One of the most important, yet least discussed, skills about attending conferences and workshops is that of evaluating the feedback one receives. Part of the problem is the way we approach the manuscripts we receive. Despite admonitions to the contrary (Squaw suggests that workshop participants imagine themselves a board of editors who has already accepted the manuscript for publication and are making suggestions to the author for improvements.) it seems to be our nature to sharpen our critical knives as we approach the task. Though we may intellectually see ourselves as analysts rather than butchers, we’re hardwired somehow to search for flaws rather than merits. As one of my Sewanee colleagues put it, “sometimes I think we, as writers, are looking at one another’s work with this mindset of “what’s wrong?” or “what’s not working?” and feel like we’ve failed if we don’t find something.” Barry Hannah calls destructive criticism a third-rate skill, but even constructive criticism is often meant (if unintentionally) to demonstrate the acuity of the commentator more than to help the writer. We all recognize some of the types–the ones who focus on sentence structure, the ones who want more character or description development, the others who delight in finding plot or descriptive contradictions, et al. (You can add your own classifications.) I’m not saying what category I belong in, partly because it changes according to what I’m working on in my own writing at the time I’m commenting. One of the most useful remarks I’ve heard from a workshop leader was Karen Joy Fowler’s that those who find themselves repeating a particular kind of comment on others’ writing had best look to their own texts and get to work on that flaw. At any rate, no matter how we attempt to be positive, the word “criticism” most often remains a negative to both sender and receiver. Is the alternative abject praise of everything? Of course not. What a boring and dishonest enterprise that would be. But we also don’t have to do the kind of thing we did in one workshop of my experience when we kicked around a story as if it were a soccer ball, returned it to its author bloody and bruised, only to find out the tale had won first prize in its state in a nationwide contest. The alternative is to delineate the work’s virtues as strongly as its flaws. Don’t rush past them by saying something like “Well, the dialogue and characters are really strong and clear, but . . .” Be as detailed about what made the dialogue and characters work as you are regarding the shortcomings of the plot or setting or whatever. That will give the writer something to keep as well as something to modify or throw aside. Both are equally valuable. Next, for the writer comes the process of figuring out what to do with the multitude of comments from a dozen people who have been intent on slicing your work to pieces. “Take the stuff you can use and discard the rest,” is the usual caution. But which is which? There’s the tendency to use some kind of voting system. if you find six comments on the protagonist’s weak character, you may conclude you have to strengthen him/her. However, what if that weakness is your point? Or if there’s a strength there that everyone missed? Art is created by artists, not democracies. There may be a flaw in the story, but there also may be flaw in the readers if you’re trying something that goes contrary to what your well-educated literary colleagues are trained to expect. I’ve learned not to go by vote. I use the internal go by what I’m trying to do. If no one catches it, it’s probably not on the page, but it doesn’t mean it’s because of what nine of twelve people said it was. It might mean that, but it’s not an automatic. I need to take a close look, stick to my intentions and my instincts. At Sewanee I found the story we workshoped didn’t work, but it wasn’t because I created an unworkable character, it was because I was working contrary to my own voice and I needed to reimagine him and it. No one in the group picked that up. They couldn’t have because they knew nothing else about me except what was on those twenty pages. I had to infer it from their comments, my conversation with Barry, and my own gut. Not only that, the reason I went contrary to my voice was that I took too much to heart some feedback I got in an earlier workshop. Will it never end? Probably not. But in the meantime, it’s both maddening and fun.
Randall Kenan* drew the above title for his work from a haunting 1803 incident on an island off the Georgia coast. A group of chained prisoners, fresh off the boat from Africa, decided they didn’t care to be slaves. (The U.S. slave trade had been outlawed in 1798, but guess what? And aren’t we shocked?) The water had brought them to these shores, they said, so the water would take them back, and they walked together–chains and all–into the water at a place now called Ibo Crossing (Also spelled Ebo, et al, after the tribe to which they most likely belonged). The legend declares they did not sink, but continued across the sea and back home. The crossing is still said to be haunted, and there are those who will not drop hook or line in those waters.
The title is pivotal to the Kenan’s purpose–to find a unifying concept of black culture and identity by interviewing black people across the fruited plains and from sea to shining sea. His search turned out to be as simultaneously elusive and undeniable as the truth of what happened at Ibo Crossing. His conversations with hundreds of folk from Vermont to Saskatchewan to New Orleans to Atlanta and points in between and beyond reveal that, yes, there is a definite black experience or spirit in America, just as surely as those prisoners took to the stream. Whether his interviewees grew up in largely white environments with little or (in the case of just one interviewee who said (paraphrasing) nobody ever called her anything.) in places like the author’s home town of Chinquapin, NC, where whites were seldom seen during his boyhood, one and all talk about the need to see, talk to, pray with, bond with, and dance with with their racial kin. Still, the question of what gives rise to that call is as uncertain as to whether the bodies and/or spirits of the Ibo trekked over the seas or perished in the deep. Which might seem to suggest that the book is not worth reading since it never (as Kenan asserts in his introduction) achieves its goal. Au contraire. Why so? Glad you asked.
