Roundtable Discussion I-IV
How does teaching the novel workshop inform your own work?
JANE MCCAFFERTY: Teaching in this workshop gave me a great sense of community, both with the students writers and the other teachers. It also really shone a light on my own process as a writer, and forced me to re-think it. Nancy and Geeta have really enabled me to see not only the structure my students need, but also how often my own writing became stalled due to a lack of forward progression. I think it's often hard for literary writers, especially those in love with language, to keep moving stories forward, and this workshop has really reminded me of how crucial that is. When I work with a student, I become deeply invested in the characters and the book, and this investment and involvement with another writer's work is surely teaching me as I teach.
NANCY ZAFRIS: I agree, Janey. We were blessed or cursed with this love of language, of words making magic, and I set out at a young age to learn all the vocabulary words in the universe and I was hell-bent on using them. Darlings, darlings, and more darlings. I hoarded them. It took many years before I could toss them in the dumpster and realize that most of these words don’t belong in fiction. What I’ve learned is to follow the plot because all the passion for language that I have will still leak through. However, if I lead with my passion, I just have a stew of lyric writing that pleases me at the moment but which probably isn’t very good to begin with, and even if it is, it’s misplaced and diverting and possibly sabotaging the storytelling. When I try to get the participants to dump this kind of writing, I’m simply trying to save them a few years because they will get to this realization themselves. It will just take a while.
GAIL ADAMS: One thing that most excited me about teaching in this workshop was the intense visual experience in seeing the novel hung up on the walls of the classrooms. There it was in all its varied colors and note cards hanging down like laundry on the line. I'd always loved stories about how writers looked at their words on the page: Eudora Welty placing all the pages on the floor and then straight pinning them together; Ann Tyler with her note cards that had a word, a phrase, a character name or description and how she shuffled them around; John Berger and his pen and ink illustrations that began and informed chapters/stories. (If you ever assign Berger expect to get many short stories with drawings!)
To see the plot points, the plot events, the back story, the emotional/theme line all arrayed like a literary and linear painting excited me. It also helped me think about my own stories which are very language laden--was it Nabokov? Big fat Victorian novels? I'm so comfortable with high lyric writing and it's easy to get lost in it. This workshop helped me think about where all the language was heading.
GEETA KOTHARI: Ha, this reminds me of my first novel. After I'd rewritten it about 100 times, I said to a friend, "It feels like a bunch of images strung together. Lots of beautiful writing but..." And he said, "Sounds like you've written the kind of novel a poet would write." He was a poet and he was deeply sympathetic but unable to help me figure out what was wrong. And by the time I was able to work on my plot points with Nancy, I think it was too late--the beautiful language solidifies and it's very hard to work out of it. I dumped a lot of darlings, but the bones of that book had been set.
NANCY: It can be so discouraging.
GEETA: So working collaboratively--with all these writers--helps me see how fluid things can be, especially in the early stages. It's so painful to dump those lovely images and set pieces, and going through that with others gives me courage when I'm on my own. I love looking at the laundry on the line and helping writers think about how to move their stories further. As Gail says, it is exciting, especially when a writer starts to see her book differently.
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION PART II
What is it like teaching with each other?
GAIL: I was a stranger in a strange land . . . I am a short story writer who had three failed novels in Kinko's boxes--one a-bristle with those little sticky note indicators where my agent had over 800 suggestions-- the novel as porcupine.
I was also a stranger to all other instructors except Nancy whom I've known for more than twenty years. I'd looked every one up and knew their background, knew that Nancy admired and respected all for their teaching abilities and that they were good friends. So I knew that Geeta, Jane, Greg and Man would all be good colleagues, that was a given, but a collaborative workshop was new to me.
NANCY: It took about five minutes for everyone to fall in love with Gail.
GEETA; It only took me two minutes.
GAIL: Like most folks who do workshops I was set in my ways--my beginning exercises, my warm-ups, my breaking the ice routines, and then the inevitability of the responsibility of keeping the workshop moving forward to try to help the writers become those who owned the sessions. Sometimes there is resistance--the workshop wants the leader and so there is push-back. I was eager to see how the others worked with each other.
NANCY: It was a gift getting to watch Gail in a workshop setting. She is a distinguished pedagogue with a long career in the university. Often that kind of experience solemnifies people, makes them grow cautious or weary. Not Gail. She's as bouncy as a pre-teen. She is, as we all know, just cute as a button, with an infectious laugh and delight in the world and its people. Sweetness pervades her. However, these wonderful qualities are not, prima facie, the kind of deep-voiced traits that generals use to command a room. How, then, does she do it? I think part of the secret is that she is a woman of such deep erudition. The pencils get to scratching when she rattles off names and books and allusions.
GAIL: How people approach a story seems to me so important. What is the author's intention and can that be helped to its best end? How to be both good cop and bad cop? How to say the hard thing but say it with the clear expectation that the writer will understand what you mean and that observation will help him/her revise.
