Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Maybe Syphilis?

So I’ve been thinking about workshops, probably because I just finished a great one, Master Fiction, with the masterful Ellen Litman. The group felt like some superhero team of readers, but perhaps we were a long time in the making.

Critiquing stories isn't easy. In my very first fiction workshops, back in college, I was clueless. I would lie in bed and read someone’s story over and over, amazingly forming no vision for what would improve it or make the writer not hate me. I’d bite my pencil and skim it again. Finally I’d scribble something in the margin as messily as possible, so that the writer couldn’t read it but would sense my deep earnestness. Class time was dreadful, as this was where I’d have to say these ideas out loud. But just as a person must wear some sort of clothing, even if it's not useful or interesting, I offered my suggestions. I sat straight and pointed to the writer with my pen. “I like the narrator’s sister,” I’d say. “I just wish she was a brother.” Or, “This character needs something to hide...maybe syphilis?”

My fellow workshoppers weren't much better. In the margins of my stories they’d try and try: “I like the way this character runs-- like a real runner.” “The father should blow his nose with a Kleenex, not a tissue.” And the best one: “Dear Sonya. You must be trying to make me hate this.”

One particular story of mine set off a minefield of suggestions, ranging from changing a character’s eyebrow color, to making another one gay, to bull-dozing the whole thing and reestablishing it in a Southeast Asian country. Exasperated, I left the class confused about what to do next. True: the story was riddled with holes. But who among us knew how to plumb?

A week later my professor met me in a coffee shop to discuss the story one-on-one. She could tell I was anxious, and got me decaf. She set the mug in front of me and said these words: “Sonya, some people can be very intelligent, and very enthusiastic, very observant and very articulate. And they can also be wrong.”

What a beautiful insight. Like most good writing advice, this one applies to life in general, but I keep it in mind during workshops too: pay attention to which advice you trust, which writers you trust, and to be ready to pitch the rest.

...The Grub Goods
Raise your glass to the winner of the coveted 2007 Muse and the Marketplace raffle, KATIE MAXIM. For her qualifications that defy explanation, Katie wins a weekend workshop of her choice. Will she learn to write for radio? Write 2 plays in 2 days? Stay tuned.

Pave the way for Thieves Jargon, a fantastic literary journal edited by Grub member Matt DiGangi. The 3-year-old magazine publishes fiction, poetry and artwork on a weekly basis, and released their first print anthology last summer. Be a Grubbie and a Jargon Thief!

~Sonya Larson


The Writers' Group said...


Sharing work is so hard at times, and on top of it you must sort through the feedback. Thanks for the reminder you only need to take the feedback that rings true.


Whitney said...

Love it, Sonya! I just hope my comments aren't the ones you pitch. Also, note to self: make sure to stock the office with decaf for days when Sonya's anxious, or days when she trips over the rug a few too many times...

Sonya C. said...

Haha, boss! Last night I tripped on the rug in my living room and re-twisted my ankle. This is getting serious. (p.s. is it tasteless to comment on my own post?)

Whitney said...

are you serious? Like twisted so badly that you can't run and need strange men to carry you piggy-back style? 826 was a rager!