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Alter Egos - I Am Done Watching This

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dialogue - or Where the hell were you yesterday?

Okay, I’m on a roll. Mamet, you see, does this to me. He tips me over and sets me in motion. Has done for years.

Sock it to us, Dave: “In the bad film the fellow says, “hello Jack, I’m coming over to your home this evening because I need to get the money you borrowed from me.” In the good film, he says, “Where the hell were you yesterday?””

The dialogue does not narrate. Isn’t that something? The dialogue moves the narration along, but in itself it does not narrate. There is something we need to know for the story to continue to unfold. “Where the hell were you yesterday?” Godammit but we want to know.

Mamet goes so far as to say that dialogue should not even be necessary if the shots are good enough, that in film you should strive for a silent movie, that dialogue is the sprinkles on the ice-cream. He’s not far off it.

We need dialogue to hear the character. It is one thing to be told about a person, it is an altogether different thing to meet that person. Dialogue (through scene) allows us meet the person. They become real.

Think of the person who comes up to you and says, “Hi, my name’s Wilbur. I’m an entomologist. Hey, let me tell you everything about myself….” Can’t get away fast enough. The dialogue does not narrate.

“Hi, my name’s Wilbur.” Silence.

Now we want to know, who Wilbur is.

Juxtaposition - its terror and beauty

Juxtaposition (see What’s the Beat?).That’s it. One image is juxtaposed beside the next. They are compared and meaning emerges. One sentence is juxtaposed beside another.

You see, you have the complete piece of writing: poem, story, novel, memoir etc. and it is all built upon juxtaposition. In a story for example, we juxtapose one scene after another. The alignment of scenes tells the story. Within the scenes we juxtapose expository sentences, lines of dialogue. Within the sentences we juxtapose words. The juxtaposition tells the story and reveals the meaning.

Lets go back to the man. Mamet. Listen up, “The images in a dream are vastly varied and magnificently interesting. And most of them are uninflected. It is their juxtaposition that gives the dream its strength. The terror and beauty of the dream come from the connection of previously unrelated mundanities of life. As discontinuous and as meaningless as the juxtaposition might seem on first glimpse, an enlightened analysis reveals the highest and most simple order or organisation and, so, the deepest meaning. Isn’t that true?”

Who would dare argue?

David, my David, it’s true, it’s true.

So here, the logic of the dream courtesy of its juxtapositional organisation can elude us (Sorry Dave -perhaps I am just not enlightened enough) Anyway the dream emerges from the unconscious. I think it’s a first draft really. I believe even Mamet himself if let loose on it would construct it in a more comprehensible way. “What’s the beat?” Can’t you hear him already. So we need some revision. Go back to your first drafts. Look at your subconscious writings (if they are not subconscious, well, don’t even go back to them. Pass ‘em by. Honk your horn and yell abuse!) and consider the story or poem that is emerging. It is not the one you expected. (If it is the one you expected, more honkings of horn and abusive tirades required.) Rewrite this new story, this new poem. Consider the objective and the juxtaposition of scenes, images etc. necessary to achieve it. Go after the highest and most simple order, and the deepest meaning will emerge.

Isn’t that true?

What's the Beat? - Go to the door, try the door, sit down.

“What’s the beat?” David Mamet (playwright, screenwriter and director) asks the film class at Columbia University. In this case the beat is earliness. The objective of the scene is respect. The beats will show this. Earlieness, in this case, is about winning respect. What shots will reflect the beat? Three shots: A man walks down a hall; Close up of door handle being jiggled; The man sits down. That’s the beat. Now onto the next beat that we can compare the first beat to help understand what is going on I.e. the objective of the scene: respect.

Simple isn’t it?

Mamet thinks so. It is all about juxtaposition of images. Uninflected images. Now that I love. Uninflected images. Mamet is the man.

Listen to the man. “Here’s why the images have to be uninflected. Two guys are walking down the street. One of them says to the other… Now you, reader, are you listening: you are listening because you want to know what happens next. The shot list and the work on the set, should be no more inflected than the cuts in the little story above. Two guys walking down the street…one guy starts to talk to the other…”

Later he says, “it is not our task to make the story interesting. The story can only be interesting because we find the progress of the protagonist interesting…”

It is that simple. Carver knew it and Hemmingway knew it. I am not saying it has to minimalist. But you’ve got to know your objective, and you’ve got to know the beats to get there.


