Monday, October 16, 2017

A tale with a twist

It’s one of life’s minor cosmic ironies that I am very good at motivating other people and very bad at motivating myself. People actually pay me money to inspire them. OK, so they’re also paying for me to teach them the elements of craft in writing, which requires actual knowledge and expertise and not just a rah-rah spirit, but anyone who has ever taken a writing class will probably tell you the teacher who helped them the most was the one who encouraged them the best. I can do that for a lot of people, just not me. Beyond this blog I have a hard time convincing myself there’s any point in trying to write anything anymore. There are times I’m facing a room full of people alternately pondering and scribbling in response to some exercise I’ve given them, as I did this past Saturday at an all-day workshop in a nearby town, when I look around and wonder why in the world I’m here. Why are you people listening to me? You really think I can help you become writers? I can’t even help myself with that. 

Nevertheless, there they were, 30 or so aspiring authors giving up the bulk of a lovely Saturday in October hoping to gain knowledge and inspiration, so as always I brought my A game and my rah-rahs and got to work.

Most of what I had planned involved various simple writing exercises, all of them focusing on the same general process: starting with one idea and then taking a turn or a twist. By “twist” I don’t mean some gimmicky plot twist, like it turns out the first person narrator was really the murderer all along (please, current authors, Agatha Christie did that to perfection many years ago; there’s no need to do it ever again). I mean writing to a point where something changes, there’s the hint of something new, a shift from the direction you thought you were going. The first thing they did, for example, was an exercise in creating a sense of place and time in writing, and it entailed choosing one of the four seasons and describing the main emotion that season made them feel through sensory details. After a few minutes while they scribbled down bits about the scent of blooming flowers that made them feel hopeful or the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot that evoked a sense of exhilaration, I interrupted and suggested the twist: now consider a secondary emotion, one that complicates that first emotion. The crunch of leaves underfoot may be exhilarating, but remember, those leaves are dead, the year is dying, and there’s a melancholy beneath the exuberance that’s hard to ignore. Blooming blossoms may give you hope, but opening yourself up to hope can also expose your fragility and make you vulnerable.

My aim wasn’t to insist that they take nice, pleasant subjects and render them grim and depressing on the page. The idea was to suggest that writing could open up different ways of looking at something. We don’t write merely to reproduce the world; we write in part to understand the world, and because the world is a complicated, confusing place, writing the twist is one way to try to reflect that confusion. Or, something, I don’t know, it sure sounded good at the time, anyway, and it seemed to be working, based on the impressive pieces of writing a few of them shared.

Midday we took a break for lunch and I made a bee line toward the ladies’ room (they had free coffee and I’d drunk all of it). Annoyingly, the two stalls were already occupied.

“…doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to do that.”

“I know what you mean. I guess we’re supposed to figure that out.”

There was a flush from one of the stalls and a woman emerged, eyeing me briefly as we passed. Once I closed the stall door, I could hear her whispering to the woman in the other stall. There was no further conversation

Shrug. So they were probably talking about me. Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and you can’t teach someone how to write in a single day. That wasn’t what I was here for, anyway; I was here to give them some ideas and a gentle push in the right direction. The rest, I insisted to the stall door with a glare, was up to them.

At lunch with the workshop organizers and a few of the participants, I was warmly assured that the day was going brilliantly and that they’d heard nothing but accolades. What else would they hear, I thought skeptically; after all, private conversations in restroom stalls notwithstanding, it was hardly likely that the morning session had gone so badly that anyone would vociferously demand their money back. If people were going to say anything, it was likely to be praise, deserved or otherwise.

The afternoon session continued along similar lines, with exercises creating multi-dimensional characters and multi-layered dialogue. At the end of the day, I thanked them, they applauded (rather louder and longer than I felt was warranted), and several of the participants came up to talk to me, each one thanking me enthusiastically. “I learned so much today!” one woman gushed. She had written a lovely piece in response to the seasons exercise, starting with familiar ideas of spring suggesting rebirth but then turning the piece beautifully by reflecting that to be reborn, one likely has already experienced a great deal. “This was so helpful, I really must thank you.”

I shook off the praise. “You did the work,” I pointed out. “The writing was yours.”

“But I never thought to write the way you suggested until now. I am so excited to keep doing this!” Then she turned and looked back to the table where she had been sitting. “There was a young man sitting by me this morning, I don’t know if you saw him. When we took the lunch break, he stood up and said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t write.’ I don’t think he came back. I feel so bad for him.”

I stared dumbly, stunned, at the empty seat where she was looking, and it occurred to me I knew who she was talking about. He had approached me before the morning session began, introduced himself, spoke of his eagerness to attend the workshop. “I’m a mechanic. I’ve been a mechanic my whole life. That’s all I’ve ever done. Now I think I want to write.”

“That’s great!” I said. “You probably have a lot of stories from your work.”

He shook his head. “I’ve done the same thing for so many years. I want to do something else. I hope you can help me.”

I must have said something inane like well I hope so too! or maybe just another cheery that’s great! I suppose it hardly matters what I said, because I might as well have said don’t hope; it just makes you vulnerable. Turns out the people who need encouragement the most are the least able to take it. Perhaps that’s the twist in this story, though it isn’t a very good one since I’ve known it all along.

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