Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Particular Hell of the Writing Workshop

Last night, at a super-fab Chanuka party in the East Village, I was astonished to bump into an old professor of mine from my first round at graduate school in the early 1980's.

It was a writing program at a New York university and he was my fiction workshop instructor. Generally speaking, I enjoyed the class but there was the day he arrived, in some kind of altered state and proceeded to rake one of the writers over the coals.

I do not remember the name of the short story or even the particulars of his assault but have a vivid recollection of how we students sat as still as packages of frozen spinach while the student in question -- a young woman -- bore his brutal attack.

Later that day, when I returned to my abode -- a tiny maid's room on W114th Street for which I paid $200 a month -- I stared at my face for a very long time in the bathroom mirror and then hacked my bangs off.

I suppose this act of cosmetic self-mutilation (I looked like a freak for about a month) was an empathetic reaction to having witnessed a traumatic event -- an unprovoked attack on a fellow human being. Pondering the metaphorical value of that act, it seems the enactment of "tearing one's hair out."

I forgot about this incident at last night's party and gabbed instead with my former professor as if we were old confidantes. Both of our eldest children had been actors in Little Shop of Horrors at the Ramaz Upper School over a decade earlier. We were now the parents of people in their twenties who were pursuing creative careers. Perhaps it was that fact more than the passage of time that served to equalize our relationship.

Jacked up on insanely potent margaritas, I navigated my way through the party, meeting, greeting and eating. It was a fine Chanuka party, filled with A-list journalists, many of whom I knew, some of whom seemed just slightly older than a kindergartener. I would have stayed forever but at one point, I noted the time and the fact that I was due for a student meeting uptown at 8:30 and headed out into the frigid night air, searching for the 8th Street subway station...no mean feat when you are totally trashed.

This morning, I thought about my old professor and how chummy we were at the party. And I didn't think about the horrible workshop incident until something similar happened in one of my classes.

Except that this time, for a good portion of the class, I was the student on the hot seat.

Because I am constrained from writing about what takes place inside my Columbia classroom I will say nothing other than how sucky the experience was.

Unlike the kid who hacked off her bangs, I am a fairly seasoned adult with no intention of going near a pair of scissors. Still, it was unpleasant and shocking and hardly what I expected. Yes, the constructive criticism was there; buried in the basement beneath the feedback free-for-all. It took every ounce of self-restraint not to walk out of the room...or simply stand up and protest: Hey. this is not the way a writing workshop is supposed to be.

The shock of the workshop followed me around all day, like a pesky younger sister, but there were several points of grace along the way. One was sharing an elevator with the actor Richard Kind and his toddler son at the JCC, where I went to run off my rage after my afternoon class at the New York Historical Society. Seeing Kind recalled his excellent performance as the mentally ill brother in A Serious Man, the one who cries out, "Hashem hates me!!" who feels God's loathing and abandonment.

Another was returning home from the gym (where I ran four-plus miles, lifted tons of iron and did so many crunches that it hurts when I cough) to light the menorah with HOBB and Little Babe and recover my inner Maccabee.

And I will share yet another one with you: the email I just received from my friend, Lynda, who was unable to make it to Shira Means Song, my 50th birthday celebration last month at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal:

I am so glad I bumped into you at the JCC and I got to see this video, which as you say, is pretty hilarious. Congratulations to the whole family and the DOT too! I am the 121st visitor to the site. You have Guts! Creativity! Imagination! and a pretty dress.


Since I have been negligent in writing about the OVER-THE-TOP SUCCESS that this event was, I will simply post the YouTube video, edited down to a manageable length.

It reminds me of the importance of using one's voice, of finding one's venue, of doing great, crazy, ambitious things, at vanquishing ones' adversaries, of taking risks, of actualizing your dreams, of standing up, of celebrating the song of oneself.

Check it out!


Rachel Federman said...

Great post and love the "lesson" especially.

David Elsner said...

I had a vicarious and phenomenally voyeuristic time at you over the top,heart warming, effervescent, every outrageous and exquisite adjective in the book, birthday party. You are the princess of self actualization and expression. Just breathtaking and makes one love life to its full capacity and expression
Jeannette, posting under David's account.