Friday, August 20, 2010

Fire in their bellies and mouths filled with light

Writing a blog post is a lot like writing anything else--it's all about choosing what to leave out and how to arrange what's left.

I promised to tell the story of the LLF Emerging Voices Writers' Retreat, but there are half a hundred of them. I've been pondering which part of which story to set down here. I've decided to show you part of my emotional arc as leader of the fiction workshop--not all of it, not from the beginning (because that would take too long) and not to the end (because this is only the end of the beginning). So here's the fiction workshop instructor's tale, one of choice and hope and abiding joy.

What I believe
I believe books change the world. Books change lives and books build culture. I believe writers are the shamans and torchbearers of their people. I believe the world is changing--the world is always changing--and we need writers to keep walking into the unknown and bringing back stories to make sense of it, so that others don't have to.

I believe that mapping unknown territory is arduous and that these writers--new writers particularly--need support, encouragement, community. I believe it's my job to help.

Who I chose
I was determined to teach a group of writers who would speak to all corners of the queer nation. I wanted diversity.

I'm not talking about age or ethnicity, sex or socio-economic status (though I ended up with diversity in all those markers). I'm talking about perspective. Voice.

I wanted those with a feel for history and those who live in the moment. Who write with a sense of fun and a knowledge of bitterness. Cultural elders and fearless newcomers. Short fiction and novels. Historical fiction and science fiction, YA and adult wit. Stories of What If and Hey, this is how it was, of What I've learnt and Here's what I want to know.

One dozen. A group who, together, would help each other speak with strong and singular voices. A group who would from bonds to see them through their writing lives. A kind group, a brave group, a group of individuals who saw, who felt, who burned to speak. A group whose voices could change the world in the ways I want to see it change: bright, generous, curious.

Why I did what I did
Then I had to decide how best to help these emerging writers. I read and reread their submission pieces and I sent email: What do you need most?

In one week, it's impossible to teach everyone everything they need to know. And this was an unusually diverse group in terms of formal experience and length of practise. In the end I elected to help them learn how to learn: from novels, from themselves, from each other.

I built a structure for the week to support that learning. Here are some extracts from emails I sent to the group to prepare them:
What to expect
Sunday evening: one hour meeting--general introductions, discussion.

Monday morning: a lightning fast tour of a variety of writing tools and techniques--what to bear in mind when workshopping Fellows' fiction. Some writing exercises. I hand out the three pieces we'll be workshopping on Tues. You read them bringing to bear everything you've just learned.

Tues through Fri mornings: workshopping 3 pieces of fiction daily, followed by discussion/lecture/writing exercises.

Saturday morning: all those things we didn't have time for Mon - Fri.

Why so much workshopping?
I could spent the entire week lecturing, leading discussion and setting exercises. You'd learn a lot about writing--but only one week's worth. I'd rather teach you how to learn. I'd rather help you build a community, a network of support you can rely on and learn from for the rest of your life.

One of the ways to build community is through sharing vulnerability, accepting help, and hearing different perspectives. In a workshop setting, you'll form bonds with fellow writers. You'll figure out who is on your wavelength. You'll discover who you work best with. You'll build a community.

Workshopping teaches you how to evaluate fiction. You can then go home and apply those lessons to your own work. You'll be able to see what you're doing wrong. You'll see, too, what you're doing well and how to make it even better.

A week of workshopping--plus discussion and lecture and writing exercises--will lead to a lifetime of learning.

There are a few ways you can ready yourself for this learning.

First, and most importantly, read your fellows' fiction...

Guidelines for reading and criticism
When you're reading each scene, ask:
  • can I picture it?
  • do I believe it?
  • do I feel engaged with what's happening?
  • does it move the story along?
As you move through the story as a whole, try to figure out what does and doesn't make sense to you: what pops you out of the story, what engages you, what distances you.

Try to separate out the parts of a piece of writing, and assess them--the word choice, the metaphors, the dialogue, the order of events, the characters. Then go up a few thousand feet and see the piece as a whole, how the constituent parts fit, or don't fit, together.

Write down your thoughts. Make notes on grammar, punctuation and other fiddly bits on the text itself; you'll give that to the writer afterwards. All other thoughts--what works, what doesn't--write on the back of the ms. in bullet form. You will be sharing this information with the rest of the class. Be concise. You'll have a maximum of two minutes to speak.

