distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

On Miranda July, Workshop Slams, and the Novel of My Dreams

I am reading the stories of Miranda July.

Last week I saw her movie. It was an odd film; I liked it so very much.

But back to the stories. They’re absurd. Raucous. Very brief, perfectly brief. They’re odd, and yes, you guessed it, I like them very much.

Elizabeth at Fluent mentioned this: they are not the kind of stories that would fly in an MFA writing workshop.

Some of the stories remind me, in fact, of an experience I had with a story I brought to an MFA writing workshop years ago, my first year there. This was in in a program not known for community and commiseration but rather fierce competition and suck-up sessions with professors. It could be cold, and workshop slams that year were frequent. A girl could bring a story to class and then watch it be torn apart piece by pathetic piece. The professor could start it or a student would, and soon everyone would attack. Afterward, the girl could be found crying in a bathroom stall; I remember comforting one or two. Now, though I might be known for hiding in bathroom stalls (see me circa junior high), I didn’t get slammed in these workshops. Maybe one time I got semi-slammed, not brutal enough to make me cry in a stall, but I’ll count it, and I agree with what happened, the story wasn’t working. Even so, one semi-slam in the face of all the other slams I witnessed seemed good, like I had something to brag about. Really, I felt lucky, like I kept catching people in good moods, escaping unscathed.

Then I brought this story. It was maybe 10 pages, or 12. It could have been 8. I don’t know, shorter than most of things I write. The story was ridiculous. It bordered on the absurd. And it was very, very unfinished. I felt as insecure about it as if I’d arrived in the room for workshop and realized I had a pair of underwear attached thanks to static-cling to the leg of my pants, which happened to me once, though I discovered it while walking down Broadway. Anyway, I wasn’t sure of this story.

This was the kind of workshop—each professor ran them differently—where you were not allowed to speak while your story was being discussed. You could not utter a word of explanation. You could not say thank you. Or defend yourself. Or ask questions about how to fix a thing that is broken, or answer questions if posed to you. If the discussion went on for the full fifty minutes about how no one understood this one pivotal moment in your story and all you had to do was say what the one pivotal moment meant, just say the words, just that… it didn’t matter, you could not say them. You could only listen in suffering silence while everyone else got confused. Only at the end could you say a few words, and it showed a lot about your character if you went on the defensive, or passively dissed yourself, or held your tongue in a quiet shell-shocked reserve.

So the workshop began.

Someone didn’t like the voice of my story; it was so flighty. Maybe even annoying. It wasn’t a “story.” It did not have a working plot. The character’s “change” was not so obvious. The story was too short. It was fantastical without being fantastical at all, which is sort of boring. There was barely any dialogue and all good stories should have lots of dialogue. It didn’t make sense. Besides, we never even learned the narrator’s name! How can you connect to a story if you don’t know the narrator’s name?

Then another someone spoke up. He loved the story. It was his favorite thing of mine he’d ever read; in fact, it was the best thing he’d read all year. He went on to detail what he loved about the voice. The story was saying so much more than it seemed to be saying, you just had to read into it. It was experimenting with form. It was throwing out the usual shape of a story. It was breaking the rules in all the right ways. He made me sound like a genius, and I know I’m not.

The discussion got heated. There were raised voices. Insults thrown. The professor let it go on, encouraging the debate. All through this I could not speak. Not a word.

The class was soon split down the middle. There were those who loved the story with a passion that shocked me, and there were those who despised it with equal passion that didn’t shock me as much.

At the end I was allowed to say something.

What did I mean by that story? (I don’t know. I was young. I was experimenting not so much with form but with what the hell I was going to write for all these workshop deadlines. I hadn’t even finished it yet. I didn’t think it would cause a fight.) I have no idea what I said out loud. I left that room in a daze. I have tried on numerous attempts to do something with that story, but I can’t, I don’t think I ever will.

So I thought of that experience while zipping through four of Miranda July’s stories in a row this morning, sitting there in public, laughing out loud, sighing, getting choking up, getting grossed out, a smile of pleasure, a gasp of shock. These stories that wouldn’t fly in that workshop… they’re great stories.

But this has nothing to do with Miranda July’s stories, does it? She’s getting praised all over the place so she needs no defending; she’s not sitting in an office underlining italicized text with a red pencil and measuring cover mechanicals instead of writing the novel of her dreams. She’s done everything right. In fact, sources say she hasn’t worked a day job since she was 23. Miranda July can do anything. Me? Right now I just want to finish reading her book. The novel of my dreams will still be here when I go to sleep. In my dreams it’s an odd shape. It wouldn’t fly in that workshop, either. I don’t know if anything I feel like writing right now would.