“Based on this, you tell the actor to do those things, and only those things, he needs to do for you to shoot the beat, earliness. You tell him to go to the door, try the door, and sit down. That is literally what you tell him. Nothing more. Just as the shot doesn’t have to be inflected, the acting doesn’t have to be inflected, nor should it be. The acting should be a performance of the simple physical action. Period. Go to the door, try the door, sit down.”

Got it? Got the beat? So do it. Take your pen, go to the door, try the door, sit down.

(Mamet, David, On Directing Film, Penguin Books 1991)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Threatening to Kick the Audience's Ass: The Purpose of Poetry Readings

I am giving a reading at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in July (as part of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild’s 25th birthday celebrations). Thus I’ve been thinking a lot about readings recently. In particular I have been thinking about poetry readings. I’ve been thinking about the purpose of them, what they are really about. And I’ve reached a conclusion: Charles Bukowski was right. A reading is a time to threaten to kick the audience’s ass.

Most people who show up at readings (and for the record most people don’t show up at readings) don’t know what they are doing there and most possibly are in the wrong place. Bukowski would stand there with a fridge to one side swigging a bottle of beer cursing at people in the audience. Ginsberg would walk out on the stage at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco at around 11pm, October 6th 1955 and read those infamous lines in public for the first time: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …" Kerouac standing at the back shouting "Go! Go! Go!" Lorca might stare into the night and invoke the Duende.

David Groff in his essay, The Perils of the Poetry Reading: The Page Versus the Performance, writes of the “"mmmmm" emanating from somewhere in the crowd, usually at the conclusion of poem with a linguistic or emotional zinger.” He worries that “some kinds of poems are more effective than others when read aloud. Narrative poetry, and lyrics with a narrative or situational thread, pack more punch than more abstract verse does. Poems that twist back on themselves to end with neat little epiphanies, as well as poems that harangue or overtly solicit a surprise, are the most likely to elicit an mmmmm.”

He’s right of course. A good reader can make even the most banal of poems sound interesting and possibly even good. Conversely a poor reader of poetry can annihilate the most important of poems. Coupled to this is the reality that certain poems, no matter how good they are, are simply not suited to the reading space. One element of this has, as Groff states, to do with the narrative thread which holds the audience’s attention. Poems which are more lyric by nature, suspended in time can be difficult to absorb within the context of a reading. Groff suggests distributing copies of the poem to help overcome this difficulty and to enable the form of the poem to be displayed for the listener/reader.

And there’s the rub. The listener now becomes a reader too. So reader’s are reading to readers. Personally, nothing is more disconcerting for me than to look out at an audience and to see one or other of them following along in the book. What I ought to do I know is jump from behind the podium and. not just threaten but actually, kick their tensed up behinds. What if I stray from the text as I occasionally do. After all this is a reading, and I am responding to the listener. When I write I am alone, and I respond to the page.

There is great debate about the nature of poetry readings, but very often the debate is not to be trusted. Poets who are uncomfortable reading in public van often argue against the ‘performance’ aspect of the reading which creeps in and ‘distracts’ from the poem. Poets who are very comfortable reading in public may well encourage the act of performance or argue that there is room for both in order to justify their own particular style of reading.
Personally, at this moment in time, I am more the ‘dramatic’ type of reader. Part of this is comfort and habit, and it is certainly a limiting technique. I have to be selective in the poems I read and it is not truly reflective of the poet I am. But since when has the public appearance or presentation of a writer been truly reflective of the writer they are? The public and private persona are facets of the individual. And on any one occasion, or even on a multitude of occasions, only a small portion of these personae can be revealed.

It all comes back to the question of purpose. Why are people reading in the first place? There are many answers: to promote their work; to sell books; to promote poetry itself; to give the reader an opportunity to witness the writer; to change the world or whatever. Well I like to think Ginsberg did on that night in San Francisco. “Go! Go! Go!” Kerouac shouted and little old earth tilted on its axis and picked up speed.

The audience can get too complacent, and the poet as reader and writer, is a part of the wider audience too. The poem came from the oral tradition. The poem was and always will be a spoken entity. There came a point in our development where we felt a need to write the spoken word down for good or for bad. We cannot now go back and separate the two. The poem is read aloud because it demands to be. The building blocks of poetic form are oral ones. Stand for a moment in the ancient ruins and you will hear them wail out to you. The purpose of the poetry reading is to remind people of the past. It is to provide them with the ears to hear the ancient wail. There are any number of ways to do this, and any number of poets who do. But yes there are very many who would rather elicit the modern ‘mmmmm’ and there are very many members of the audience that would prefer to utter it. My preference for my poetic delivery may be flawed. I genuinely hope it is not as I have greatly considered the consequences and impact. I do not wish to overshadow the line but to use my voice as lyre and reveal it more clearly in the absence of the written word.

