Oh my god.
Have you ever been devoured by a pack of hyenas, torn apart with your innards flying through the air speckling the grass with the colour crimson? No? Me neither. But there are more ways than one to be ripped to pieces.
My latest experience of this (let’s be honest, we all have at least a couple of these clouding our memories) was whilst attending the Guardian creative writing Master Class with MJ Hyland.
11 participants, one esteemed author, echoing hallways, seminar room at the University of Salford Media City campus, vast table, panel like seating, shuffling of paper, slurping coffee sounds, bated breaths. Let the games begin.
Can you feel the anticipation? No? Of course not. All I’ve done so far is SUMMARISE. One of the words sending your writing straight to purgatory, together with the evil adjective and the none but monstrous cliché, these form the base of a literary soup indigestible by all. Did I mention over exaggeration? That should be thrown in that cast iron cauldron too, of course. As we workshopped our way through the morning, going through each others sample writing it dawned on me that most of these ‘things’ were all over my writing. Still, I had a solid story. Didn’t I?
As said esteemed author picks up my sample writing (first 1500 words of my beloved Esther) I can see her editorial markings all over the pages, but that’s ok, most other works had equal markings so at this stage it doesn’t look either better or worse than any other. Then she opens her mouth. ‘Has anyone in this room ever had their teeth clatter with cold?’ silence. Now I already know this is a cliché as it has been vastly covered, and condemned, in the early hours of the session so I sink a little deeper into my cushioned seat. It is too early to squirm. Some kind souls attempt at answering her question but the main contention with this sentence is that it doesn’t ring ‘true’. Hold on. I have felt so cold my teeth have clattered – many a time. But I see that it may not be the best way to start so I clamp my mouth shut, forcing a smile. Then the bomb shell:
‘If this landed on my table I would do this’ – and with an OVER EXAGGERATED gesture she throws my writing across the table. I can only assume this was for emphasis, and that it is ok to utilise these cheap tricks figuratively, but not in your writing. So much for starting on a positive note. After that I felt my writing to be doomed. The forced smile plastered across my face remained there throughout the rest of my workshop time. I probably looked like a loon. Apparently my characters voices read as if they were in their early teens (by omitting the prologue I had put myself in the precarious position of ‘open to interpretation’), which of course they are not. Esther is childlike in many ways, and immature in her thinking, but she isn’t 14. She is 31. Harumph. Force that smile and nod. There are points when I have to open my mouth and explain what the plot is, and how it is meant to progress. I do this with faltering words, my conviction wavering. Have I written 60,000 words of juvenile nonsense? We don’t get to finish the dissection as the afternoon coffee break inserts itself with claw-like vigour, and I cannot stop myself from feeling cut short. I wanted more constructive feedback. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I didn’t get any. There was an excellent suggestion about changing my narrative from first to third person, and how that might help me raise the perceived age of my characters, as well as re-writing specific areas where the story read more like an essay than a narrative. These were concrete things that I could take with me and use to improve my writing. Of which I am very grateful.
At the end of the first day I felt wrung out, like a discarded towel crumpled and forgotten on the floor. We had moved on from my piece, and covered two more that afternoon. I must apologise to the people that followed as my input and activity level in ‘class’ had somewhat waned. I was still trying to work out what had happened during my session and felt myself removed. Honestly, I wanted to go and hide in a hole. Juvenile, petulant, and angry – much like my writing. I am ashamed to say that at the time I felt myself violated.
I slept hard that night. But I woke up the next morning feeling strangely light. I knew my story was good, and I also knew that my characters were true. They say that the first novel of any author carries autobiographical elements and I believe it. Both Esther and Patrik carry elements of ‘me’ with them, and perhaps that is why my reaction to the harsh critique the day before had hit so hard. I am in my early 30’s, but I definitely do not act like it at all times. I AM juvenile, petulant and angry. Not all the time, but there are moments when these less than favourable traits re-surface and take over. It would be a lie to write my characters as otherwise. They are not high literary beings talking in convoluted sentences, they are the hoi polloi going about their lives when something life-altering happens that makes them feel infinitely small. They act like children because they want to be taken care of, they want someone else to shoulder the burden, and for someone to remove them from a situation that they do not know how to handle. That is their truth.
I enjoyed my second day of workshopping, the writing tasks especially. One of which I have already tried my hand on an additional time since arriving back home – the imitation exercise. Re-writing the first couple of paragraphs in either direct imitation, or close imitation, to the writing of one of your favoured authors and/or stories. By taking their rhythm and cadence and placing it on top of your own story it is amazing to see what emerges. I admit I find it extremely (NOT exaggerating!) difficult to employ the direct imitation approach with noun for noun and verb for verb, but the challenge of achieving a similar flow is inspiring. Why all writer’s don’t do this is a mystery. Writer’s block? Try this. Out of creative juice? Try this. In a state of hating your own writing? Try this. It can actually be funny. Imagine Esther’s first paragraph re-written in the style of Humpty Dumpty. Classic.