Three years after my professional de-pantsing at the hands of my peers, I returned to the writing workshop that nearly ended my aspirations a changed man. The past few years saw a significant shift in my writing style as I finally found my “voice,” that elusive aspect of any decent writer’s stylistic approach.
Without a voice, we fail to distinguish ourselves and wind up throwing empty sentences onto blank paper, baffled over why our soul-less work isn’t being hailed as the NEXT BIG THING.
I took the one essential criticism to heart and drew from my own experiences. I still wrote science fiction and dark fantasy, but the former would soon be abandoned in favor of a literary approach to a more flexible genre. I now inserted more of myself into my work.
The workshop was different this time around. Last time there had been nineteen of us not including special guests. This year there were only eight. Only one of this year’s crop of would-be writers was someone I knew and he was the one who had insulted me most.
When I first arrived that year he and I somehow hit it off and he offered to give me rides when I needed them since I didn’t rent a car. I spent the first few days hanging out with the strangest guy I’d ever met in my life. That’s possibly still true today. I will refer to him here as “Frank.”
Frank was gangly and sickly looking. His head seemed over-large and his mouth appeared to grow sideways, giving him the appearance of a permanent grin. His hair seemed splattered onto his head as if with a fresh coat of paint and the less said about the bizarre shape of his uncannily skinny body the better. To gaze upon Frank was to be deeply disturbed. To find out he was a child psychologist was to be frightened, and to read his short stories was to descend into the type of madness reserved for characters in vintage horror stories involving mad scientists.
And this was the guy who criticized me harshest. He even compared my writing at the time to schlockmeister Harold Robbins, drawing disgusted and astonished looks from the others in the room. I eventually found a much more normal guy to hang with during the duration of that trip.
As I said, Frank was there for the second go-round too. Times had changed. The Internet was in its infancy. I was far more confident in my abilities and myself. I felt like a contemporary of the others in the room and, even better, I wasn’t the youngest attendee this time!
Being such a tiny group, we bonded rather quickly. At least, six of us did. Frank still stayed to himself and maintained his status as weirdest MF in the universe. His stories were just as bizarre and unsettling as they had been three years ago.
Did I mention this was guy who had criticized me most harshly? Ok, just checking.
As the five of us, four males and one female grew closer, as united in common cause. Frank’s stories were so offensively oblique and self-referential that being forced to read them was like serving time in a Gulag during the height of the Cold War.
We bonded over those stories, the five of us. The sheer pain of trying to decipher this crazy universe Frank had created, replete with odd references to parallel universes, adult characters with childish ways of expressing themselves. And in the tradition of insane writers the world over, he wrote these psychotic tales in a manner that implied it should make as much sense to us as it did to him.
For the first time, I sat with a group of people at a roundtable and struggled through someone’s writing. We each took turns pointing out oddities and other things that made the stories not work and incomprehensible, at times in tears with laughter over the absurdity of it all. The irony of having become one of those who’d ridiculed me three years ago. There was a difference, however. I’d never showed anything except support for the others that year and had never diminished a person’s style with an unfavorable comparison.
The five of us sitting at that table were literally and literarily being subjected to a horrific and disturbing experience; the only way to deal with it was through laughter.
Each of us had to submit three stories apiece to be critiqued and then rewrite one of them. My story was generally well regarded but it, like the previous one, was a first draft in need of revision. Frank’s story was too inside, too isolating to be rewritten. During the second and final week of the workshop, we finally let him know how much suffering he’d inflicted.
We each took turns critiquing. I said his stories seemed like a peek into the mind of an insane person and although this was a science fiction workshop, I never for one moment believed the protagonist wasn’t hallucinating. I also said no one seemed to relate to each other in normal human ways yet everyone seemed to have insight into what was going on. In short, his stories were like a Beware of Dog sign, meant for looking but going no further.
From there, my buddy who I shall call Herschel piggybacked off my commentary with examples of dialogue. He said it was obvious Frank was a child psychologist because all his characters spoke like kids. Hearing Herschel read that dialogue in a Leave it to Beaver type voice still makes me crack up when I think about it. But the best was yet to come.
Our female member, who I’ll refer to as Evelyn, took a slightly different approach. She was an attractive, intelligent and very sarcastic woman; just the sort that would intimidate the H_ out of a guy like Frank. And the best part was she retained sweetness when she verbally castrated him.
She looked at him, smiled sweetly, and said, “Frank, I’m sorry but I just don’t get your stories. When I read them, I feel like I’ve walked into one of those bizarre European art films where there’s a clown and confetti and people are laughing for no reason and the camera just keeps spinning and spinning and…would you stop laughing?”
“Sorry,” I said. “That image…it’s…” I buried my face in my hands, as did Herschel.
The professor in charge didn’t defend Frank any more than he had defended me. Although, he did provide a detailed accounting of Frank’s “concept,” as they had been working together to make it workable for years. That much time invested implied to me even then that it was never going to work but I said nothing.
Before the conclusion of the workshop, there was a party. Frank did not attend it. In fact, Frank left sheepishly that day, his defeat a palpable force. I felt bad but at the same time vindicated. As that kid on “The Simpsons” once said, “That’s why God invented hazing.” This isn’t Romper Room where we all make each other feel good, this is a creative field and those who alienate their readership need to re-think their approaches.
Frank wasn’t the only one we “lost” that summer. Another member decided he was no writer and gave it up as well; content, he said, to be a fan. He was right. He was not a writer.
For my part, I received mostly positive feedback on my work that summer and even won the coveted “Best Rewrite” award. I was also praised for having shown the most improvement in three short years the professor had ever seen.
I have yet to see more than one of those nineteen people from the first workshop in print. Maybe I should take a look at their first drafts~