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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


No, this is not some new literary term like "foreshadowing", neither does it refer to a cough. Yes, I am currently at a writing workshop in the US, but I want to talk today about something else: hula hoops. First, drop the "hula". Apparently this is a trade name. Second, I bought a hoop in England a few weeks ago, a serious hoop that comes apart into 6 sections for eash travel, a hoop that comes with a DVD. I bought it because I fully believed the hype that it can banish the spare tyres accumulating around my waist. It took me a while to master, but I can now do about 5 minutes of straight hooping.

I thought I was doing well.

Then tonight, at the post-author-reading drinks, I meet a serious hooper (as they are known), and she clues me in to the big world of hooping and the people who hoop as if their life depends on it. She sends me to Hooping.org and here I read about Jonathan Livingston Baxter who "hoops for 90 minutes to two hours daily.". Ok, now I feel a little inadequate. Why does he do this? He says:

"about four and a half years ago, I broke my collarbone, and in an effort to heal from this injury I began a daily hoop practice. It has changed my life in so many ways, I still cannot grasp its full impact on me. But I do know that one of the first and most profound aspects of my life that hooping has changed is the way I handle depression. Before hooping, I used to allow depression to pull me down and keep me down for months. These days, through my daily practice, I'm able to limit bouts of depression to days or even hours. It's as if I have built up my emotional white-blood-cell count; I have both more immunity to the disease of depression, and more strength to fight the disease if it does creep in. Ultimately, my entire view of life has changed from feeling cursed to feeling blessed."

It is pretty well accepted that exercise boost positivity and combats depression. But I have to say, I think there is something more than that with a hoop. It is a reminder of childhood, and reminder of the time when we were unfettered with bills and jobs and anxieities about relationships and futures. When you're hooping you have to concentrate only on keeping that damn hoop up.... you can't start wandering off into thoughts about what you need to buy or who you need to phone, or the hoop just drops. The hoop keeps you in the moment, it's - I think - a form of meditation. And it's portable, you can do it alone or in groups, and it doesn't cost a thing - once you have the hoop (which you can make yourself: see Hoopmaking).

I didn't bring my hoop-which-comes-in-six-pieces with me to the workshop, silly me I thought I'd be discussing literature. But there are hoops here, newly made hoops, and I am looking forward to tomorrow morning's whirl. I need to work upwards from 5 mins, those spare tyres are still rather inflated. But I am really excited about this. Now that I know it's not just me... maybe I'll find a Hoop group. Join me! Together we can change the world!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Further NY musings

I think perhaps I was too harsh yesterday. Today we moved into apartment number 2 in the Upper West side, and I really like this neighbourhood. It's quieter than where we were behind Lincoln Center, although that was a fab location. But here it feels more like a community, has more character, more small shops. I am sitting and surfing in a little pavement (sidewalk!) espresso bar with free WiFi and jazz playing. Gorgeous! And we had a lovely day in Brooklyn the other day, it's great over there, those brownstones are stunning, I could definitely swap apartments there sometime, if anyone out there wants to hang out with our cats in Jerusalem!

So, NY, all is forgiven for right now. Off to writing workshop in portland, oregon, on Sunday, will report from there. Everyone says Portland is lovely, and has the biggest bookstore in the world. Temptation, temptation.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Musings from New York

New York used to thrill me. When I found out we were going to swap apartments with a friend of my cousin's on 67th and West End, (behind Lincoln Center)I didn't sleep all that night, I was so excited. But now we're here, the thrill has gone. The city is full of things that are familiar to me - The Gap, Starbucks, Borders books, you can find them all over the world. The streets, the fire hydrants, the metal fire escapes, I know them so well from Law&Order, from NYPD Blue, from all the other American shows I watch. The American accents are the same as those I hear around me in Jerusalem. Basically, it's not new, and it's not exotic. It's actually a little boring.

This also may be because since I was last here a few years ago, I have learned how to thrill myself. No sniggering, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about writing. I'm talking about the buzz I get, the enormous high, from spending an hour completely focused on writing a short story, or on editing a story to make it better. Nothing beats that all-body sensation, that utter satisfaction of the truly creative act, part meditation, part inspiration, part dedication. No wonder New York doesn't do it for me anymore - I have a portable thrill-generator that I can take anywhere. Me. Can't get any better than that.