As the writer’s residency approached, I was filled with anxiety. The shock of actually being accepted into a writer’s program had not worn off, and the thought of meeting other writers and having them go over my work was terrifying.
Would they discover what an amateur I really am? After all, my undergrad was in pharmacy, of all things, and I didn’t have a single writing workshop under my belt. My application fictional story took a month of banging my head against the writer’s granite block, writing and deleting and writing and deleting and asking my husband repeatedly, “Are you sure I should do this? What if I don’t get in?”
To which he invariably replied, “Fake it till you make it.”
I faked it. I made it. Was I about to be exposed for a fraud?
The Writing Workshop
The week-long residency consisted of daily writing workshops. A workshop is a group of writers who review each other’s work and offer constructive criticism. The biblical imagery of iron sharpening iron comes to mind, sparks, grating, everything.
I expected it to be a painful process. I imagined my classmates going over my short stories as they ate their breakfasts, scribbling furiously in red ink.
“How did she get in?” they’d ask themselves.
“What a terrible story!” they’d say.
The writing workshop was nothing like that. As it turns out, fellow writers understand what it’s like to write a story and think it’s crap, or to write a story and think you’re crap. They’re also great at analysing your story and giving you helpful feedback, because they’re voracious readers. As a result, the feedback you receive at workshops is tactfully delivered — bitter pills covered in jam to make the swallowing easier. As in life, the bitter pills are often better for you than the jam.
We were also given writing exercises, which were usually to be completed in five minutes. Folks, five minutes is hardly any time at all, yet my classmates came up with fantastic stuff.
Because one of the things I learnt at the residency is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, I’m going to share my hastily-scribbled scene below, verbatim. Zach, one of the facilitators, would say that there’s no such thing as a bad story, so keep that in mind as you read it.
Write a scene in which two people are talking while doing something bizarre/interesting.
“Are you working this weekend?” William asked. “His Highness said all the footmen were to,”
George heaved another mattress on top of the pile.
“The kitchens are all to be fully staffed as well,” he called down. “Here, steady the ladder, won’t you? It’s a bit wobbly.”
William adjusted the ladder, and passed another mattress up the human chain.
“We’re supposed to work too, but I’m going to try and see if I can sneak away to the pub in the evening. Join me, George?”
George accepted the mattress from Cecil and shoved into place before replying. He tried not to look down, because their task was nearly done and he had always hated heights.
“I wish I could, but Cook will be on the lookout, she always is when one them so-called princesses come to visit. With the last one I was kept shelling peas all evening. What a waste of time that was!Speaking of peas,- “ and he looked at William.
“Oh crap,” said William. The silence that followed was broken by a chorus of curses.
I emerged from the residency feeling less like a fraud. Fran Daulerio, the visiting poet, said that he went through a hundred drafts per poem. My professor, Joshua Isard, published his first novel, “Conquistador of the Useless” ten years after completing his MFA. And it’s a well-known fact that J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected by twelve publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury.