’re using for workshop is thankfully the only effective one that exists, where the writer needs to shut the fuck up, while their work is being discussed.
At the Writers’ Institute, it has had disastrous effects in workshops when the writer is allowed to speak, especially ones new to the workshop process, who feel the need to explain to every single commenter what you’re just not getting. The proper term for it is the glass booth, although I like my term a lot better.
For the first class session, we were emailed two short stories, including Sherman Alexie’s story, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” (link to the story), which we made comments on before class, and then talked about its structure and effectiveness in achieving what it set out to. Towards the end of the discussion, one of the students asked a great question about cultural representation and the blurry line between that and cultural appropriation.
Actually, she didn’t quite phrase it like that. She said something like, if you’re not from a culture or community, can you write about it. Marie’s response was a resounding yup, which I completely agree with, because it all comes down to story and character.
I get irritated when “other” characters are dealt with as caricatures, where their race or otherness is the only real character trait they have. They can’t just go off and buy some milk at the store, without explaining themselves first. I’m sure this will come up in subsequent classes. I’m not going to talk about anyone’s specific work because that’s just not cool, but I’ll write about any interesting class discussions on craft or things like that.
We meet every 2 weeks, where 2 people submit at time for the first go, and 3 at a time for the second round. I’m ominously up on Halloween!
I already feel invigorated enough to start writing, and love that the class is pretty small: 5 students, who are all chatty and have interesting backgrounds. Marie offered some great gems of information: “I’m proud of my long list of rejections. I got rejected 35 times, but if I hadn’t sent it to 37 places I wouldn’t have been accepted into two.”
And then there’s me, who sent two stories to exactly two places. There are only a few more months left before the year is out and my birthday’s coming up in December, so I’m making it my goal to finish two short stories, have them in polished shape, and submit them to a tonne of journals.
Enough lounging about on a Saturday afternoon, I have a story to write!