Groff is accurate that there are many perils to performing poetry, and he is right that many readers, writers and poems are harmed by these ever present dangers. The pitfalls need to be avoided. Writers and readers must consider what they are doing when they are behind the podium, or prowling the aisles, or seated in their hard or soft chairs. In my opinion the onus is on the writer to remind the audience of that through their words and delivery. They must remind the audience of the ancient wail. They must reveal by the best means available to them the truth of the work being read. They must by their performance and demeanour encourage the audience to engage responsibly, and to warn them that if they do not do so, they will personally jump amongst them and kick their careless asses.

The Poetry Reading by Charles Bukowski

poetry readings have to be some of the saddest
damned things ever,
the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,
week after week, month after month, year
after year,
getting old together,reading on to tiny gatherings,
still hoping their genius will be
making tapes together,
discs together,
sweating for applause
they read basically to and for
each other,
they can't find a New York publisher
or one
within miles,
but they read on and on
in the poetry holes of America,
never daunted,
never considering the possibility that
their talent might bethin, almost invisible,
they read on and on
before their mothers, their sisters, their husbands,
their wives, their friends, the other poets
and the handful of idiots who have wandered
from nowhere.
I am ashamed for them,
I am ashamed that they have to bolster each other,
I am ashamed for their lisping egos,
their lack of guts.
if these are our creators,
please, please give me something else:
a drunken plumber at a bowling alley,
a prelim boy in a four rounder,
a jock guiding his horse through along the
a bartender on last call,
a waitress pouring me a coffee,
a drunk sleeping in a deserted doorway,
a dog munching a dry bone,
an elephant's fart in a circus tent,
a 6 p.m. freeway crush,
the mailman telling a dirty joke

Friday, June 23, 2006

if it's words you're after...

Sometimes it is hard to know what to do with your words. The page has seen enough of them. Your mouth is overfull. You speak to rid yourself of them, but they eventually find their way back to you a little the worse for wear. And so on a cold Canadian winter's morning in November 2004 you drive your van through the snow past the frozen wheatfields. You get out under the frosted trees and see your breath freeze in front of you confirming that you are still alive. As you step up on the porch the door opens in front of you and inside you see the microphone on its stand looking as lonely as a poet. Perhaps you can deliver your words there, lock them away forever.

if it's words you're after... contains a selection of poems from two collections Digging My Own Grave and A Man in Diapers.

It was recorded by Shawn Tester at Middle Earth Recording Studio, MB, Canada. Photographs and layout by Anthony Kost.

Copies are available at

Sightings of Bono

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon I remember that. I was walking along Nassau Street in Dublin across from Trinity College, my old alma mater. The horse drawn carriage tourist rides weren't long in operation. I saw one of them making its way up the street. Suddenly someone stood up unsteadily in the carriage with a camcorder pressed to his eye filming the shops and the pavement I was walking along. It took me a moment to realize it was Bono. The Edge was sitting across from where he was standing and reached up in an embarrassed way to try to get him to sit back down. I often wonder if Bono played the video back later and whether I would even be noticed.

It was Christmastime. I decided to buy my wife silk pajamas. There was a discreet but rather exclusive store in a posh mall at the top of Grafton Street. The store was very small, not much room for more than a half a dozen people. It was not the type of store to have prices displayed which worried me a little. There were two women working there and I was just about to ask the cost. A few people came in behind me and made their way to the counter. Bono and two tall glamorous women who looked like models. Bono looked tiny. The size of the store seemed to suit him. The two women who worked there rushed over. I tried to get the attention of one of them, but it was pointless. I waited next to Bono for ages. He looked quite scruffy. I noticed the dark hair on his fingers. I don't remember what anyone was talking about. I left after about five minutes. If Bono was shopping there, I couldn't afford it. I wonder what turned up in Ali's stocking that year.

