Up until a year ago I’d taken only two writing workshops in my life – one in New York and one in LA. In each case my instructor was connected to the publishing or entertainment industry, and I fantasized as I signed up for the course that he would seize upon my work, gush over my brilliance, and set me up with fast-track connections to the right people in the right places. Yeah, he’d make me rich and famous.
Things did not turn out well. I can boil it all down to two single incidents, but before I go on, let me issue this caveat: I’m not saying that my bad experiences were because the instructors were men. But they were men. Fact.
New York City
I took an evening writing class at The New School in the Village. The instructor, a veteran from the publishing world, had an impressive pedigree and was a nice man. On the third night, he selected a submission of mine because he liked it so much. He read it to the class. In it I wrote about a time that I was asked to roll over and expose my back to a soft-spoken man, who gently asked me to do so. Softly he kept saying, “You’ll feel a little prick now, just a little prick…”
As my instructor read this particular line, he snickered appreciatively.
This was the worst moment of my writing life.
What I’d written was meant to describe – poignantly, devastatingly, from the gut – the scene in the hospital when I was losing my baby to pre-term birth halfway through my sixth month of pregnancy. It was in the delivery room. The anesthesiologist was kind, and sad, as he set me up for an epidural – an epidural that would allow them to take my baby out of my body, my son whose chance of life had expired.
I didn’t blame my writing instructor. Clearly if I could write words that could be read in such a way that they sent this man – sent the whole class – so far down the path of misunderstanding that they thought I was being funny and precious with my words, then I had done something terribly wrong. It was really, really bad writing.
And then, oh god no, he asked me to comment. What had I been thinking? What had caused me to write this as I did?
I had no mental reserves available to deliver up anything to redeem the situation whatsoever, and so I simply stated that actually I had been describing the experience, the medical-procedure-experience, of losing my first baby. The instructor’s face went so blank that he looked like a different man. I felt terribly ashamed. I wished I had never written a single one of those words and handed them over to anyone to read.
I stayed through to the end of the class and I rode the subway home and I never went back.
I took a two-day intensive screenwriting workshop at Writers Boot Camp, housed in Bergamot Station in LA. The founder and instructor was tall and slender and bald; he was fifty-something; he wore blue jeans and brown leather loafers and a checkered shirt, and when he walked toward the young woman checking me in at the sign-in table, she clawed at her hair as she scanned the list for my name and her hand shook as she crossed it out.
Late in the morning, after an exercise when we each wrote a rough pitch for a television show, I forced myself to be courageous and raise my hand when he asked for volunteers to read theirs out loud. The instructor slid down in his seat, shoved his hands into his pockets, stretched out his feet and crossed them at the ankles comfortably.
I described a show about a young surfer dude who owned a three-man construction company – it was about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious, sometimes stupid, sometimes embarrassing encounters he had with clients. This guy was smart, educated; he happened to choose to work in construction for complicated reasons to be revealed as the show progressed. Many of the incidents of the story involved clients treating him arrogantly or unreasonably, because they thought themselves superior to him, and sometimes he had to take the shitty treatment but often he finessed them and they didn’t even know it. The point of the story was…
“Oh, god, no,” the instructor interrupted, pulling a hand out of his pocket, waving it toward me – a shooing gesture. “This is going back to the seventies. The last thing we need is another zany situation comedy showing the madcap hijinks of a couple of blue collar workers.”
“But no, it isn’t that,” I said. “The point of the story…”
“Nope.” He said. “Next pitch.”
I didn’t hear the next pitch because I was in my head. The point of the story, asshole, is that class distinctions make people see others who are in blue collar work as people without interest, intelligence, or depth – at best, clowns. The point is exactly what you, sir, just illustrated by assuming that any sitcom about a construction worker would be a series of “madcap hijinks” of some goofy two-dimensional character, a person who is lesser than you, not a person with depth and humor and smarts and anger and a keen understanding of people, and kindness. That’s the point. It was a sitcom meant to break people’s blindness to their own prejudice. And to reveal the elements of human nature that cross back and forth over both sides of the line between so-called better and so-called lesser folk. The inequality between them is a matter of perception and assumption, not fact. Each episode would have a signature closing scene; the surfer dude sitting on his board, watching the sun go down, or taking a wave, or sharing one of those moments when a dolphin ventures over to bob beside a surfer and regard him in peaceful contemplation, two sentient creatures eye to eye. The close would be the surfer’s voice off-camera, talking to himself, to the viewer, about a simple truth in life, a lesson learned, an observation about human nature, a bitter truth, a choice of being. A signature close that, interestingly, became the hallmark of better quality poignant sitcoms four or five years after I took that class; think the signature closing scene of every episode of Modern Family. That.
That, you idiot – Big Man, Little Prick.
Writer and anthologist Victoria Zackheim taught a workshop at Women At Woodstock 2014 called “The Acorn.” In it she talked about taking an idea – a single idea, a feeling, and distilling it down to one word, an acorn of a story. She took us through the process of digging up our own acorn. And then we went around the room and we each named it. And then we wrote from that acorn – wrote whatever we wished – the beginning of a memoir, a short story, a novel.
I chose to write the opening scene of a play.
She asked us then to each read our piece out loud. We could read, or we could choose not to read, or we could have her read our piece for us. It was our choice, but the thing was, if we wanted to have our turn, we would have our turn. There was no need to be brave, or the best, or even good. She would listen, all of us would listen.
I read my opening scene, which I’d banged out on my laptop with abandon.
I read it, and I looked up, and Victoria was staring at me, her mouth open.
“Have you been doing this in secret all your life?” she asked.
Later that evening, all of us went outside under the stars and shared a couple of bottles of champagne and talked about our lives. As we walked back to the building, one of the women fell back to walk with me and told me how much she’d liked what I’d written. She asked where in my life the story came from, and where I thought it was going to go. As I answered, suddenly I had a single moment of clarity – it was a physical sensation – and I knew exactly how the scenes would progress and how the play would finish and what the final, powerful closing scene would be. It fell together with a palpable mental click – unlike anything I’d ever tried to write before.
In that moment of force and clarity, I became a writer. I’m not perfect, I do need an editor, I need to work harder. But I am a writer, goddamit.
So what made the difference between the first two experiences and the Women At Woodstock one? Was it because we were all women – not just women, but women of a certain age? Maybe. Was it because by unspoken agreement we had excluded competitiveness and aggression from this time and this place? Most certainly. Was it because we felt safe to believe in ourselves, and we knew that we would have our time to speak, and others would listen? Yes. Absolutely. That was it.
That is what we’re going to have at our two Women At Woodstock Writers Retreats following Women At Woodstock 2016 in October. Time. Space. Trust. Listening. Learning. Reading out loud not because we’re forcing ourselves to be brave, but because we cannot resist the desire to be heard. Because in that place, we will be writers.