Last year I taught a continuing education workshop in the basement of a Brooklyn bookstore. I like teaching in a bookstore, as it makes me feel like I’m a writer in a movie, and every Tuesday evening when I’d take the steps down to the subterranean level (where writers belong), I was filled with a decent, quiet light. It’s a pleasure to spend a few hours hammering out thorny issues of craft with people who spend their days in other industries.
It was toward the end of my time with this particular class. It was the first workshop experience for one of the women, who I’ll call Agnes, and while she handled her fellow student’s work with care, at times she seemed suspicious of the workshopping process in general. I watched her frustration grow over the semester, especially, I noted, when the work of an experimental writer was being discussed.
During the final class we discussed the work of who I’d say was the most surrealist writer. Another student suggested she explain the background of one of the characters. It was the kind of note that can be common in workshops. I want to know more about so and so, being used in place of what is normally the deeper issue: details you are deciding to include are not specific enough. With the particular empathy of a teacher, I could feel Agnes’s blood heat until, it seemed, she could no longer take it.
She launched into an impassioned monologue that mostly revolved around the idea of workshopping being anti-art. That it chokes the creative sense.
When she finished, every head in the room swiveled to me. It was my job to massage the shoulders of everyone’s ideas and feelings, to push forth whatever the “right” idea was. The room, its stultifying air, the unfinished bookshelves stuffed with remainders. It was as if every single object in that room had a face, looking at me to correct the atmosphere.
Hundreds of thoughts occurred to me simultaneously, most of them variations on how to bend this moment into a teachable one. Then, almost as quickly, all thoughts were overruled by one question: Do you, as the human being called Marie, agree with this person?