It was two years later. I was sitting in a small cottage in Donegal looking out at Lough Foyle. I was determined to get a story published in The Sunday Tribune, but I didn't seem to write the way the paper like. A lot of social issues stories, a lot about contemporary Ireland. My stories to that point were located in nameless settings. The last thing I wanted to read let alone write was a story set in Ireland. As for issues in stories I would sooner swim with sharks if not sooner (sounds a bit Runyonesque does it not?). Besides the stories could only be a few thousand words long which really put the short back into short story. If it was any shorter it would be indecent. Anyway I duly sat down at my word processor and decided to write a very short story set in Dublin. The first time I had ever written to order. I looked out at the white caps on the water, saw a pilot boat pass by. I remembered the hairs on Bono's fingers. I remembered pints of Guinness in Kehoe's bar. I would start there. Bono would pass by on his way out of the Gents and Ellen would look up from her Irish Times crossword and her glass of Guinness and she would see him. And she would see him again and again. In a horse drawn carriage. In a discreet lingerie store on Grafton Street. Just about anywhere she looked in fact.

Tim O'Brien and the Haditha connection

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

Okay, I have been exceptionally luck with my recent reads, but it doesn’t get any better than this. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is perhaps the most exceptional book I have ever read. Remember what I said about Kroetsch’s A Likely Story, TheThings They Carried is all about story, the stories of war and the stories of people engaged in war. It was called a novel but in truth is unlike any other novel you have ever read. Fiction ran into non-fiction and something elusive called ‘the truth’ came out the other side. Like I mentioned in an earlier post (Recent Reads) Kroetsch’s A Likely Story. The Things They Carried is the finest instructional book on writing stories you could ever wish for. I am serious, give up those ridiculous writing exercises. They will leave you with muscles in all the wrong places.

In the Lake of the Woods is devastating. Based like Welsh above on a real incident, in this case the infamous My Lai atrocity during the Vietnam war, O’ Brien traces the harrowing effects of war actions upon a human being. Indeed, O’Brien even compares the events of that dreadful day to similar massacres on Indian villages by US and British soldiers. Currently in Iraq we have another similar atrocity, Haditha.

But listen to O'Brien. No scapegoats here. No few bad apples in a barrel. No Agru Garib. People enter into unimaginable circumstances, commit and witness things unbearable and yet have to live with the consequences. There are no easy conclusions and O’Brien provides none. A mixture of prose, interview, evidence, footnotes advances the narrative exploration of moral torment.

John Wade goes to the Lake of the Woods with his wife Kathy after the past catches up with him. Kathy disappears. We lose ourselves in the ensuing search for truth, a methodical search that is finally too much to bear. It is simply not possible to close this book. Once read, you have to continue to live out your life within its troubling aftermath.

Two Novels by James Welsh

The Death of Jim Loney by James Welsh (Penguin 1987)

Strangest thing. The book was first published in 1979. I don’t actually read it until twenty-six years later, and as I am reading it a Canadian Christian peace activist, James (Jim) Loney, is kidnapped in Iraq and threatened with execution. For months the country holds its breath. In the meantime I too have held my breath. Welch’s book is striking and compulsive.
The title gives it all away. We follow the fate of Jim Loney, a self-destructive protagonist of white and Indian parentage. He is estranged from both the community he lives in and his Indian roots. His relationship with Rhea a white schoolteacher holds out the possibility of redemption but Jim drinks this opportunity away. Of course his drinking and self-destruction are as inevitable as the deathly ending. His alienation sees to this. There is no mystery here. Loney will die, and we will watch it happen.

James Welsh attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana and graduated from the University of Montana where he studied with one of the great poets and instructors of our time, Richard Hugo. Sad to say, this book of displacement seems as relevant today as any other time. A small book, a huge piece of writing.

Loney, the peace activist was freed by special forces.

Fool’s Crow by James Welsh

I don’t normally do this, read two books by the one author in a row. Some of it was just happenstance. I have more books than I have shelves. Some are three deep in books. Hidden away treasures and disappointments. This one did a triple somersault from the back and landed in my hand. Compared to The Death of James Loney, this book is close to epic in its scope. The language although written in English attempts to recreate the language of the Blackfeet people by translating part of their speech. So “guns” translate as “sticks-that-speak-from-afar” and an “owl” is an “ears-far-apart”. The story follows the arrival of the Napikwans, the white men and their devastating affect upon the Indian people. We follow the tale of Fools Crow a young warrior and practicing medicine man. This is a much lauded and historically important novel, but I do have to say that when the intriguing effect of the ‘language’ is stripped away and the historical and emotional context held at bay, the book, for me, very often operated on a plot more than character level. I am swimming against the current here, I know. The Napikwans, it seemed to me, were less well served than history deserves. We get a good understanding of the Indian point of view but little of the white man’s. It can not have been easy for either, engaging in warfare, encountering opposing cultures. I understand that this was a terrible moment in Native American history, but the only way to avoid its repetition is to grasp and attempt to understand what led people to act the way they did.

