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Day 4: Kill Your Darlings.

The Parking Lot.
The parking lot. I think that may actually be Anne Lamott in the foreground.

I’m loving the mix of people here. There are teachers, there are MFA students, there are retirees, there are folks like me with day jobs that have nothing to do with their writing.

One great thing about the workshop: no name tags. (You can figure out who the writers are by the familiar way they hug each other.) That snootiness I experience with strangers at (ahem) anthropology conferences — people in the hallway drop their eyes to your name tag, realize you’re a nobody, and walk on — doesn’t seem to exist here.

And can I say that these were the nicest people? Of course, I may have been lucky this year, but this was surely the warmest bunch of (then-) strangers I’d ever met at a conference. And I suspect it had a lot to do with the very nature of the conference and its organizers (although of course these participants were special too): laid-back, supportive, excited, friendly. It’s difficult to be shy when people are so welcoming, and soon you find yourself easily going up to other strangers and introducing yourself. The eagerness is infectious.

***

At some point, though, the first two or three questions you use to strike up a conversation begin to sound the same:

  1. Fiction or non-fiction?
  2. Where did you come from?

And so here one has a choice: either ask a generic question that leads to a predictable answer —

3. You enjoying the workshop so far? (Because the answer is almost always Yes.)

— or the better question:

3. What are you writing about? (Which leads to an opportunity for the 30-second elevator pitch, something I did not rehearse but should have.)

***

Today was supposed to be The Day Before I Met Mark Childress For My One-On-One at 12 pm, until I realized, at 11:55 am, that today was in fact The Day I Was Going To Have My One-On-One With Mark Childress in Five Minutes. I managed to run across the parking lot (see picture above — that’s one beautiful space) and make it back to the Great Deck in time. Childress is a very funny writer and even more hilarious in person, but I didn’t think he’d be very amused if I arrived too late.

Childress began with some of the kindest words anyone has said about my writing — the sort of stuff I’d say to myself if I were in a writing slump to keep me going.

He also said, “Let’s get something clear. You’re not writing commercial fiction. Or even ‘literary fiction.’ It’s experimental fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted you to be sure.”

My reaction was one of surprise, both because it’s what I originally wanted and because it’s what I didn’t want anymore. I had written my first draft under the spell of Robert Coover and Gary Lutz and the latest issue of Unsaid and the narrative had first emerged all metafictiony and ironic and fragmented, punctuated with chapter miniatures that were crafted like prose poems. (And Childress did say that the piece on Mike Tyson was “gorgeous.”)

But the narrative, in later pages, just didn’t flow that way; the real mechanics of the plot kept intruding, as it were, and that omniscient, hyper-aware (and hyperactive) narrator started fading into the background. One might say — and this pertains directly to that prologue I wrote about earlier, the one that confused all the readers — that all these interruptions got in the way of the real story.

And so Childress turned the page over, and in the margins, right next to one of those metafictiony passages I had loved and long labored over, were the words: KILL YOUR DARLINGS.

***

Childress also confirmed something I’d been worried about: that it was “high-concept,” but not necessarily character- or plot-driven. (“Is it one joke that gets broken up across different chapters?” he asked at some point.) And he made one radical suggestion that really did involve killing — actually, make that a total massacre — and while it wasn’t a suggestion I was prepared for, it did make me realize the importance of strengthening the backbone of the story and the main character.

I did, of course, have a loose plot, and despite all the cameo appearances, the story does primarily follow one guy. But the best way to make the unbelievable plot stronger, and to keep the reader firmly anchored both in the events and in my main protagonist’s situation, was to keep it simple. And mass murder may have to be part of it.

There were many more helpful things that Childress said — he rattled off a number of even funnier situations I hadn’t thought of, right off the top of his head — but it was his emphasis on shoring up the reader’s identification with the protagonists that stayed with me long after our meeting. My meeting with him, I thought, was the best 30 minutes of the whole week so far.

***

Other points I can glean from my hastily-scribbled writing, not that it’ll make sense to my readers:

  • As I expected, Childress pointed out how the book would work better in the past tense. In present tense, he said, “there’s no confidence that something has happened.” Past tense puts it in the realm of legend.
  • “It has to have total verisimilitude.” He recommended I read John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, on fiction as a “vivid, continuous dream.”
  • “The most important part is the next change that happens to Tom.”
  • “Scenes can be funnier.” [I expected to hear that one, and he opened my eyes to the many other comic possibilities.]
  • “In Mike Tyson, you’re in a whirling device.”

