When You See Who I Am: On Writing Personal Essays

October 19, 2020 § 12 Comments

By Trish Cantillon

‘Writing the Personal Essay’ was the first formal writing class I’d taken since college. It was also the first nonfiction writing I’d done outside my diary. At the end of the first session, in an effort to provide inspiration for future essays, the instructor gave us ten minutes to write about anything we wanted. No prompt, just a free-write to see what developed.

Without much thought, I jotted down broad strokes of a personal story. It wasn’t anything that had been burning inside me to tell, it just appeared, and I let it out. When the timer went off, he asked who wanted to share. Many hands shot up, including mine. I had shared my fiction writing in workshops over the years and I liked reading my work aloud. I was excited to introduce myself in this way to my fellow writers. The instructor signaled for me to begin. “I was twelve when I had electrodes strapped to my arm to administer shock as part of the Schick weight loss program my parents signed me up for.”

I could see the words I was reading on the paper I’d torn from my notebook. I could hear myself reading them. But all I could feel was the swell of heat moving up my body and the shaking that had taken hold of my hands. This wasn’t some dark, closely held secret I’d finally set free. This story was just another part of a long, complicated diet resume that stretched from childhood to young adulthood. It bore no more significance to me than The Beverly Hills Diet or The Scarsdale Diet, so my physical reaction to recounting it puzzled me.

When I finished reading, a flutter of “Whoa’s” and “Oh my God’s” rose from the class. These reactions surprised me. I thought I was telling a story about what it was like to be a fat twelve-year-old in ten minutes or less, completely comfortable with my identity in that story as the one with the problem. What I revealed was a pitiful episode foisted upon a young girl by her well-meaning parents and her willingness to accept it as a normal response to her being overweight. I had been eager to share what I’d written; to share what I felt were my talents as a writer but wound up exposing the pain beneath a seemingly benign personal anecdote.

A mixture of pride and embarrassment flushed my cheeks. My fellow writers didn’t know how that moment felt for me; a strange mix of pride and sadness. I was glad that I had impressed them and my instructor with my work, but I felt a bitter sting with their sincere pity. I smiled as we shuffled out of the classroom, quickly averting their eyes so as not to invite conversation. I didn’t know what I should say.

For my entire life, including and up until that point, I carried the mantle of the fat girl. It was the part of my personal story I most identified with. It was my problem that I struggled with. That, at times, I triumphed over and, at others, was beaten down by, but all the while it was the thing that defined me. It was who I was even as I grew into a young adult and finally did find freedom from its grip. But in ten minutes that had all been upended. I experienced my story through others’ eyes and instead of it being shameful or sorrowful, I saw that I was no longer the villain.  My compulsive overeating, my ill-fitting clothes, the rolls on my stomach were no longer the bad guys. But if that was really true then who was I? Who could I be?

The woman who had sat next to me in class followed me out, she was dressed in a stylish pant suit and high heels. “You’re so brave to tell that story. Ugh. Why are parents so stupid sometimes?” she said as she shook her head and passed me on her way to the elevator. I smiled back and shrugged, resisting the urge to elaborate and tell her that my parents were just trying to help. That I was desperate and so were they. That they meant well. All of that was true, of course, but I knew that it wasn’t the point anymore.

I had never thought of myself as brave or my writing as brave. For most of my life writing was just a thing I knew I liked to do. Aside from assignments in school, it was something I kept to myself; secrets stowed away in my diaries, short stories written in the late nights of summer vacation, or an occasional workshop. Until ‘Writing the Personal Essay’ I had never really considered how my writing made other people feel; or how their feelings could influence mine.

As I walked back to my car, I realized that I wasn’t just telling a story about myself. I had invited people in, and in they came with their thoughts and opinions about me and diets and parenting. It was uncomfortable and awkward to have unwittingly exposed myself that way. I didn’t like thinking about my classmates pitying me. But then my feelings of vulnerability gave way to excitement. I felt surprisingly empowered. There’s a new me that I suddenly discovered because someone else saw it. And it was time to tell her story.

Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Manifest Station, The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.

The End of Writerly Silence: On a New (to Me) Workshop Model

August 27, 2020 § 14 Comments

headshot_mccordBy Kailyn McCord

I grew up in what I’d call a traditional workshop. Non-genre specific, usually involving between six and twelve people, this model will be familiar to any in the capital-C capital-W Creative Writing world. In it, the writer under critique listens, verboten from speaking, while peers and professor discuss their work. The conversation usually begins with strengths, then progresses to problems. The function of the writer’s silence is two-fold: first as mechanism so that they might listen more thoroughly, and second, so that the group might elucidate the work before them without clues as to the intentions behind it. Silence bears enlightenment; via their role as witness, the writer comes to see, somewhat miraculously, the true meaning of their own work.

My experiences with this model (years in an MFA, a smattering of conferences) weren’t bad, but they did breed a familiar pattern. When in the hot seat, critique would leave me in one of two places. If the group mostly liked the piece, I was often more or less exactly where I started: alone with my work, unsure of what next steps to take. If the group didn’t like the piece – if they employed the kind of cutting-down to which I’d become accustomed – I was still alone, but this time tasked with parsing individual criticisms into a cohesive plan. Knowing myself to be ever the idiot when it came to what my essays were “actually doing,” the group had handed down its meaning, and now my job was to bring it forth.

As critic, I did as had been done to me, offering my classmates a gentle barrage at best, a borderline combative litany of their failings at worst. Certainly, my criticism was craft-based; certainly, I wasn’t mean. But in my mind, I was supposed to return a favor, to show my peers where they’d gone wrong, and what they might do to right themselves. A strange sort of esteem began to build, a conflation of my critiquing abilities and my image of myself as a Good Writer. So that I might display genius (and reassure myself of its existence), there need be problems in the work of my peers, faults on which to proffer my cutthroat analyses. It amounted to a fragile success, contingent on the failures of my classmates, as were theirs on mine.

