The Mark Blog

Usually, But Not Always

In fifth grade, Mrs. Ran told me I wasn’t allowed to bring notebooks to school anymore, which I thought was ironic, because that’s exactly what happened to Harriet in my contemporaneously favorite book, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

The first writing workshop I ever participated in was at NYU in the winter of 2006. I took two quarters off from UCLA and went to the West Village for a semester, where I enrolled in an undergraduate program whose advertising poster I now confuse with another—possibly from a river-rafting company?—that said, Why see four stars when you can see four million?

The twelve-person class took place on Monday evenings in a university building north of Houston Street, next to a shop that sold fabulous fresh hummus pitas. The professor, Sophie, had recently published a well-received book that involved fairies. She was young, kind, inspiring in her teaching, and beautifully fairy-ish herself. We read Dan Chaon and stories from The Norton Anthology, and started each class with a writing exercise, like, "Write something that involves a castle," or, "Use the word 'worried.'" I know many writers abhor prompts—being told what to write about, and for how long—but I think they’re fun. I like the freedom that comes with creative limits.

I believe workshops are productive for a lot of reasons. I’ve chosen to be part of them intermittently for the past seven years, since writing my first three stories in Sophie’s class at NYU, because:

1. I get feedback from “strangers.” (Margaret Atwood on that: “…ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.”)
2. They keep me on my toes and expose me to different concepts of what a story is and how to tell one.
3. They keep me accountable.
4. I like to meet other writers.
5. People give great book recommendations.
6. They’re energizing.

In our first workshop of The Mark program, Antoine gave us a handout by Frank Conroy, his teacher at the University of Iowa, called “The Writer’s Workshop.” There is a “zone,” Conroy suggests, where energy from the writer and energy from the reader overlap. A writer’s goal is to strike the optimal balance between the two energy outputs, so that the story is full and clear and, at the same time, leaves room for the active reader to co-create the narrative. If the text is skewed one way or the other, it may come off either heavy handed and overworked, or unfinished and hard to follow. Done right, the zone is a meeting of two minds to “bring a living narrative into existence.”

Conroy also offers this anecdote about workshops: “I am reminded of working on a tune with the late jazz musician Paul Desmond—myself on piano and the master on saxophone. At one point, improvising the voicings as I moved from one chord to another, Paul stopped the music, leaned over the keyboard and showed me a better way to do it. ‘Usually,’ he said, ‘but not always, we try to retain all notes common to both chords.’ Exactly so in a writing workshop. Suggestions are made in that spirit—‘usually, but not always.’"

I like that phrase––“Usually, but not always”––because it feels true in writing and in life. Because there are always exceptions. Exceptions that astound and refresh us. Exceptions that “shouldn’t” (logically) work, but do. I need those exceptions and I need those rules. I need to have carried my notebook around the playground, at age 10, and to have been told I wasn’t allowed to do that. Because isn’t scribbling a word or two under your desk even sweeter when Mrs. Ran says it isn’t allowed?