Yale Writers' Conference: Day 5

We workshopped my story today. Molly Gaudry, our workshop leader has a different approach to the model I'm accustomed to. In traditional workshops, the readers talk the whole time about the story and the writer sits mute. They talk about what they love about the story (the title, the ending, the character named Heloise). Then, they talk about what they didn't like so much, sometimes without explaining why. So, you'll get a comment like, "I didn't get the ending. Why did the guy shoot the old lady just because she said she recognized him as her son? I didn't get that." And suggestions about how to revise. "What if they just hugged in the end?" But mostly, it works okay. You hear from lots of voices, and you sit there and nod and maintain eye contact while trying to write the comments  down in your notebook, often fragments because your heart is beating so fast and you can't concentrate and later, when you go back to your notes, you'll find incomprehensible phrases like, "The hat should be scene ending... How long know each other. More flashbacks of childhoods."

For our workshop today, Molly told us to come in with questions for the writer. In this way, the writer is responsible for her work, for explaining it and for thinking about it. It's challenging, but it's good, because it forces you to be active and engaged and implicitly makes you realize that there may be holes in your writing, scenes you didn't examine closely, actions or inactions that you can't explain, objects you chose that don't hit it exactly right, characters who are less likable than you'd hoped. That was the first question Molly asked me, "Do you like your characters?" I believe what she wanted me to discover is that my central character, Jenny, is not sympathetic, that she is a little bit despicable and that for the reader to sympathize with her (which they must in order to care about what happens to her), I have to sympathize with her. The other discovery I made is that many of my female characters are walking the line of stereotypes (the 80 year old cat lady, the catty real estate agent, the pushy stage mom, the dead girl). I have to be responsible for those characters, to know how they're functioning and to consider ways to complicate them. The story needs restructuring. I need to find a way to show why it is that she's so flip and superficial and figure out how to move her beyond that. Molly suggested that I think of it as the last story in a collection that deals with the idea of homes, weaving Jenny somehow into each story, because in that way, we might understand her better. I could do that. I have about seven stories now set in Philadelphia and will see if I can find a way to focus them around this central theme of finding a home, making it your own.