10 responses to “On Miranda July, Workshop Slams, and the Novel of My Dreams”

  1. I remember in my creative writing class in college, one of the stories that someone wrote for that class was truly absurd. In the story there was a clause in the DMV that stated you got a meeting with God if you had a clean record for long enough. The character wanted to take advantage of the meeting to discuss his annoyance with God’s policy that “you can’t fuck yourself or anyone else.” The meeting was set up and he went to heaven to talk to God. When he got there, God appeared to him as Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing. God blathered on about the copiousness of snails, but the character could only think about how attracted he was to God and how much he wanted to have sex with him/her. In the end, he never got his question answered and had to duck off into a bathroom on the way out. It was absurd, and easily my favorite story from the whole class. The guy was nuts, also, he had a huge forehead.

  2. Now I’m so relieved I never took any creative writing subjects at university! I wouldn’t have been able to stand going to a workshop like this. If everyone hated my story I would be massively bothered, but I find it painful to see people being negatively and ruthlessly critical of someone else’s creative effort. It’s all so subjective. Who is to say what’s “right” and “wrong”, or good and bad.

    Nameless narrators eh? What about the narrator of Rebecca?! Should that really still be in print? Heh! I’d never heard of Miranda July until now, I’m going to have to seek her out.

    Oh yeah, and the novel of my dreams is currently kicking my backside. I can’t do anything right at the moment either. Please, please write yours, it sounds waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more interesting workshop crowd-pleasing stuff.

  3. I can’t imagine sitting through that and not being able to open my mouth. Yikes. The words “MFA writing workshop” send a chill down my spine, actually. I think people that can endure them are made of dedicated awesome.
    PS: Miranda July can do anything, yes. & So can you.

  4. I’ve heard rumors that other programs weren’t this way at all. In fact, the poets in my program were much nicer to one another and formed a real bond. I don’t think all MFA workshops / programs are like the one I described and, besides, it was years and years ago and there are so many more programs now. For me, yes, I sort of do feel like I survived something. I was very lucky and was never really truly destroyed in a workshop. I was destroyed only once, and it was before I started the MFA, in a class I took the summer I was 19. Maybe one day I’ll post about it.

  5. Reading this made me wonder if I should rethink my no-talk-during-your-workshop policy. I wonder if it makes a difference if it’s a grad or undergrad class? The reason I instituted it was that undergrads have a tendency to take up a lot of their story’s alloted discussion time with defensive explanations, which means that their story remains relatively unworkshopped. But I hate to think of the kind of frustration you described going on in my class!

  6. I can’t imagine not being able to say *anything* while this was going on.

    As you may or may not know (can’t remember if I mentioned) I’ve been kind of looking at writing groups around these parts- just something to get me back into the flow…seeing this makes me a little nervous all over again!

  7. Great post, Nova. The Miranda July stories are wonderful because they are different, and I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been starved for different.
    There are many great things about MFA workshops, but the fact that different does not always fly in them is not one of them…MFA students are busy people, and it is easy to fall into the quick auto-response mode when it comes to reading classmates’ submissions. (I admit, I did it, too.) Nameless narrators, characters that weren’t “filled out,” and stories without proper arcs became quick and easy targets that didn’t require a lot of extra time and thought.
    Miranda July’s stories are not perfect, for sure, but they most certainly would have gotten “I think we need to know more about this character” responses in every workshop I took.
    As for the silence during workshopping, I think it can be a good thing — it’s easy to start defending and stop listening to the criticism, but it’s something that should be managed well by the professor, not exploited for the sake of a good discussion at the expense of a writer’s self-confidence. I’m sorry to hear you had such vicious workshops.

  8. I’ve had workshops where you were not allowed to discuss your work, and I found them to be helpful to a point, because, as Lucette says, the ability to defend your work or explain yourself is taken away. It’s just about the work on the page, not what you intended the work on the page to express. But I’ve also seen it become more personal, and that’s just not cool. And then there’s also the matter of picking your criticisms. I’ve gotten criticism that made no sense and was just plain silly. And I’ve gotten criticism that totally shot me down and made me feel unworthy and blocked for ages. I like to think that now I’m old enough (nearly 40!) and have been around the workshop block enough to be able to pick and choose what I want to listen to, but I’m also human and fallible and want to do a good job and express myself well on the page… if I don’t live up to that, I can be really good at beating myself up. Unfortunately.

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