Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sucks All the Energy Outta Ya

A post by Tanya recently got me thinking, and the fact that I read it Monday night after my workshop for the week got me writing this post.

The MFA workshop sucks the energy right out of you.

Most weeks I leave and all I want to do is put on my sweats and pour myself a drink.

The one time I walked away feeling truly energized was the week my story was critiqued by the group. I had all these new ideas for where to take the story and how to build my modest story (which I thought was finished) into something really cool. And then I read the written comments and that bubble burst but that's another story for another day.

I don't really have the problem where increased knowledge of writing and how it works correlating with decreased reading pleasure. Yes, I notice theme more readily now and I'm much more aware of the mechanics behind the work that the author has employed -- reading The List after taking Tara Ison's workshop I could totally see all the elements of structure she taught us about employed in her novel -- but that is fascinating in the same way that learning how movie special effects is fascinating; it still looks lifelike on the screen even when I know how it's done.

Any thing much deeper than that doesn't occur to me when I'm in the middle of reading.

In the midst of reading I love being caught up in the moment, in the emotion, in the beauty of imagery or the tension of the conflict and I stay right there with the story unless the author breaks it for some reason. This is what I refer to as the joy and wonder of reading. What is referred to in a recent edition of the Writer's Chronicle as "good storytelling" (and how it is frequently missing even unadulterated literary writing). I rarely develop any sort of notion for analysis (psycho, literary or otherwise) during these read through and keep myself wholly focused on the wonder of an unknown story. Then if I sit down and care to still think about it after I'm done reading I'll find myself able to draw those analytical conclusions.

For workshop: I read; I experience the joy of the unknown story (usually); and then, I sit and analyze. I analyze whether the mechanics worked and I analyze some deeper level of the story to see if it's there and see if I don't have any comments that could help the author in later drafts develop one. Although, I firmly believe that a moving, emotionally engaging, well told story doesn't need overt levels of meaning and that the author shouldn't try for them consciously. The four levels of allegory are what high school English teachers apply to fiction; they are not present when the writer writes.

Then, in workshop, the class destroys my joy. My awe. And any sense of wonder I may have had in reading.

They are overly critical and cynical (and rightly so, they know what a shortcut looks like because they've tried them). They've read a lot. Most of them, myself included, either read slush for a literary magazine or they work as an editor on the program's literary mag. They've seen a lot of "good" stuff and they've seen a lot of crap. This leads them to viciously attack anything they perceive as a weakness in the story.

No, workshop is not for the tenderhearted.

They do it in the name of what doesn't kill a story in workshop makes it stronger in the next draft, but, all the same, I'm glad I'm not asked to reread these same drafts after we've workshopped them because there is no joy left in reading it once it's been beaten and snapped at from all angles.

One form of badgering that has become particularly prevelant (and disturbing to me) is the use of the word "device." Every element of a story is now referred to as a "device." If it is what happens between the beginning and informs how we get to the important part or why the important part even happens, it's a "device." Occasionally it's a "good" term: the author used a really subtle device here. But it never feels like a good term, it feels like the naming of a cheap trick. Someone used it last night, and suddenly the story we workshopped (not mine) felt less like this heart wrenching slice of life in the world of a widower and deer hunter and more like a clock, or robot, or remote control. Device.

Maybe "device" is an appropriate word though. Given how we discuss stories and the kind of suggestions these writers make it seems more like they view themselves as builders, tinkers and puppet masters. They want to see how they can engineer a character's past and his emotions to make a better mouse trap.

What should a writer be?

I don't know. And I don't want to be prescriptive about it.

At times I find Natalie Goldberg's zen based writing philosophy too zen for me and yet I do not enjoy the writer-as-engineer philosophy either. There has to be some happy medium, don't you think?

Perhaps this is why I find myself ever more interested in writing good genre fiction opposed to bad literary fiction (see Writer's Chronicle interview with Nancy Kress and Poets & Writer's article by Mike Chasar, available in print only): because the genre writers are storytellers, they harken back to that ethnological desire of ours to spin tales, that biological need to relate to others even if only through the page.

Highly Recommended