Fifteen years ago my partner was into reading books, many books: mysteries, trendy novels, science fiction, trash novels, poetry, prize-winning novels. She’d finish one she liked and pass it across the bed.
“Try this, I really enjoyed it.”
I’d read a few pages and then stack it on the floor.
“That’s it? You read a dozen pages and you’re done?”
Yes, I’d tell her, that writer seemed to have an intriguing plot going but it didn’t hold me for long. Or I’d enjoy the dialogue for a few pages, but I wanted more. Or the characters were likeable at first but eventually I couldn’t relate. The pile of books at my side of the bed got large.
I was more involved with writing from the workshops than with published work. That didn’t seem right, so I surveyed book stores and asked other writers who read a lot. Of course there was, and is now, a wide variety of adroit, competent writing out there. My partner had shown me a broad sample. Still I was more interested in the workshops’ efforts.
“What about this one, should I hand it to you?” My partner had finished another well-loved novel. “Or just throw it on the pile?”
I couldn’t broadcast my prejudice, though, since I need to look appreciative for people interested in workshops. I learned to say something intelligent about current writers, especially those with cache, at the time Alice Monroe and Tobias Woolf. Or, if the questioner leaned toward classics, I’d mention Tillie Olsen or J.D. Salinger or Flannery O’Conner or Charles Bukowski.
What’s going on? I remembered something an alert reader had observed in the 1970s. He said enduring work has “muscle in the ectoplasm.” Maybe that’s the angle, for my first models were Alden Van Buskirk, early John Wieners and Michael McClure, when I was protege to the Beats during 1962-1967 in New York. Add Sappho, Simonides, Rumi, Shakespeare, Keats, Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and Marge Piercy, and there’s plenty of muscle. That muscle comes from deep personal commitment.
But this doesn’t explain why workshop writing appeals so much. Do our writers all happen to be great, just undiscovered? Does my personal esthetic seep into the air and into their heads, and we have a class full of Shakespeares? Are we part of Dorothea Brande’s university of the unconscious, and the writers somehow teach themselves?
Not a chance. Truth be told, I have no idea how it happens, and no idea how to introduce muscle. I think the only answer can be that our strategy, with its focus on the creative unconscious, directs us little by little to a barrier we can’t easily cross. We follow the restlessness in our psyches, or the itch in our bodies, and we come to a place where personal issues weave into the characters and into the plot. And, to continue, we have to develop a lot of strength. We have to solve problems.
I haven’t any idea how to teach this. In the workshops, we listen to the journey and support the writer. There’s nothing to do but say, writer, you put yourself there, now it’s your fight. Good luck.
“Yeah, Honey, just throw that book directly in the pile. It doesn’t need me to turn pages.”
I want to feel the tug-of-war as the author grapples with a serious problem. Work out, author! Like writers in the workshops.