All in all, it is a very fine novel, I very much enjoyed it and was thoroughly engrossed, but in the end it was a little bit weighted too much to one side.

Recent Reads

Ray by Barry Hannah.

There are certain rites of passage every young writer must go through. In this case I am not sure why it took me so long. The novel is quite fragmented and is narrated in both first and third person reflecting Ray’s state of mind. And it’s fair to say that his mind is in quite a state. Hannah of course is from the South (and don’t you hate it when people group writers together as though they were types of cheese) so Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty etc seem to be standing on the sidelines watching this guy to see if he can go it alone. Hannah of course has long since proven he can go it alone. Ray has a jazzy feel to it and why wouldn’t it since Hannah himself has said that music informs every sentence he writes. He has also said that language isn’t treated as reverently today as it was when he grew up. But then children aren’t as polite anymore either and gas was only ten cents a gallon.

Hannah is a major literary figure. His collection of stories Airships is a must. I did enjoy Ray, and I appreciated Hannah’s wild and soulful performance. I still think you ought to read it in your twenties. Perhaps, therefore, in your forties you need to read it twice.

Gone Indian by Robert Kroetsch.

The Studhorse Man by Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch took me by the scruff of the neck when I first arrived here, eager to discover the hidden Canadian literature, and it hasn’t let me go yet. Here’s more of the cheese: Kroetsch is Canada’s most important postmodernist. The thing is, I like cheese.

Gone Indian is remarkable and not incomparable to Ray in that it makes much use of fragmentation and is multilayered. The main character, Jeremy Sadness, a graduate student at a New York State university, disappears into the Canadian wilderness. He records fragments of his life story on a tape recorder. He sends the tape to his professor who reinterprets and manipulates the fragmentary details telling us another story. Inadvertently Jeremy exchanges identities with a comatose victim of a snowmobile accident. Need I go on. The book is an exploration of identity and a raucous satire of the (northern) ‘quest’ novel. It thrives on myth and the retelling of myth. The imagination ultimately holds the self together.

Kroetsch is also a poet and literary critic. His non-fiction book A Likely Story: The Writing Life will subliminally teach you more about the craft of story in one reading (although once will not be enough) than a lifetime’s supply of Writing Down the Bones.

I had the great pleasure of working with Robert Kroetsch in a two week long novel colloquim. It’s fair to say I sought him out, was goaded into it by the Studhorseman. He is a man of great presence, kind and intelligent. A superb teacher which is not a trait common to most writers. If the Studhorseman has me by the scruff of the neck, Kroetsch has a gentle but firm grip on my mind.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Writers' Workshops - Greasy Bob's Damage Control

