How often in life do you lay yourself bare and invite people to inspect your every birthmark, wrinkle, and fold of fat? Beauty pageant contestants spend five minutes on stage in a swimsuit. When I competed in solo and ensemble festivals, I would sing for five minutes in front of three judges, then leave the stage. But a creative writing workshop is an entirely different experience, 55 minutes of evisceration while you remain silent, but without anesthesia.
I was up in our workshop yesterday, here at the summer MFA residency for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Well, my workshop leaders would say my creative submission was up; we’re not supposed to be workshopping the individual. But these damned VCFA instructors (I write that in the nicest possible way) have driven me over the past year to put my heart on the page (see Bob Vivian’s lecture from two days ago). So, I’m sorry, but when 11 students and two instructors spend nearly an hour breaking down said heart, and I must remain silent, it is me they are workshopping.
After my first residency last year, I was really struck with the structure they use for workshop here, and provided their format in a blog post. I use a similar format in the blog-writing workshop I teach at The Writer’s Center. I learn a great deal by reading my classmates’ work; by trying to learn what they are doing right and finding ways to suggest improvements; and by listening to what others say about those works. But let’s face it; what we’re all waiting for, with anticipation and dread, is when our work is up.
I survived. There were many supportive words. There were many good suggestions. Perhaps the best thing I took out of it is that I am right in thinking that the travel memoir I’m writing is finding its voice and its style, and that the narrative structure I’m attempting, while ambitious, is doable, and I’m doing it.
Yet if my writing should have my heart on the page, I felt afterward as if all my blood had been drained from my body. I couldn’t slink away to recover. We had another student to workshop, and then my only chance at “speed dating,” where we interview potential instructors I will work with in my upcoming semester, my third of four. But after that speed dating? I needed to escape.
I hopped in my car and drove out of Montpelier. There aren’t many places to go that are a short distance, so I found myself in Barre. I settled in at a family-style restaurant, and ordered a local beer and the flank-steak-on-toast entree, complete with mushrooms and A-1 sauce. As I ate, I read in the dim light the written comments, 13 copies of my heart scarred by pen (and pencil in one case; I must call out one of my favorite instructors, Sue Silverman, and ask if she’s going to use pencil she press harder!).
I was a bit out of place with my green VCFA t-shirt, red sling backpack, and marked-up manuscripts. There may be many Barre residents who pursue creative writing, but the crowd at a Barre family restaurant is there for cheap food in large quantities. Unlimited shrimp at the salad bar. Slice-your-own bread. Let me say that while I was out of step, I was at home. This was not a restaurant where I would be judged; they had their own lives to live, no reason to bother to question the odd middle-aged college student struggling to read handwritten pencil notations in near-darkness.
I’m back on campus now, settling in for the rest of the residency. It feels good to have workshop out of the way, just as I was delighted when, at my annual physical recently, the doctor said she was finished with my rectal exam. (An aside: She conducted it with me sitting gynecology-style, feet up in stirrups. We men usually just bend over. Okay, am I sharing too much of my heart here, or maybe some other part of myself?)
What is your experience with exposing your creative babies with others?