On Leaving the Workshop Behind (For Now)
September 30, 2019 § 3 Comments
by Marcia Trahan
I’d always heard that writing a book was a grueling process, something you certainly didn’t take on alone.
After I got my MFA, I struggled, the way I thought I was meant to. I slowly, joylessly built essays about well-worn topics like living briefly in New York City during my twenties. With the help of a mentor, I tried to form a book-length collection, but I couldn’t find a cohesive theme.
Then I got lucky, at least from a creative standpoint. Dramatic things started happening to me.
At thirty-five, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and sixteen months later with pulmonary embolism. Both diseases warranted invasive medical procedures that left me physically and psychologically scarred.
Once I started writing about these experiences, I couldn’t stop. The words came easy and angry, bitterly humorous and filled with fear. I no longer had to force myself to sit at the desk. Rather, I had to force myself to leave the desk. The pages were piling up.
I brought an early draft of a chapter to a workshop at a writers’ conference. I wasn’t sure that I actually had the beginnings of a memoir, or the tenacity to finish one. As a freelance editor, I could cheer on clients when their motivation flagged, and help them break through the obstacles that kept them from completing their own books, but I didn’t know if I could give myself this kind of support.
I was stunned when my fellow students praised the chapter, which was about my hospitalization for pulmonary embolism. I was even more stunned when the instructor turned to me at the end of the discussion and said, “Marcia, you must write this book.”
I immediately knew she was right: I had to do this.
The feeling that I had experienced medicine as violence had led me to binge-watch true crime TV, the kind of lurid programs I had always avoided. I urgently needed to discuss what had happened to my body; and I needed to explore connections between life-saving treatment and this strange new preoccupation with bodily torment at the hands of criminals.
I returned to the same conference year after year, new chapters in hand, and always came away with fresh ideas and insights. During the twelve months in between workshops, I kept in touch with the writers I’d met, desperate not to disappear into the solitary labor of chiseling my story sentence by sentence—for that early intensity kept vanishing, and when it left me, writing was as hard as ever. With the support of others who struggled, I could face the gray days of revisiting terrifying medical procedures, of analyzing the darkness of my own mind.
Until the year when my workshop left me feeling lost.
It was no one’s fault. I had so much material by that point that selecting a twenty-five-page excerpt was a frustrating task. I ended up submitting parts of chapters, which made it hard for the other students to see where the story was going. They could only make suggestions about what was in front of them. They couldn’t possibly give me the big-picture analysis I needed.
I realized, with sadness and with no small measure of anxiety, that my workshop days were over, at least for now.
Could I actually finish the memoir without my annual boost from the group?
The universe seemed to be pushing me in that direction. But this went against all the advice I’d ever heard: Get feedback. Join critique groups. Find a mentor. Didn’t I promote the same ideas to my editing clients?
To my surprise, I found I needed to leave behind the multiple voices that had offered insight so that I could see what I thought of my book. At this stage, only I could make decisions about what succeeded and what didn’t. I would always be grateful for the generosity and the energy of the workshop, but now I had to depend on myself.
Freed from the desire to please readers, I was soon writing ecstatically about my illnesses and my subsequent obsession with death. I gloried in long afternoons at my desk, in late nights with the laptop on the living room couch. I was thrilled to discover the right words and images, glimmering in the light of day and glinting in the dark. Electrified by working hard and taking risks.
Of course, I had my painful days too, when I wept and cursed over seemingly unsolvable problems with structure, and doubted if I would ever finish the memoir. I still wanted to find my own way through obstacles. I wanted to resolve my own doubts. I was certain I was making mistakes, lots of them, but they were my mistakes.
Granted, I wasn’t totally alone. I sometimes showed portions of the book to my partner, Andy, an astute reader. And when at last I had a full draft, a year-and-a-half after my last workshop, I showed it to one writer whose judgment would be tough if it needed to be. She told me that after a few edits, I would be ready to submit the manuscript.
The memoir was accepted by a publisher in April 2019. I’m now working with my editors on changes—I was never so foolishly besotted with the writing process that I imagined my draft wouldn’t need revisions. Again, I’m immersed in insightful, challenging feedback, and actually relieved to have help once more. I’m taking pleasure in creative collaboration.
But I sometimes long for the sweet days and nights when it was just my memoir and me, for the almost holy passion of those hours. And, bundle of contradictions that I am, I also long for the excitement and comradery of the workshop. I trust that with my next book, I’ll know when to embrace the group and when to go it (almost) alone.
Marcia Trahan’s essays and poetry have appeared in Fourth Genre, anderbo, Connotation Press, and other publications. Her debut memoir, Mercy, a story of medical trauma and true crime obsession, is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books in spring 2020. Find her on Twitter: @MarciaTrahan.