I'm in a fiction workshop this semester. I like it and I don't. What I like:
- The instructor is smart. I like the way she structures class -- the sequence of topics, the examples she chooses, the exercises for particular lessons. I like the readings she's chosen and the vocabulary she uses to talk about pieces. I've learned a lot from the way she's setting things forth. I came in not sure whether I would learn anything about the mechanics of writing. I suppose that sounds terrible, but I think and talk about writing a lot on my own, and I think I'm pretty good at it. I've taken fiction classes before. I wanted to take this mainly for the deadlines, the assignments, and a group of smart readers. A kick in the pants, kind of. But the instructor and the way she thinks about writing, these things are proving useful to me.
- The other students are smart. There are some good writers in the class. That's fun.
- We read short stories. I've missed short stories. Some old friends are there in the syllabus, and some new ones. Fun.
- There are, of course, deadlines and assignments. The kick in the pants. This is good for me.
- It's fun and it feels fundamentally worthwhile to talk about writing with smart people. Time flies.
What I don't like about the class:
- The instructor's nervousness. There is the usual amount of polite maneuvering in a workshop class -- you want people to participate, but people hang back because they're not sure what the rules or the vibe or the appropriate tone is, and because of a certain level of shyness about speaking up. But this instructor is polite but dissatisfied. She wants something different than what's emerging, but what she models is not straight talk -- it's sort of overly ginger. It's a bad combination. It makes the class nervous, and quieter. For example, she'll ask something like, "What works in this piece" in our first bit of workshopping of student-written pieces and the class responds with good things. Nobody mentions the things that don't work. She didn't ask, and it's difficult, and she looks like she's a little uncomfortable talking about that. And yet she clearly wants it. We wait to see what her plan is for addressing the negative, but she doesn't offer a roadmap for it. She asks if anyone would "respond" to someone who compliments something that (at least to my eyes) isn't working in the piece. I think she wants someone to say what to me is obvious -- this part doesn't ring true. But are we going to rip the piece apart? She hasn't acknowledged that we're going to talk about the bad stuff, too, and we haven't on any of the other pieces. I don't want to depart from the tone of encouragement and politeness that she's trying to set. But the alternative is this strange, ginger, fakey-talk. I don't think I can do it for another session. But I don't want to be a dominant personality, a boor.
- The other students are undergraduates, which of course is fine, but there's a sort of undergraduate eagerness to please and self-consciousness that's tiring. They're filling notebooks with notes during class. I wonder what the notes say. I jot a word or two in my journal or on the top of a handout.
- I am not a fiction writer, or if I am one I'm a reluctant one. I'm an essayist; I've always been, although I haven't always known there was a name for it. I want to tell true stories. You can do that with fiction, too, but I always scratch my head and think, yikes, I have to make something up? What on earth will I say? I coax my way out of rising panic by starting with something or someone from real life and imagining something out of it.