Until a month ago, I thought this was just the way of things.

A few weeks prior to my participation in a recent conference, I received an email from my workshop leader. Amidst various specific instructions was a bold-faced paragraph informing us that she did not run silent workshops, that of course the writer should aim to stay out the driver’s seat, but that should they think it necessary, were more than welcome to speak. Perhaps more shocking than this invitation, the bolded paragraph instructed us that, when critiquing, we should explicitly challenge any assumed authority over the work in front of us. Constructive criticism was encouraged, but we were to operate by the maxim that the writer knew more about their work than we did.

I balked. Surely, I thought, this model was designed for pandering, to coddle weak-minded writers who couldn’t stomach the true stuff of critique. Surely, a writer invited to speak would become mean, petty, defensive, provoking battles between intention and observation, writer and peer critic. Surely, I would walk away from this workshop with word documents full of saccharine compliments, or shyly hedged notes. When imagining my own feedback, I dreaded what I’d offer, sure I’d couch my every ‘real’ thought in fluffy, soft-handed language.

To say that I was off base would be an understatement. I was in the outfield. I was in the stands. I was the guy selling cotton candy in the parking lot.

First of all, we fought no battles. Instead, if a writer spoke, they were usually brief re-directs, and helpful for us in avoiding red herrings. Conversations that, in the old model, would have harped on (for example) inconsistent POV instead turned to how the POV was working, and what effect it rendered. Real critique still materialized (that the POV was confusing), but because we’d assumed their expertise, the writer got to see reactions to choices they’d already made, rather than our theories about ones they should have made, and hadn’t yet. This lens – one that takes a barely fledged idea and parses it out as if already complete and purposeful – is golden stuff, a rare longview, and to my experience, the very most difficult perspective to come by when drafting. There it was, in easy reach, born of the new model we found ourselves in.

I’m terrible at large-scale structure. I’ll sit in a line all day, or work the acceleration of a paragraph until it sings, but ask me about plot, and I’m lost. In this workshop, there was one writer’s piece in particular I’d had trouble with; the line-level wasn’t where it should be, I thought, even for a workshop setting. I explained patiently in my comments about showing and telling. I was sure the author was inexperienced. But come workshop time, I found them sharp, wise, and committed to every piece we addressed. I was blown away. How could someone who said those things write something like that? After the workshop, I read the piece again. I watched the beats move. I tracked character motivation and exposition. Yes, the line level wasn’t to my taste, but this writer’s command of pacing was exceptional.

Had I read this piece in the old model, I would have hung my hat on its flaws and considered my job finished. In the new model, because I was reading for intentionality, I wasn’t only seeing what the writer was doing, I was learning from it.

Comments on my own work proved honest, straightforward, and devoid of dismissiveness. Their aim wasn’t to correct, but rather to bolster what vision I’d offered. Rather than finding myself swamped by a sea of contradictory commentary, I felt empowered to take or leave what I thought was best for my work. It was surprisingly easy, in part because I knew what the group was rooting for: not their vision, and not an instructor’s edict, but my own intentions.

My favorite aspect of the new model is what I can only call genuine community. Not only is this basically nice, but it serves as real balance for moments where the ego falters. The longer I write, the surer I am that doubt will always return, dark and gnarly, a seemingly unconquerable force. What better antidote than a group of smart, dedicated people who not only believes what in moments of doubt I cannot, but who are willing to help me find my way again? What better gratitude to offer them in return than the pledge that I will do the same?

So, I’m officially ditching the hard road. Writing is hard enough, and the traditional model, for me, isn’t worth the price of asking. Instead, I’m choosing community, voice, and a new path toward the next draft. I dare you to set down your ego, and join me.

Kailyn McCord writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, California, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Believer, The Cincinnati Review, The Master’s Review, and The Rumpus, among others. She holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she was the editor of Bayou Magazine. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Montana’s Open AIR, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good camping trip.

A Writing Workshop, By Any Other Name

May 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

And speaking of The Kenyon Review, the KR Blog makes note of yet another “withering attack” on the concept of writing workshops. The attacks just seem to come without end, from people who very often have little idea what they are talking about. Hanif Kureishi is certainly one of them.

wkshopBut this latest stupid attack did force to me to reflect some on my pedagogy, and it finally hit me, like a soft mallet to the head, that I don’t teach a writing workshop – I’m not sure many of us in the academic creative writing field actually do – I teach an editing workshop.

Here’s what I mean:

A good workshop assists a young writer in seeing how a reader might encounter and experience their manuscript (with the help of some artificial readers – the workshop members.) Then, with the help of a prodding and encouraging teacher, the student is helped to see how to take what she has learned and re-vision what she has already written.

She learns how to take a muddy scene and make it clear. How to take a soggy bit of language and make it crisp. How to take a limp narrative arc and find some spine. How to take an undifferentiated character and create, well, character.

She learns, too, how voice can be altered, and how small changes can make a difference in point-of-view. This is editing that is being taught, and more specifically, self-editing. A student who learns the rigors and wonders of self-editing, before launching her work into the world, has learned quite a bit, and has greatly increased her chances of finding a publisher/audience.

We should call it an editing workshop, then, or a revision workshop, since that’s what we are teaching and modeling. If it were truly a writing workshop, those of us who teach would be standing over our students’ shoulders as they attempted their first drafts, and goodness knows I don’t do that.

So let’s call them poetry editing workshops, or creative nonfiction editing workshops, and do away with the perennial and pointless question: “Can writing be taught?”

– Dinty

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