To someone like me, who spent a career trying to help develop educational institutions that respond to the needs of the many cultures of this society, it is instructive, if often discouraging, to find how universally my ilk and I have failed. Or succeeded. Berkeley was the first school district in the U.S. to voluntarily bus children to integrate (1968). They’re still doing it, and the results seem academically nil. White and many Asian (some Southeast Asian groups are exceptions) succeed. Blacks and Hispanics, as a whole, don’t. There are hundreds of success stories, and most people feel good about the process, but statistically, Berkeley’s not doing a whole lot better than the rest of the country, and there’s no clear proof that any gains are due to integration.
Integration is a big subject in Walking on Water. It’s a paradox. Integration and affirmative action have enabled blacks to rise to apparent power in the White House, the judiciary, the bar, operating rooms, and classrooms across the country. But many of Kenan’s subjects see a loss in quality of community life as the best and brightest move up and away and lose touch with their past. When I first started teaching, it was common knowledge that black students from the south (this was high school, 1964, so many of high school age had attended segregated elementary and jr. high schools) knew their fundamentals better than most of our California-raised students. Black colleagues asserted that the best brains in the black south were in the classrooms and pulpits, being denied entry into such places as law schools, medical schools. That, and the general loss of respect for institutions and those that represent them, has certainly assured that when schools go bad, black students get the worst.
I could go on and on, and already have. I’ll close with a story from my own little Kenan-like exploration of the subject. During his sojourn in (Pre-Katrina) New Orleans, Kenan asks many folks about the meaning of “Creole.“ I asked a Black Baton Rouge friend of mine from church the same question. He answered–as Kenan himself concluded–that it is a mixture of black, French, black, French-black, white and bunch of other stuff, including food and religion. We also talked a bit about the caste system among colored people in New Orleans, whose racial history is probably more complicated than any other city in the America because it included such a large population of free (if not fully empowered) property-and-even-slave-owning African-Americans. The darker you were (and still in some places are) the lower you were (are.) My friend described the “paper bag test,” which decreed that you were ineligible to attend certain events if your skin were darker than a paper bag. Another Georgian who had been listening to our conversation declared that there was also a “blue-blood test.” You were among the higher echelons if you could see the color of the blood coursing through the veins on the back of your hand.
Randall Kenan may have failed in his quest for a definition of black culture in America, but he succeeded in giving all of us a definitive look at black experience in America at the turn of the millennium. The interviews and his masterful arrangement of them are part of it, but so are his trenchant comments and personal perspective. I’m grateful for this book and don’t believe you can consider yourself educated in American culture without it.
*I found out about Walking on Water during a short lunchtime conversation I had with Randall at Sewanee. He’s also the author of
A Visitation of Spirits was published by Grove Press in 1989. A collection of short stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, both excellent. He’s also a first class teacher and reader.
Teachers and Artists
I’ve had an ongoing discussion with a friend about how to choose a workshop leader when planning for a conference. She maintains that she must more or less sit at the feet of someone she considers a master writer. I have found that the best artists don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For many of them, the process comes so naturally and intuitively that they can’t break it down so that others can follow or learn from their experience. Sewanee confirmed my assessment. I observed one noted author whose work I greatly admire, delivering brilliant monologues, full of extended conceits extempore, but whose comments I suspect were of little value to the participants on whose writing he was commenting. On the other hand, another writer whose work does not exactly sweep me away turned out to be an excellent teacher and delivered perhaps the best craft lecture of the conference. Neither of the above were my group leaders, Christine Schutt and Barry Hannah, both of whom are teachers as well as artists of highest caliber.
I’ve been to three now–Squaw Valley Community of Writers (thrice), Napa Valley, and Sewanee. Squaw was my first and takes place in the very country–the high Sierra–where my novel The Maxwell Vendetta is set (Access the first chapter through the “writing” page.). A number of writers who are more or less regulars there deal with California and Western history. Oakley Hall, the founder of the conference as well as of the renowned MFA program at University of California, Irvine. Max Byrd, whose latest novel, Shooting the Sun, follows several successful novelized biographies of presidents: Grant, Jackson, Jefferson. Jim Houston, latest novel Snow Mountain Passage about the Donner Party, and Jim Holliday, author of the gold rush classic, The World Rushed In. So Squaw was extremely compatible with my work. The conference is organized to expose everyone to a range of authors and others in the publishing business by assigning a different discussion leader to each group each day. The advantages of meeting writers, agents, editors, and publishers on such an intimate basis are obvious. Also obvious are the disadvantages compared to the way the other two conferences are organized.
