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.

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