***

Yesterday, Robin Romm got me all worried. She prefaced her reading by talking about book contracts and agents — part of her own wrong assumptions during her first time at the conference, I think, but she may have walked away with an agent anyway. (The lesson she may have wanted to impart was about rejections, but I can’t remember.) (I did rush to the Clocktower afterwards to buy a copy of The Mercy Papers, which sounded amazing; I ended up lugging it in my bag all week, hoping to get her to sign it. It turns out — which I found out when I finally tracked her down — she was getting her MFA at SF State around the same time I was teaching there.)

It’s getting to the point that I’m wondering if anxiety is the primary mode here, even though I’m actually very relaxed and thoroughly enjoying myself. I’ve had the good fortune to work with great academic editors, but the notion of an agent seemed alien to me. (Earlier, after telling her my novel’s plot, an editor had asked me if I was talking to an agent yet and I said, “Um, no?” hoping not to betray my ignorance about how such things worked. She did give me an agent’s name later when we met again at a party. “Don’t lose that e-mail address!” she said after typing it into my phone. “This is your life!”)

I certainly wasn’t ready to show anything to anyone just yet, and we were instructed, after all, not to schmooze for the purpose of getting a book deal — at least, that wasn’t the main reason (or attitude) for coming to the workshop.

It was only when Peter Steinberg (who runs his own agency) led our workshop that morning that things clicked: the biggest mistake you can make, he said, is to send something to an agent when it’s not yet ready. I felt the pressure off my shoulders immediately. I knew my manuscript wasn’t ready, but I knew at that point that I would have to make it so.

My writing teacher David Schweidel wrote a fantastic comment on a previous blog entry of mine, and it’s one I’ll probably always remember:

…the stage you’re at now has to do with how much you care about the final version of the story. And I think it’s still a little hard for you to vividly imagine people reading it. Dylan didn’t start writing songs until there was something that he wanted to say that he couldn’t quite find in the songs he already knew. And he was going to be singing his songs in front of real people, so he wanted them to be just right. You have to want your book to be just right. Then revising it will become a meaningful and worthwhile task.

If anything this whole week has given me even more of a kick in the pants. I think I’m ready now.

* * *

Workshops can be iffy things — you don’t always have to like the subject matter of what you read, because in the end it’s about the quality of the prose. But the piece I had just finished reading was, in my opinion, both racist and sexist.

Real fighting words, those. And some people will argue that there’s a big difference between stereotyping and racism, and hey, I’m quite cognizant of that, but it’s still the same continuum, you know? At first I tried reading the piece — set in Kobe in 1955 — as being ironic. But it clearly wasn’t meant as an act of provocation. The way it duplicated the main stereotype of the movie Sayonara — American sailor falls in love with a diminutive Japanese woman who’s inexplicably swept off her feet — seemed, well, rather retrogressive to me. (One of the workshop participants would later call it as “written in that ’50s mode, as a sweet and charming love story,” and I could certainly see that, but that seemed to me a little generous.)

I needed to be clear in my head — and it needed to be clear to the writer as well — that it was not meant to be a personal attack, but my reactions to the piece. I was sure that the writer surely meant no harm, just that she was perhaps oblivious to the effect that her writing was making. But would I be called a spoilsport, the one guy who was going to ruin the workshop with his negative vibes? Should I be more polite? Should I not say anything and just leave it for my written comments?

My roommate Matt didn’t think so. “People need to learn,” he said, using far cruder language than what I wrote above. I knew I shouldn’t keep my mouth shut, but I needed to be constructive.

So among the 600 words I drew up for my comments — a little shorter than the typewritten and e-mailed comments I’d been writing so far, actually — I wrote:

I like that paragraph on the second page when he writes that “the girls are so willing, they are waiting when you get off the ship,” and that he’s “been doing it for five years now,” et cetera, because it establishes that he’s a bit of a jerk. After all, he refers to the woman as “so small, like one of my sister’s dolls,” and this China doll reference is one of the classic Orientalist stereotypes that many Asian and Asian American women and men would find particularly objectionable today.

And I ended with:

The ending, with its thinly-veiled reference to sexual congress, to my regret, proved that [the woman] was in fact just like any other of those “strange women they’d met, beautiful, mysterious, and there for the taking.” The ending simply reinforces that unfortunate sexual and racial stereotype of willing and desperate Asian women that evidently still exists to this day.

I turned off the computer and wondered what would happen in the morning.

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