What I Learned in Workshop Hell

[img_assist|nid=841|title=|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=175] By Aimee LaBrie
Columnist, Philadelphia Stories

In graduate school, I took a nonfiction course taught be a woman who was (and still is) a very established and widely published New York writer (we’ll call her Brenda). Like her writing, her teaching style was brutal and painfully honest. It was clear from the start that she did not enjoy teaching.  On the first day of class, she looked at all of us gathered hopefully around the conference table with our notebooks and pens and said flatly, “There will be no tears in this class. Anyone who cries fails.” I laughed. She glared at me, but didn’t go so far as to ban laughter, though I suspect she would have liked to.

Even though the class was painful, and I left it with paralytic writer’s block, I learned several things about writing nonfiction that still echo with me six years later.

1. Tell the truth, even if the truth is not pretty. One of my favorite people in the workshop was an older man named Tom. Tom wasn’t the greatest writer, but he was upbeat and nice. Brenda hated nice. When Tom turned in an essay about his wife dying of cancer, he ended it with a description of her final moments and how she witnessed angels rising from the corners of the room before taking her last few breaths. When we started the workshop, we were all reluctant to critique his piece, because, you know, poorly written or not, it was about his dead wife. Brenda did most of the talking. She said, “Darling, your wife did not really see trumpeting angels. She was high on morphine. SHE WAS HALLUCINATING!” She then related a story about her best friend’s death and how she spent her final moments. I won’t repeat it here, but it was horrifying and tragic and funny and real. That’s what she wanted: the ugly truth. Not the world the way we wished it would be, but the world the way that it was—flawed and awful and sometimes beautiful.

2. “Why should we read this piece of crap?” In response to an essay I wrote about church summer camp, an essay I thought of as a funny, coming of age piece, Brenda said, “Send this to your mother. She is the only one who has to read it. Even if it bores her to tears, which it will.” She emphasized again and again that our stories were not automatically compelling to the rest of the world. We might find them fascinating because they happened to us, but in fact, most things we experienced had not only been explored ad nauseam, they had been written about by better writers.

3. You are responsible for everything—every description, every scene, every word.  Brenda did not tolerate sloppy writing. Similes had to be sharp and accurate. “You write that he walked like ‘an old clown.’ What does this even mean? I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like an example of lazy writing!” We were told to “kill all your little darlings” a line of writing advice she borrowed from William Faulkner. This means that we had to ruthlessly slash anything precious, sentimental, over written, or extraneous. Though we might love a sentence or a description, if it didn’t fit into the whole piece, it was to be amputated for the greater good of the essay.

4. Know more than your reader. If you, as the writer, don’t know what you are trying to reveal about life or marriage or death, than how is your reader supposed to know? In other words, the writer must be smarter than the reader. That is the writer’s job. She advised us to save the stuff we did not yet understand for fervent journal writing and for our therapists—we were not to make our readers puzzle through our confusion. To not have a clear sense of purpose and direction becomes the equivalent of a thirteen year old boy blithely describing his dream from the previous night at a church pot luck dinner. “And then I dreamt I was on a train speeding through a dark warm tunnel and when we got to the end, a volcano erupted, splatter loads of lava all over the place.”

5. Know how you’re coming across as a narrator. This relates again to being in control of your material. In another one of our classes, Brenda started by saying, “Okay, what are we dealing with today? Oh, yes! We learned that Tom is a racist, Samantha hates bulimics, and Julie still feels guilty about touching herself down there.” We collectively cringed and avoided eye contact with Tom, Samantha, and Julie. But Brenda was right. She had boiled down the crux of each essay and also the core problem; none of the writers were aware how their voice had shaped them as narrators.

My friend Liz still shudders when she remembers the class. She told me that it has taken her years to muffle the sound of Brenda’s New York accent whenever she sits down to write. But Brenda was just as hard on herself—she described how all of her ex-husbands had tried to strangle her, and also how she couldn’t blame them. She despised self-pity; allowed none of it to creep into her stories. She suffered no illusions about who she was. She knew she was a bitch, but she didn’t care. The work, ultimately, was more important than what any of us thought of her. And when she did like something, she told us that too. One “good” from her meant more to me than pages of praise from any other teacher, because I knew that she meant it.     

What Not to Submit
Aimee LaBrie’s stories have been published in many literary journals. She recently received the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, which will publish her short story collection in December. Aimee serves on the Philadelphia Stories Planning & Development Board.

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