Napa pairs up a group and an author for the entire week. you gets to know the leader much better, of course. I very much enjoyed the time with Chang Rae Lee, a low-key guy who talked little, but made his points count. Napa’s housing is a bit of problem, most of it expensive and located far off-site. Readings were conducted at different venues around the valley, which made for good sight-seeing and wine-tasting, though it was a bit disunifying for me.
Sewanee, I assume because of their money, is able to pair authors/groups, lasts long enough and is self-contained enough that you can get acquainted with just about anyone you want. I guess I have to sample Breadloaf to get the full range, but I’m skipping next year. Don’t want to turn into a conference junkie. Would you?
First, the scene:
Sewaneee, TN, home of The University of the South–10. 000 acres, 1300 students (most gone for the summer). Seat of the the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. Sylvan setting–green expanses, yet no sprinkler systems (odd sight for a Californian), limestone, neo-gothic halls and churches. Streets named for Diocesan states (Library on the corner of Georgia/ Alabama.) A cemetery with founders’ headstones proclaiming them officers, C.S.A. 90+ miles from Nashville, 50+ from Chattanooga. The town= convenience store, coffee shop, ice-cream store, post office, a few other establishments. Nearest town = Monteagle, pop. 1238. A place and time to gather and meditate, cultivate, read, listen, write.
For More background and thoughts from last year that come close to matching my own feelings, check out beatrice.
The way it went:
No need to review the list of notables (click on the website in the title above if you want to know.) Fiction writers (poets and playwrights also have workshops and do readings at the plenary sessions) were divided into groups of 15 with two author/teachers sharing the leadership duties. We met every other day, so there was a chance to observe other groups meeting on alternate days. Sewanee, like other conferences, sets up a fine program of readings and lectures. The differences between this and other conferences I’ve attended are time (Breadloaf is about the same length, but I’ve not been there.) and money. In addition to a sum from his estate, Tennessee Williams bequeathed the rights to his works to the Sewanee conference because his maternal grandfather (Rev. Walter E. Dakin) who graduated from the UofS’s School of Theology. In addition to the participants, there is a staff of “Scholars” and “Fellows” who help tend to logistical duties such as setting up receptions and running people back and forth to the airport in return for tuition and board. Perhaps a small stipend, though I don’t know that. The scholars are promising writers. The fellows have published novels. I think I’ve got that right, anyhow. They join the workshops as regular participants, and their work is critiqued along with everyone else’s. The level of writing and discussion is high.
As for me, the short story I submitted for review (not the one that got me in) got shredded in group, but I did a partial rewrite in time for my hour-long conference with Barry Hannah, and determined I was at last headed in the right direction. In addition, he reviewed some of my other work and told me to go back to what I was doing before I started trying to write kind of story the group had savaged (CF Millard story on the “Writing” page.)
How it turned out:
In addition to making new personal and literary friends and contacts, I’ve identified my voice, quit trying to self-consciously write literary fiction, and feel as if I’ve laid a burden down. Would that every two weeks of my life were so fruitful.
What about you?
This is the time of year for conferences. Where have you been? How did it go? How did it turn out?
The litblog co-op recently began naming “Read This!” books with the aim of promoting “authors and presses . . . struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace.” A laudable goal, and the editors deserve huge credit for their undertaking. However, their selection of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories engendered a discussion of (among other matters) whether the book was genre (mystery or detective in this case) fiction or “deserved” to be classified as literary fiction.
I acknowledge that these classification systems have their uses–shelving n bookstores, for example. However I found the tone of many comments almost comic in their assumption that literary fiction is ipso facto the highest form, that all others deserve at best a seat at the foot of the literary table, or should perhaps even be refused entrance to the main hall. I’m reminded of similar discussions about the sanctity of those books which are “character-driven” or “voice-driven” as opposed to (Oh, No!) “action driven.”
Back in the day–as you can see from my snapshot, that’s a way-back day, indeed–there were no MFA writing programs. When I graduated as an English major, a few “creative writing” courses had popped up on the university scene. We laughed. Who taught Faulkner creative writing? Or Joyce? Or Yeats? Was some earnest professor to provide the world with its next Fitzgerald? Despite our derision, of course, “creative writing” has grown into an MFA industry. What’s more, some damn fine writers have come out of those programs. At least one Pulitzer Prize winner that I know of–Michael Chabon via University of California at Irvine. Would he and other terrific authors have produced their high-quality work without their MFA’s? Impossible to prove, but to deny the schools all credit would be foolish at best.
Yet, the industry has also produced (predictably, I guess) some silly pretensions, and this business of holding no other writing gods sacred save whatever we hold to qualify as Literary Fiction is one of them. I suggest–just as was happening when my classmates and I sneered at the idea of teaching the art of writing fiction–that there’s more snobbery than quality-assessment going on here.