I have written before how writers’ workshops are in reality practice sessions for self-critiquing and as such may be of little benefit to the piece of writing being practiced upon. Indeed I stated that the piece may even be damaged in the process. Well take heart, a good facilitator/instructor is also well skilled in damage control. The downside? – It’s not easy to find a good facilitator/instructor.
So what sort of damage can occur and how can it be limited? Well that depends on the participants I suppose and what sort of vandalism they are allowed get away with. The main problem is that many of the people sitting around the table have no idea what it is they are supposed to be doing, or worse still think they do know and set about doing it. The first job of the instructor is to set up the workshop. Initially this means informing the participants that they are there to learn to become self-critics not to improve a specific piece of writing. If all the workshop did was improve an individual piece of writing, then what would a writer do with all the other pieces of writing they have written or will write – constantly bring it back to Greasy Bob’s Repair and Maintenance?
Indeed this is not uncommon. Many people return to writers’ groups week after week, year after year for this very reason. Unfortunately the mechanics there don’t know the difference between a gasket and a differential.
Once the participants understand why they are there, they need to be shown the process of critiquing writing. Otherwise the discussion will have little structure and will tend to focus on the least relevant areas of concern. In fact any instructor worth their salt will personally hang, draw and quarter any participant who brings up a point of grammar or discusses the content of the writing rather than its form. Writers who suggest ‘better’ choices of words should have their hands amputated at the wrist, and those who can personally relate to the story or poem are presumably too far gone to inflict any further mutilation.
Once the participants understand the objective of the workshop, they must then be instructed how to critique the work at hand. They need to be reminded of the formal elements of the piece whether it is a story, poem, memoir etc since it is those elements which will determine how well written the piece will be. All writers irrespective of their level of writing go back to the same old things. What is the story? Are the characters credible? Is the setting vivid enough? And so on. By examining the formal elements it becomes clearer what is already working well and what can be developed further.
However it is important that the participants provide argument for their opinions. It is not enough to say that the rhythm in a particular poem breaks down or that a character in a story is not developed enough. Examples need to be provided as support. In this way the writer can accept or reject the opinion reasonably. Most importantly, this hones the critical skills of the participants. It forces them to go beyond gut level feeling and articulate the reasoning behind the feeling.
The writer of the piece should not of course interfere in the critical discussion. Once again the instructor needs to step in here. If the writer interrupts to say, “what I really meant…” or “but that’s not the way…” a quick removal of the tongue should suffice. It is really important that the writer listens to the argument and thinks it over, mulls upon it over the next few days or weeks. Any defensive reactions must be overcome.
Furthermore when reading and responding to other people’s work sufficient time must be allowed to truly consider the critical response. If the writing is being presented for the first time at the workshop, it is hardly reasonable to expect a well thought out response. People are pretty much speaking off the cuff and their opinions should be distrusted. Ideally participants should read the work being presented a number of times over a period of days. The first reading is simply that – a reading of the piece. It should then be put away and read again the following day. This time the reader needs to engage critically with the writing. It is vital that the reader looks for the most important responses. There may be many things that could be said about the writing that would be helpful, but what is the most useful thing that could be said? It can take many readings and much thought for this to become apparent. There is no point polishing the kitchen floor if the house is falling down.

A well structured workshop does not always but can lead to the improvement of a particular piece of writing – at the very least the damage that would otherwise be inflicted can be limited. Most importantly, a well structured workshop will lead to a greater understanding of the craft of writing and will develop the necessary critical skills.

Writers' Workshops or How Do We Cope With Gerry?

A lot of energy has been expended worrying and wondering over the value of workshops and creative writing courses. One school (hah!) of thought has it that they are pointless since good writers are born not made. Some argue that they only serve to create a ‘type’ of writer – in other words, writers that all read and sound the same. If this is the case, I would suggest that this is a problem resulting from the actual writing instruction and not from the concept of instruction. As regards writers being born, it may well be that many writers do come into this world better equipped for the task, but quite frankly I find it preposterous that such a writer could not benefit from thinking about and understanding their craft even more.
This then is the purpose of workshops and courses etc. is it not – to help a writer become even better at what he or she is doing?
If the workshops or courses fail in this regard (and many do), then the construct may be at fault or the execution of it. I have taken a lot of workshops, and I have run a lot of them. I completed a two year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and I have taught Creative Writing courses to undergraduates. At my MFA program in Eastern Washington I had the very good fortune to work with one of the very best instructors you could ever wish for, John Keeble. But I do have to say that the vast majority of instructors I have witnessed are simply not trained well enough - if at all. I say this with respect. Many writers are selected to instruct on the basis of their writing skills not their teaching ones. They are chosen because they are well known with a well received body of work. Unfortunately this does not necessarily mean that they know how to impart the knowledge of their writing skills. You do not have to be a household name or a very successful writer to be a good instructor.
Indeed I have seen one of Ireland’s most beloved prose writers listen carefully to his students reading from their work before telling them each time that it was quite wonderful and that it reminded him of a story which he then proceeded to tell. I also witnessed a leading American poet effectively take a red pen to students’ poems to cross out lines or insert words of her own. Next!
In contrast I remember during my MFA when I brought in a section of my novel for the first time to our workshop sessions. The form of the novel was quite different than most others. It employed a lot of poetic technique – white space, short condensed lines, vivid imagery etc. Organically the nature of the story seemed to demand this. Anyway I was quite concerned that we would get bogged down in commentary which was more focused on the ‘differences’ rather than how the novel was working both structurally and from a narrative point of view. I will always remember John Keeble’s opening comments. A brief smile and then, “So, how do we cope with Gerry?”
From here he led a fifteen minute discussion which probed the structure of my novel providing everyone, myself included, with helpful insight into the how the structure was operating and giving us all a way to subsequently critique it. The great poet and writing instructor Richard Hugo used to begin his writing courses by warning his students that he would spend all of his time trying to get them to write just like him, and he warned them to resist it in every way. Well, John worked from the writer’s perspective out. “How do we cope with Gerry?”
The biggest mistake, I think, in writing workshops comes from a grave misunderstanding of their intent. People come to the workshop armed with their manuscripts which they toss liberally around the table with the gormless belief that they will return to them the better for wear.
The purpose of a writers’ workshop is to make all future pieces of writing better.
It does this, and it can only do this, by enabling the writer to become a better self-critic. The pieces of writing submitted serve as samples to practice on and nothing more. They are of more benefit to the other participants than to the writer him or herself. And like anything we might use to practice with, there is a distinct possibility that they will be damaged in the process.
As participants in a workshop we practice critiquing other people’s work in order to learn the critical process to become a better self-critic. We practice on other people’s work since it is easier to do this than to practice on our own work. We are too close to it and too defensive of it.
To practice critiquing other people’s work we have to have a critical process and a language of criticism. It is the instructor’s or facilitator’s job to outline the process and teach the language. This has nothing to do with technical jargon (although technical terms may be useful) and is in no way lofty or exclusive. One of the biggest failings of workshops is that the participants are often not taught these two necessary steps. Without them people will speak in a variety of languages which will be interpreted in many different ways and will rarely be understood. Without understanding the process, many of these languages will in fact be spoken through the participants’ hats.
Most writing workshops I have participated in failed to impart the process and language of criticism. Indeed many of them seemed to operate on the premise that the aim was to improve a particular piece of writing. This results from incompetent facilitators and instructors. There is no other explanation. However a well run workshop will unquestionably be of great value to a writer and will allow him or her develop the critical skills necessary to improve their work.

