Writers on Writing #105: Lacey Rowland
Make It New
This will all be familiar to you. It’s the traditional workshop model, we sit around a conference table, letters to the author in hand, manuscripts full of marginalia, strikethroughs and underlines. The things that are good reduced to check marks on the page. We rattle off the things that do and do not “work” in the piece. Turning art into a machine that spits out characters and images and feelings, and it’s our job as workshop participants to “fix” the broken cogs. Or at least, point to the broken thing and say “That.” We’re supposed to be articulating our aesthetics as a writer, to demonstrate knowledge of craft. For some it works, and it works pretty well, but for others, it’s a practice in slow torture. Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
When my story is up for workshop, I drink. I “pre-brief” with my boyfriend at the bar, psyche myself up for the barrage of “feedback” I’m about to walk into. I’m a boxer entering the ring with my hands tied. In my head “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu Tang Clan is playing on repeat. While comments are being made about my work, I overthink my facial expressions, trying to find the balance between somber meditation and intense concern. My eyebrows scrunch up, and when we pause for a quick break, I run to the bathroom, wipe the sweat from my armpits with a paper towel, massage my temples, and repeat the mantra I’ve adopted from something my boyfriend said once, “We’re all just monkeys bangin’ at the cage.” When I return to my spot at the table, I look in my notebook. I’ve scribbled some version of everyone hates this or this story is garbage, and then a doodle of Pusheen and a smiling turd. This is coping.
One week we read a published piece, and my peers lauded the craft. It was “Murderers” by Leonard Michaels, a musical little story that’s also a beast to read. The difficulty of it was what made it worthwhile, and we all agreed. And then I said, “Guys, if I wrote this and brought it into workshop, you’d have ripped it to shreds.”
As an educator, I’m asked to cater to a wide variety of learning styles, to be new and innovative, to breathe life into tired rhetoric. We are constantly asked to push the boundaries of our pedagogy. The world is evolving, genres are blurring, literature constantly shifting, and yet we’re working with a model that’s been used since the birth of the mighty Iowa Workshop, and haven’t turned back since. But the model is a shell, it’s like slapping a familiar cartoon character on a busted toy and selling it to eager children. Sure we’ll buy it, but we won’t be happy in the end.
It is easy to point out the things that are wrong in a broken system. People do it all the time. They complain about the government, though they didn’t bother to vote. And it’s easy to feel helpless. I poured out everything I had getting into an MFA program, spent a year preparing my application materials, burned incense and prayed to the patron saint of newbie writers. Somehow I actually got in. It felt like a miracle getting off the wait list. Out of hundreds of applicants, I was one of six. The odds are unbelievable. So, while some people may say that I should just give up on this whole endeavor, that if I don’t like it, I shouldn’t do it, I think that’s the worst attitude to have. MFA programs are where apprentice writers have a place they can go and be with other apprentice writers. We work for a couple years with brilliant and experienced writers, and focus on craft. But that isn’t happening in the workshop. I want to fight to make it better.
But what does “better” even look like? One professor I had passed around a plastic jack-o-lantern during workshop every week, and we all wrote on slips of paper one thing we wanted to discuss in the stories. It just didn’t feel like enough. We tried mood lighting and once we watched a Youtube video of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests. And while it was a fun diversion, it only seemed to mask a small part of what was unsatisfying in the workshop. Perhaps looking solely at writing is too narrow, and looking at only one genre even moreso. Narrative presents itself in the strangest ways, so why not take odd measures to pursue it. Sir Isaac Newton was so devoted to his work, that in order to understand how we see color, he stuck a needle in his eyeball. Mauizio Montalbini lived alone in a cave for 210 days to study the effects of isolation on the human brain. Rather than study writing using stale methods, why not do something completely different, perhaps even a little crazy, to be better writers. I’m not saying we should all go shoving things in our eyes (though it seems tempting after hours spent staring at a blank screen), we should push ourselves beyond the comfort of the traditional workshop model, and into something that’s maybe a little frightening, like working a fast food gig, or riding public transportation.
Aside from having Joyce Carol Oates as my very own Mr. Miyagi, my ideal workshop is less about critique and more about exploration. It’s about taking risks and not being so quick to establish what is wrong, or “not working,” in a piece. Instead of seeing revision as treatment for a disease, I like to think of it as working a Rubik's Cube, where you arrange and rearrange the sentences and ideas until they line up. If they don’t line up, you get out a Sharpie and you color those damn squares until they do. And it may sound like sacrilege, and possibly make the MFA Director at my university choke on her coffee, I think the ideal workshop is to have no workshop at all.
I recently attended a panel on nature writing. No one else from my genre attended the panel. It was three writers telling about their struggles and experience. David Gessner, one of the guest speakers, said that to be a successful writer, your writing has to find a way to “slip past the gate.” This is the struggle of every writer hoping to get published. It’s not a lottery, but it kind of is. In workshop we slave away at these stories, fighting the paralysis of perfection, and overwhelming anxiety, in hopes that the beautiful things we write will see the light of publication. But if we’re using this exhausted workshop model, and spattering off the same notions about writing, how are we ever to “slip past the gate?”
I look through my notes from the panel for an answer to my workshop conundrum. I see endurance and voice and mistakes. I see It takes time. Cultivate your anger. I see Make it new, underlined, in a little doodle box with arrows pointing at it.
Lacey Rowland is an MFA fiction candidate. Find her on Twitter at @beatnik_bunny.