Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Never stop learning

I had a great time at the Tin House workshop two weeks' ago in Portland, Oregon, and must say that I was surprised. I made the (extremely arrogant) assumption that because I have an MA in Creative Writing, because I've published stories, because I've been on two writing workshops in the UK and three in the US, because I belong to four writing groups, because I have a book deal - well, I can't possibly have anything more to learn about writing, can I?

I was wrong.

Thank goodness I was wrong. I can honestly say that I emerged from the week of workshops looking at my writing and other people's in a totally different way. That was down to my workshop's participants, and our tutor, Aimee Bender. There were eleven of us, ten women and one man, and the standard of writing was high. In my opinion, every story that each of us submitted several months in advance for the group to critique is - with a few tweaks and edits - publishable. And that is far more than I can say for my fellow participants in what was supposed to be a "Masterclass in short fiction" that I took at another American summer writing program, where beginning, middle and end were not something most people were familiar with or saw a need for.

The wonderful thing about this Tin House group was the astonishing group dynamic from the outset. No-one interrupted anyone. In fact, everyone seemed to listen respectfully and then build on previous comments. This group provided the most thoughtful and in-depth critique of a story that I have ever received. They looked at it on so many different levels - from the overall structure down to minutiae. Rather than feeling criticised, I felt washed with such warmth that they cared enough about my story - about all short fiction - to take the time and effort that they did.

The group's dynamics stemmed from individuals and their personalities, definitely, but also from Aimee Bender's gentle yet firm hand on the rudder. I knew when I read an interview with her before applying for the workshop that she was my kind of writer - she talked about character, about voice, about not knowing when she started a story where it was going to end. And when I read her latest collection, Wilful Creatures, which includes stories about a family with pumpkins for heads and a woman who has potato children, whose stories manage to be surreal, magical, yet painful and poignant, that I was going to enjoy meeting her.

Aimee is also a great teacher. It was not that what she said was revolutionary, but it was the way she described things that led me - and the others, I think - to see our writing in a different light. She talked about sections of stories that may just be "placeholders", useful to get us to certain scenes and emotions but not actually part of the real story; she showed us how beautifully-crafted phrases and sentences could be too "writerly" and not be in the voice of our character; she pointed out that sections that are too "technical", describing too precisely and accurately, can distract from the story; she gave us permission not to tie up our stories neatly and end with everything fixed; she talked about the media's obsession with finding the causes of someone's behaviour, showing the pyschological "reason" why they are doing what they are doing, and told us that we don't need to explain why our characters do what they do. Life is more complicated than that.

This last point, although I thought I knew it, when clarified so simply, led me to a major revalation about a story I have been banging my head against for several years. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it myself - I'd always felt something was "clunky" and suddenly I realised it was because I was trying to explain the reason for my main character's wierd behaviour, trying to draw a straight line between incidents in his childhood and what he was now doing. But I don't need to explain anything. I can just cut all that out. Ohmigod. What a relief.

So, I have learned that I will never stop learning. I've got to a point where I would like to do some teaching, too. I don't know if I'd be any good, but I'd like to have a go because I love writing and I am passionate about short stories and I'd like to spread some of that around. Now that I have the example of such an excellent teacher and a wonderful group, I have a great model to work with.

1 comment:

Vanessa G said...

Hi T

It all sounds wonderful! I hope you'll bring some of the critiquing skills to the Workhouse... look forward to hearing about those,in particular.