Sunday, August 16, 2009

Write Camp Notes Part Two

As promised, I'll continue with my report from the New York State Summer Writers' Institute at Skidmore College. I had two workshop instructors, Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill. I'm a fan of the writings of both of them, for different reasons.

Hempel's fiction has a warm feeling that I appreciate; I haven't pinpointed exactly how she accomplishes it, but I have a couple theories. One possibility is that she doesn't rely on conflict in the traditional sense. Because much of her work is very very short, she doesn't need to use conflict to make one commit to reading, and her notion of "plot" is more reliant on character obsession and language. Her humor is based in surpise, the disarming turns her narrators take inside paragraphs, or indeed sentences. And she doesn't waste language. This feels to me very respectful of the reader and is another source of warmth.

One of the things I like about Gaitskill's work (Veronica in particular) is her facility with physical description to bring out character emotion. Her empathy is not just for characters but for everything in their world. When I read her work, I am reminded that emotions are not something contained inside a human being. We all radiate emotion all around us, in the way we observe the world and interact with it. The interpenetration is palpable and mysterious. Gaitskill captures this in a very rare way.

I bring up these observations about their work because each had an approach to teaching writing that was consitent with these observations.

Amy Hempel immediately set a warm tone. At the beginning of each critique we went around the room and each named something that we thought was working well in the story. This was a welcome reminder to me that something positive can be said about every unfinished work, and I mean every one, and it does not hurt to give specifics. Further, pointing out what works is not the same as saying you love the story, it's finished, etc. We had no trouble with this exercise.

After going around the circle, she asked us leading questions, like "how did people feel about ____?" Sometimes she even took a vote. What I liked was how she followed up after our response: she addressed the writer each time and instead of "here's what you should do," she said, "so there's some information you can use." (Or something like that.) It's an important distinction, and very respectful of the writer. One of the reasons we go to workshop is to learn how strangers react. The reactions are a data point, not necessarily a prescription for how to move forward.

Hempel also found moments in each critique to address us all with general ideas about how to make fiction better. Questions to ask ourselves: what do I have that's already enough? What happens in this story--not what is it "about," but what happens? (She allowed that what happens is often language, not incident.) Regarding setting: what is the thing that only happens here? Is the story an account of an event or an event itself? And some tidbits I jotted in my notebook: Pay attention to what you give yourself to work with later. The story needs to be logical on its own terms. In stories of illness, illness is the situation, not the story. (I think of her much anthologized "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.")

Her comments in my manuscipt were gems. I had submitted a reminiscence piece and she encouraged me to do something to bring it into the present, to give a reason for discussing 1977 right now. It's a logic question. I've played with this suggestion and I'm happier with the story. And her line edits were what you would expect from Hempel. Like she said, what do I have that's already enough? It's hard for me, sometimes, to trust that I've adequately presented a theme. Her cuts were quite encouraging. Like yes, I did say it already. She helped me to trust my readers more.

On to Mary Gaitskill. She opened the class with a discussion of the state of literature. Her argument was that we attend writing programs to learn how to write better, and since this costs money, social class is involved. (The elephant in the room at a nice college like Skidmore, and she said it on the first day. I applauded inwardly.) Further, writers teach at writing programs to make a living, because publishing isn't enough. And to top it off, the only people who read literary fiction are aspiring writers, writers, academics, etc. It's become an insular world. We are ghettoizing ourselves. She seemed really distraught over this development, over the inability of writers to actually interact with people in other walks of life.

Her approach to teaching writing reminded me of the (offstage) teacher in her story "Description." Partly because of themes in the student stories we were critiquing, and partly because this is her strong suit, she focused on creating emotional empathy through physical description. The discussion was tremendously helpful to me. We went through stories of John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor, among others, to look at the use of crude characterization mixed with not-crude description. It's an angle I hadn't thought of before. The crude, maybe even grotesque nature of the characters in the textbook stories had a similarity to Gaitskill's earlier work, and she pointed out where the description in the stories "opened up" and became more subtle. Listening to Gaitskill's close reading was worth the price of admission.

Early in the class, Gaiskill discussed the mysterious nature of what makes writing great. "It's like a person's unconscious or guts--invisible but essential--that inner quality that makes the work alive." And she argued that style is a big part of it. "We think of style as something superficial," she said, "but it's not. " The examples she gave later in the class supported this argument, where the nature of the description turned softer, making character identities--even crude ones--fall apart.

Which is in line with something Hempel said, and I'll close with it: "The more consistent a character is, the less credible." I'll chew on this for awhile, while I go off to finish my household chores.

Hope this has been fun for you to read. If you ever get the chance to work with either of these teachers, I recommend them.

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