Pollacks, Woodpeckers and Imaginary Selves

The thing is, we talk about writing as though it was an entity on its own. There’s the business of getting up each day, living out our lives, being partial to others’. There’s that war or that famine over in that part of the world or there’s my war and my famine. There’s the clothes we fit into and there’s the question of global warming. They thought they had discovered a whole bunch of previously unknown Pollacks, and then a mathematical model based on fractals and the displacement of paint on his canvases showed them to be the work of someone else. There’s that baby crying in another room and there’s an extinct woodpecker who may or may not have reappeared. Then there’s plot, characters, setting and, yes, theme - the war, the famine, extinction if we wish.
Writing is rooted in self. Even if we say that the distinction between writing what is called literature and writing for entertainment is that literature focuses more on character and entertainment writing focuses more on plot/action, and if we were to say that, it would not be a bad thing at all, but even then writing is rooted in self albeit a shallow one in the latter form. Kundera talks about characters as being ‘imaginary selves’. We write about these selves for pleasure and for revelation. We read in the same manner.
We cannot get bogged down in issues, arguments or opinions although many do. And so we discuss the nuts and bolts. Do a Strunk and White with ‘Revisions, an Introduction and a Chapter on Writing’. If at all possible, we will do a series of once off exercises akin to a yearly visit to a gym wearing overalls and steel tipped toes.
The self, like ‘writing’ is a lonely entity. The self too likes to follow some accepted rules of grammar and punctuation. But the self of course is nothing like this, and is no more an individual entity than the chromosomes which make it up. Writing stands no more on its own than one of those Pollacks or one of those not Pollacks. Letters, drops of paint, fractal patterns. “What happened in 1916?” John Keeble asked during one writer’s workshop. Paul Leathers gave the answer I should have, The Irish Civil War, and the rest of the group gave equally factual replies. John was after Dadaism, but in a sense did not all of our individual responses acknowledge this? A lot of things happened in 1916. Tristan Tzara attempted to pick up some of the pieces, set them down.
The historical development of writing form is a paltry skeleton of our own development as a species. More than any other revelation, it reveals our limitations. We don’t even know how to talk about it. Our very language prevents us.
The book needs a shelf to rest on and walls for protection. It needs ink and it needs paper. It needs the trees and as such it needs the earth. It needs the nourishment of all of the dead who have helped revitalize the soil. The thing is we talk about writing when in truth we need to live it. We can’t write about our death until it’s too late.