We're here to help each other, not hurt each other. I want this to be a space for writers to feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to be able to take the risk of learning in public. So be thoughtful, be kind.

But tell the truth. Tell it kindly, yes, but tell it. Unless you learn to evaluate honestly, no one will learn, including you.

Don't worry about being clever or incisive. This is about learning to evaluate others' fiction clearly so you can begin to evaluate your own. No doubt you'll be a bit uncertain to begin with. Learning is a process, and I'll be here to help. The best way to begin is to keep your remarks short, keep them focused on the writing, not the writer, and concentrate on what the writer actually wrote, on what the writer could perhaps do to strengthen their story, rather than what story you would have written instead.

Carve these rules on your forehead:
  • play nicely
  • be honest
  • do the work
  • assume good intent
  • don't share other people's stuff
and then have fun.
There was a lot more. (I got stern in places.) But I believe a clear structure, specific goals and shared vocabulary are not a luxury.

At our first brief group session on Sunday night I told my fictioneers that I knew they had felt isolated, that this week would fix that. That I knew they felt anxious about their work, or their worth as a writers. That we would fix that, too. I promised them:
I will help you learn to see your work. I will give you a series of filters to lay over your fiction, so you can see it clearly. You'll learn how to spot the flaws, and how to fix them. You'll also learn how to identify your strengths, and how to build on them.

This week will help you learn how to face your fears and move past them. Because fear will kill your art. Anxiety makes us all timid. But this kind of workshop is magic, it's alchemy. It will turn your worry into work. There's an old Armenian saying: get the load off your mind and onto your shoulders. Once you stop fretting about it, you can start working on it. My goal is to have you striding boldly from this workshop feeling like heroes, ready to take risks and make brilliant art.
So that's what I did. We worked in a windowless room, at tables arranged to form a pentagon, a pointy table. We didn't need a view; we had each others' visions on the page.

Some of the structure and timetable was out of my hands: the number and timing of guest lectures, for example. In a perfect world, I would have had time every afternoon to hold leisurely individual meetings with each fellow whose work had been workshopped that morning. As it was, I had to squeeze in a few minutes for every Fellow here and there--but everyone got some of my formal, undivided attention at some point.

Monday, early evening I think, on the patio outside the workshop space

How it was
A lot of people--not just fiction Fellows, but those from the non-fiction and poetry workshops--got my informal attention, too. I spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner with fellows and faculty (and guest faculty). I attended some guest faculty presentations (Kelley did one). Kelley and I provided beer most evenings on the patio overlooking the valley, and the fellows drank and talked and laughed and asked questions until long, long after dark.

Tuesday evening, after the faculty reading

I had thrilling conversations with writers burning with their stories, yearning to connect, to know, to figure it all out, just as I burned and yearned to share what I know. We smiled a lot in the warmth of each others' regard.

I did a reading. At the end of the week, the fellows read from their work. I sat there with tears running down my cheeks. They were on fire. They had learnt so much. I was--I am--so proud.

Friday, ready to sally forth

What will happen
On the last day I looked at my twelve bright, beautiful writers and could barely find the words to tell them how high my hopes had been for them, and how they had blown those expectations to pieces, exceeded them wildly.

I told them: You are the chosen few. The new queer fiction tradition starts right here, right now when you leave this room. So what do you want it to be? What stories will you tell? What do you want the next generation to read and know and feel? It's up to you. You dozen are the Knights of the Pointy Table. You will lead the charge. Where will you take your people?

They're ready, they've done the work. Sure, I helped. But they were the ones who did the heavy lifting. They're the ones who turned and faced their fears. They listened to each other, they learnt how to learn. They allowed themselves to believe.

And now they're walking into the world, fire in their bellies and mouths filled with light. And, oh, soon we will hear their voices.


All photos taken from the LLF Flickr set. Yep, I cheerfully admit that for this blog I privileged pix of me and my Knights of the Pointy Table. But I loved them all, poets, non-fictioneers, and fictioneers.

Video from the fellows' readings is starting to go up at LambdaLiterary. Take a look.
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