General Writing, Workshop Short Story

Workshopping: It Ain’t for Kids

So every several months I think of my different writing workshops, what I’ve gained, friends I’ve made, others who have vanished after half a session…The whole shebang. For the most part I’ve been great with taking criticism, critiquing others (I think), and making sure that even if what I’m reading is garbage, I can give the writer some sort of positive takeaway. That’s the way it works.

Then there was Flight. I’m giggling just thinking about it, because I don’t think I take myself too seriously and my experience is one writers, or anyone who thinks they’re just killing it, goes through.

I thought this one out. Did a proper first draft and all. Short story shorter, a college-age teen is off to visit her divorced dad in another state and is stopped at airport security. Turns out a prized keepsake is on the Prohibited Items list and, refusing to give it up, she doesn’t board the plane. Turns out mom waited outside, expecting this change in plans.

Having gotten wildly good feedback on my last effort, I was vaguely sure this would go over as well. (btw, I still keep all my typed & handwritten comments from colleagues in a special box; I keep saying I’d like to type it all out one day when really, seeing the mode of communication and personal handwriting is what pulls me back, pleasantly, in time.)

This is where I start chuckling. After a week, I sauntered into this living room like, boom, where’s my deal? Where’s U Iowa begging me to lecture? What’s up? I downplayed this because no one likes an arrogant person & it’s not really in my nature, but I felt I was in a zone.

“And now, I’d like Nira’s primary reader to begin a synopsis of her work.”

This is where the smugness started to melt away. Kindly, politely, and with absolute concrete examples and conscious criticism, my fellow workshoppers began to detail how awful this story was. It was the voice, their tone of voice that did it; it was the tone I’d given a teen kid once who’d brought in a story about killer clowns in the suburbs and was never heard from again.

black woman typing

 


In a nutshell, the story made no sense. My timeline was unclear, and the mom was way too angry at an ex who hadn’t seemingly done anything to earn her vitriol. In my head I’d had a horrible betrayal happen between them, but none of it had made it to the page, thus the reader was left thinking the mom was absolutely loco.

I also had no sense of how teens talk (thus my now regular lurking of twitter, tumblr etc.). The daughter & the mother had similar tones (I tried to write this off as them living together and being alike, but this was a weak defense). There was also concern at the maturity level of my protagonist; she seemed about 14, when I’d named her at about 19. I should’ve made her younger, but such is life. And workshops.

I did get strong points on my description of anxiety in a security line. That was where I shone. (Sigh.)

Lastly, the lynchpin of this clever, gotcha! on the audience–the lighter, her father’s, which she carried for luck in general–was prohibited from the plane, and her choice was either ditch it or turn back. Not wanting to give up her past (GET IT?), she turned her back on her future. And had done so before, thus mom conveniently being out front.

So at this point people are clamoring to point out blatant errors (as I played off my pending panic attack by pretending to take copious notes, nodding and saying “Ah! Right!”), among them that: mom would never have been able to park at a modern-day airport for any reason; that the dialogue was staid and not unique, blah blah, this sucks but we’re telling you nicely. And, naturally, the lighter.

My amazing lighter. This was a monogrammed lighter, one a real ex-boyfriend owned, and we’d actually flown on vacation and he’d had to toss this precious lighter given to him by a friend in his 12-step program, his dad, a prostitute or I don’t know anymore. At the time I was so devastated for him that I quickly tried to name friends he could call to come pick it up. He’d had this thing for years–the injustice! It had deep sentimental value. I loved using it in the story and thought it grounded me. (And yes, he ditched it. We had a flight to make.)

Except we’d taken that vacation the year before this story was written, and the lighter was now off the prohibited list. My whole intriguing whatever-the-hell I was working to achieve vanished. I had not done my research. I had not checked the most recent TSA list and son-of-a-bitch, these lighters were no longer on it.

stack-of-paper

 

So OK, not what I’d hoped from my peers, but they were welcome to their absolutely ridiculous opinions. I kept my head high and walked outta there, knowing at least I’d not written about clowns. (Sorry, guy.)

Months later, I was up again (this was a small group & we did 2-3 rounds per semester). Not having anything new or brewing and knowing showing up empty-handed was absolute anathema, I decided to revise Flight (and there was the play on the name, right? Because…aw forget it). I stayed up half the night (yep, cause I always got my best writing done at 4 am) and visited comments and reworked it. I would have my day, dammit. They would like this story.

Until it turned out that my manic, caffeine-driven rewrite had stripped the story of what little interest it originally held. The lighter statement seemed bizarre; my character still infantilized; the relationship between her parents unremarkable.

I was fully shut down for a bit after that. I really, really liked my concepts, and couldn’t seem to manipulate the words to communicate what I was thinking. I set it aside, and have yet to pick it up again. But I wrote other things, eventually, much better things, and learned from those like I learned from Flight. Things I certainly would not have learned from, maybe, a few casual reads from friends. It’s part of why I follow many of my workshop colleagues’ writing careers what, a decade later? They know writing, and they’ve helped me learn it, and part of that involves laughing at laughable stories, and occasionally, learning to keep your story grounded and out of the clouds.

If you could’ve seen my face though…

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