writing workshop part three

So Rachel Resnick started off her “kickstart your novel/memoir” workshop by drawing some Breakfast Club confessions out of us (…strangers from different walks of life, trapped together for the day in a little house in Topanga Canyon…if only Ally Sheedy had been there). When it was my turn to complete the “tell a secret you’ve never told anyone” task I hesitated, realizing I could take the question seriously and go for it, or just shy away/back off. The first option seemed much more interesting. Not to mention, Rachel herself went to such a deep, raw (and beautifully written) place in her memoir LOVE JUNKIE that it seemed only appropriate to tell the group something I’ve never told anyone. It was a dominoes effect: the honesty of those who went before me triggered my honesty which in turn triggered some intense and moving answers from those who came after me, and the mood in the room definitely shifted, had a fun and lightness but also something else. We were co-conspirators now. We knew these naked things about each other.

We got to work. All in all, a strong, talented group of people. Afterwards Rachel broke out champagne and strawberries and we sat on her deck and looked out at the hills and talked until the dark came down. I was reflecting on some of the points that had come up during the workshop — stuff that isn’t new or unfamiliar to anybody who has been writing for a while, yet seems to run counter to what we often want to think or believe (especially as it applies to us) because it seems to meet with so much resistance. Such as:

Writing is revision.

God, it is. It really, really is. The challenge of the first draft is to get the damn thing down on paper. Then you’ve got something to work with. To do that, though, you have to be open not just to constructive criticism but the idea of change itself. Revision is just that — re/vision. Your work is not set in stone. It is a growing, changing, organic kind of thing. In my experience, there is a huge gulf between aspiring writers who understand that (embrace it, even) and writers who don’t, some of whom will use the old adage about “being true to themselves” when in reality they are falling victim to ego and everything the ego uses to protect itself (denial, rationalization, minimizing, whatever). Maybe you’ve already been working on the thing for two years, maybe you’ve written 500 pages, maybe your friends and family all tell you how much they love it — none of that matters. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Besides, you should

Never trust what your friends and family tell you.

Of course they’ll tell you they love it — or at least, they won’t tell you they hated it, or that they couldn’t finish it. They want to protect your feelings. Even if they do love it, chances are it’s because you wrote it. Your job as a real writer is to write something that people will love even if they don’t know you (or if they do know you, don’t care). Which is why it’s so important to

Be humble and teachable.

It’s not enough to be talented. In order to grow, you have to put your ego aside (don’t fret, you can pick it up again when you’re done) and stay open to what other people tell you about your work. A lot of the criticism you get will be fairly useless. That’s okay. Your job is to seek out the golden insights, the comments that open up the work in thrilling ways, or that shine light on the problems you sensed were corrupting the story but couldn’t pinpoint. Often we can’t identify them ourselves not only because we’re too close to the project and so, in a sense, working blind, but because we still need to learn or develop in some way. The story is slow and lacks suspense because we don’t understand how to create tension. The plot is flawed because we don’t really get what plot is (the artful ordering and revelation of events, information, emotion). These are two big ones, obviously, but problems can be on a more subtle level as well. The important thing to remember is that you’re not just learning how to write a book, you’re learning how to write this particular book in front of you right now, and every book is different, every book requires a learning process that turns you into a beginner all over again. And this hooks back to the whole “writing is revision” thing…which, again, is truly what separates the amateurs from the pros. It isn’t talent. It’s the ability to take your baby, break it apart, and knit it into a new shape, stronger for the broken places.

More thoughts on this tomorrow. Someone is waiting for me and I don’t want to be (overly) late.

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