Five new colleagues and each with a distinct approach and incisive intelligence and so much knowledge about what makes a good story. Sometimes we all agreed, sometimes we didn't, but always there was this sense that we were working toward the same goal: to make this novel under discussion a better novel.
I also loved that the instructors participated in the in-class writing exercises and how, in each instance, we were all revealed as not perfect writers--the workshoppers liked that too, to see that each start is always a new start.
I loved working with people who love literature, who were witty and engaged. There's that saying--I think from John Gardner--that all stories start the same way: A stranger enters town; or Someone takes a journey. My colleagues at Kenyon helped me with both of those beginnings.
NANCY: I loved working with my friends. Loved it. Writing is such a loner profession -- I've always been envious of musicians who get together and jam. No such thing exists for writers. This was the closest experience to that and I found it so thrilling to be with people of such true talent. I was also awestruck by the instructors' humility and modesty. These are not people who brag about themselves or go on about themselves. They were lessons to me about how writers should behave -- which I always thought was just a fanciful wish on my part.
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION PART III
What do you like best about teaching at the novel workshop?
MAN MARTIN: There’s not much I’m good at. I’m not good-looking, I can’t play an instrument, and I can’t hit a golf ball or tennis ball to save my life. But I love to write. It’s the most satisfying, challenging, absorbing thing I know. I have a notion that every book has this thing it wants to be, and the job of a writer – as well as a writing coach – is simply to discover what the book wants from itself and to bring it out. And I just love doing that. It’s a wonderful privilege working with other novelists on their books, not just to give passing praise or criticism, “that’s nice,” or “that needs polish,” but to pull on the hip-boots and get right down in the midst of their manuscripts and help with the heavy lifting – to shift the lumber around, discover where the load-bearing beams are, shore up the foundations if need be, or knock out an entire wall if it’s obstructing the view. The parts that work we hold onto, and the parts that don’t we discard. And we get closer with each step to finding and refining what the book wants from itself. And that’s my favorite part of this workshop.
GEETA: It's true, writing is one of the few things in life where how you look matters not one bit. Which is great for someone like me who likes to spend an entire day in her pajamas. In the workshop, you learn by doing and what you learn is that it's all about what you do. And Man, you're so good at sharing your joy in the process. You'll be sitting there, sweating it out with the student, smiling as if it's Christmas and Santa just left you a big pile of presents. That's what I like about the workshop--watching how other people work.
NANCY: I thought you did triathlons, Man. And you're a really good-looking guy. Just saying. Here's a photo of Man sharing his joy while others sweat it out. This is why I call Man a devious good cop. At least Geeta and I are upfront about being bad cops
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION PART IV
What is it like teaching with each other? -- cont'd
MAN MARTIN: Others have mentioned how solitary and often downright lonely writing can be. But to answer what it’s like working with this group, I have to tell stories about my co-teachers, Nancy and Greg. (Not to slight the rest of you.)
I’ve often watched Nancy listen to someone read a manuscript, head tilted thirty degrees and resting in a L formed by her thumb and index finger. At the end, she’ll say something like, “Read the fifth sentence again,” and the writer will start, and Nancy will say, “No, no, the fifth sentence, the one with the tuba,” and the writer will re-count, and discover – sure enough – that he’d read the wrong sentence, and that the fifth one involves a tuba. What person listens so intently to a manuscript? Only Nancy Zafris, that’s who. To say Nancy has profoundly shaped and helped me as a writer is to understate matters by a wide margin. If I can mean half as much to one other writer, as she has meant to me, I will count my life well spent, but Nancy has helped lots of writers.
Greg, with whom I roomed last summer, had wrestled all week with the manuscripts of hopeful novelists. I say wrestling, because making plot points and through-lines of a novel work in unison can be like getting an ill-behaved squid into an overnight case. At one point, in the thick of the process, he’d told a mentee, “But that part hasn’t already happened yet anymore,” the kind of mind-bending logical ill-logic we find ourselves mired in constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing layer upon layer of alternate possibilities. It was the end of the week, the workshop was over, he was exhausted, we were all exhausted, and all he wanted to talk about – he, who’d earned a break from this if anyone had – was the triumph of a writer who’d arrived with a manuscript in muddle and had broken through to clarity and cohesion and now had an honest-to-goodness story with a beginning, middle, and end. You should have seen him relive their moments of frustration, work, and discovery together, his recounting of the satisfying turning points and resolution of her story, his eyes glowing like a football player’s telling of the game-winning touchdown.
I defy you to find anyone who cares so much or who so completely gets what it means to write. That’s the caliber of the people I get to work with.
NANCY ZAFRIS: So the year that Man had to drop out at the last minute because of a family emergency, Man sent all nine novelists 3-7 pages about their work and skyped with another novelist and me for an hour and a half. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Man received zero compensation for any of this. I really couldn’t believe it. That’s the caliber of people I get to work with.