I did it! I finished 10 weeks of The Writer’s Studio workshop. I had to go back and count them up and yup I have 10 new stories. Now I have nurtured a mini-collection of healthy seedlings–starts to short stories or dare I say chapters in a novel. As I mentioned in this post, I was filled with trepidation about starting (and finishing) yet another workshop. In the past, I’ve struggled with workshops, unable to process feedback without inciting more self-destruction. I would feel angry that fellow classmates did not understand my intentions. The stand-out authors in class became a source of judgment and comparison, rather than healthy competition. I would read exemplary writing and kick myself for not doing as well and began to spiral in self-doubt. What came next is obvious, I would lose the energy to write, my ideas began to stagnate, eventually settling into debilitating writer’s block. I never asked for help or ever tried to reach out. I would just stop writing, skip one class, then another and slowly fade away. The self-defeat would feed more distraction from the very thing I have always desired in life–to write stories.
This time around, I gave myself one goal, to simply finish every assignment and never skip a class. Not to expect Nobel-prize winning narrative, oohs and awws over dozens of well-turned sentences and standing ovations. I just had to complete every assignment, in earnest. But most importantly I had to show up, week after week, ready to listen and learn. At first, 10 weeks seemed a long stretch and I was concerned about keeping up momentum. I am VERY guilty of starting off strong and petering out by the end. But it flew by. The best part, I never missed a single class, never “called it in” and I felt energized the entire time. It’s hard to put in words the immense feeling of pride I have for achieving my simple goal, but on the night of the 10th class I felt elated. I might as well have gotten a call that I won a Pulitzer Prize, Booker Award and National Book Award all on the same day. (Yes I know this is impossible, they are not announced at same time, just go with my metaphor please).
However, there were some positive side affects to my goal, changes that I didn’t expect, huge tweaks to my creative process. Because of the time I spent, huge mental blocks have been cleared. New ideas and perspectives have been forged. Aside from perfect attendance, here are some of the unexpected lessons I’ve gained in the past 10 weeks:
1. An idea is only the first step-I learned not to get over-confident just because I had an idea for a story. The seed still has to be harvested and the work has just begun. An idea invites us to sit down, open a notebook, turn on the computer and begin typing. An idea is a tiny fraction of the whole process. It’s only the start. Ideas are everywhere; what I have learned is how to begin to make them alive.
2. Begin by writing an intention for the story-The Writer’s Studio process includes writing a prologue before we begin creating the story. This can be a short statement that includes the type of persona narrator (ex. first person-present tense), types of techniques (such as playing with time) and objective of the story. I also began to think about the characters and their back-story and relationships to each other, so I had some guidance. When I would stray or felt stuck, I would read my prologue and it helped me get back to the story. This is a very useful technique, one that will stay with me as I write.
3. Writer’s block is an opportunity to try new techniques-Of course I had writer’s block, even if an idea sparked right away in class. For the first assignment, I wanted to write about marriage and kept getting stumped. My idea had a personal elements and it felt hard to get on paper. So I decided to write in the voice of a male character, something I had never done before. It was liberating because I could explain the situation in a totally fictionalized manner, however I wanted. Later I learned I practiced a writer’s trick without even knowing it.
4. Readers need a break from bleakness and caustic tone-This is a big one for me. Many of the stories I have yet to write are bleak–drug addiction, abuse, mental illness, failed relationships–and what I have come to learn is that readers (and the writer) need space. It’s not that writing about difficult emotions is taboo, but being heavy handed, negative and dark for pages upon pages makes it tiring for readers to stay engaged. Techniques such as adding dialogue, surrealism, abstract sounds, humor or simply changing point of view allow the reader a chance to take a breath. When I experimented with these tricks, I felt I had better responses to very emotional stories.
5. Don’t avoid your personal identity-Until this class, I have NEVER written characters of Indian descent, maybe I thought they were in my head, but I would give them Western names, talk about American ideals and culture. My characters did not reflect my full identity and this left out a huge part of my story. I felt comfortable talking about others, but this tactic kept me away from the richness of my own blended heritage. I finally wrote a story about a mother and daughter, named Ritu and Meera. I was able to get deep with the theme of culture clash, because I have lived this and know the way an Indian mother would think or react. It’s mind boggling to me, that I have never written this story. I feel open to a very large portal of personal material. These characters are not Lindsey and Michelle (yes at first I gave them these names) they are Ritu and Meera.
6. Editing is where art begins to shine-As I mentioned above, an idea is just the first step. With the first 2 assignments, I gave myself little time to edit, mainly because I was so sure my idea would just pour onto pages in perfect form. (Silly me). Procrastination, gave me little time to edit and I only whizzed through a draft to catch typos. The third assignment was to write a scene focusing on setting and I forced myself to start early. Immediately, I wanted to write about a man and his peach orchard. I gave myself a full 5 days to write. I spent more time hacking away weak adjectives, choosing obtuse words to describe a world of mud and trees and peaches, through sounds, smells and touch. I worked to create movement, following the man as he walked around to check his crop. I deleted his thoughts and showed his character through actions. I learned to push myself further, strengthen and hone. I realized something obvious, good writing does not happen in one draft.(Yes, you can say duh). It takes time to make art.
7. Feedback is a positive thing-Last but not least, the act of giving and receiving feedback. First off, we all hammered out themes, techniques and the style of each piece out loud in front of a silenced author. I quickly learned to focus on the prologue and point out the strength of the piece. Nobody in our group was negative, we all were encouraging. If we there were places to improve, we pointed to it as an opening to expand the story. Not as something bad, or wrong. The mostly positive feedback, helped me get over my lack of confidence and I began to feel safe and willing to experiment outside of my comfort zone. I believe strongly, that to put down any art in the beginning phase is negligent. We all seemed to really enjoy something in every piece. For me, this kept me alive and not afraid to write. I think this is the trick to The Writer’s Studio method and kept me from falling off the wagon.
I hope this inspires all of you to keep on with your writing or art. I am beyond energized. Now that I have an idea, I know that is just step one. I have begun to create my own process and can’t wait to share my stories with more readers and continue working on my craft. I have signed up for another 10 week session and I can’t wait.