Thursday, August 16, 2007

Guest in Progress: Paula Whyman

Given the following report, it’s appropriate that I first met Paula Whyman at a conference: The 2006 Washington Independent Writers Spring Conference. We happened to sit next to each other at lunch and discovered that not only did we have friends in common, but that we had also attended the same MFA program (at different times).

Several months later, I ran into her at a reading by one of our mutual friends and we went out for coffee afterwards…one of those conversations where you cover miles and miles of ground and return home with a head packed with new ideas and information. (Maybe it was the, it was Paula!)

But I really knew we were simpatico when I was at a Richard Ford reading at Politics & Prose bookstore. Ford gave a lovely reading from his novel The Lay of the Land, and took questions afterwards. Man after man after man asked a question…despite the fact that the audience was about half women. So I walked over to the microphone to ask a question, just so at least one woman would speak. Who reached the microphone just as I did? Paula! In unison, we whispered to one another, “I was tired of hearing only from the men.”

She’s smart and fun and, as you can see from the following piece, very observant and a careful student of writing craft. I’m longing for her to finish her novel and get it out in the world…I’m dying to read it!

Tin House Summer Writers Workshop:
Getting to the Heart of the Matter in the Hula Hoop Zone

I’ve recently returned from a fabulous week at the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop in Portland, Oregon. Believe it or not, I didn’t go just for the hula-hooping on the quad. In fact, I was initially concerned that I wasn’t hip enough for a conference given by the uber-hip quarterly;—I mean, how many conferences have a signature martini?–however, as it turned out there were many writers in my category, over 40 and what I’ll call “post-hip,” which itself sounds kind of hip, doesn’t it? So hip, you can’t even tell we’re hip (and not yet on our way to hip-replacement, har har…).

The workshop faculty included Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Charles D’Ambrosio, Charles Baxter, and Dorothy Allison (although at the last minute Allison was unable to attend due to an emergency). Add to that the chance to focus on craft for a whole week with other writers in the verdant setting of the Reed College campus, and I thought, Why not? But most of all, I was intrigued by the idea of a one-week novel workshop. I had a draft of my novel ready to go, and I knew full well it needed work. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to focus on it.

My workshop leader was Karen Shepard, author of three novels, including Don’t I Know You, and a teacher at Williams College. There were eleven talented women in my group, and we didn’t suffer for lack of a Y chromosome, as the work was far from homogenous, ranging from Southern Gothic to academic satire. We read the first 25 pages of each participant’s novel along with a synopsis and a description of the goals the writer hoped to achieve with her work.

We all marveled at Karen’s boundless energy and ability to keep discussion focused on the big, important issues. She approached each piece like a work of literature. We talked about what makes a good beginning, and we interpreted what was on the page—narrative voice, time, point-of-view, character, what themes the writer seemed to be working with and how they might be developed more effectively. The general discussions that grew out of each person’s work touched on issues that impacted everyone. For instance, we talked about victims and perpetrators, how victims as characters can be rather flat and uncomplex, and how it’s more interesting and perhaps more realistic to portray characters as both, to include in one’s work the way people can be agents in their own dilemmas.

Karen was generous with her time, eating lunch with us on several occasions and scheduling one-on-one meetings. In my case, she got to the heart of what I need to accomplish with my revisions, which is pretty amazing considering she only read the first few chapters. She’s also a talented line editor—now if only I could persuade her to edit all 300 pages!

Mooning Ducks Comment on New Proulx…

The spiritual center of the conference for me was a pond that was more like a primordial swamp and is known as the ‘Canyon.’ The Canyon lay picturesquely at the center of the campus and behind every reader who stood at the podium at the Cerf Amphitheatre (great setting, brutally uncomfortable bench seats). A tranquil woodland of 26 acres, run through with wetlands and circled by walking trails, the pond was host to ducks and herons, snakes, and nutria (huge water rodents that resemble big groundhogs). Families of ravens flew over noisily at appropriate poetic moments, while dining ducks mooned the audience with their white-feathered bottoms, and the nutria broke the stillness of the water. All this made for great visual interest during the evening readings. When Annie Proulx headlined, she chose her piece to complement the setting, a story about the devil, an ornithologist, and some fake pterodactyls. It wasn’t her best work, but we gave her a pass for being willing to share new, unpublished writing, as many of the faculty members bravely did when their turns came. It was a privilege to get a peek at so much new work, much of it very fine, some of it even transporting, from so many talented writers.

“…The Skull That It Will Become”: Quick bits from the seminars

I must admit to skipping out on the afternoon panels and seminars at least once to take a walk in the rhododendron garden across the street from campus, but most writers attended the majority of the sessions. (“I paid for them,” said one woman.) If there was any disappointment in the conference, it was that a few presenters seemed unprepared for their talks. Even so, the sessions yielded valuable bits of information. (Also, the lecture hall contained the only comfortable seating on campus as well as the only air conditioning in the middle of a record heat wave…)

Here are some highlights—

Charles Baxter, on building a fictional world: The writer notices what’s in front of everyone that everyone else has missed. Baxter added that he likes to start by imagining someone in a situation that’s getting worse.

Jim Shepard (Karen’s husband, and author of Project X) performed an incisive, detailed analysis of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” focusing on the impact that can be made by leaving things unstated and letting astute readers interpret the subtext. Shepard: “Shape is made by exclusion.”

Charles D’Ambrosio, on conflict: When things are equally true in a story they create tension. Some writers find the tension in a story too much to bear, and they kill it off too soon. Don’t be afraid to introduce tension that will disrupt a poetic mood you’ve created. In my favorite quote of the conference, D’Ambrosio paraphrased Flaubert, saying, “Never look into a baby’s face without seeing the skull it will become.”

I see them everywhere, skull after skull after skull. But what I find really absorbing is to look at the skull and imagine the baby it once was.

Steve Almond led a rousing (oh, sorry) analysis of bad sex writing and how to avoid doing it (there it is again…), in which he read a luridly bad sex scene and then asked everyone to write their own. He had a couple of students read their scenes aloud, and then commented on them. Since I didn’t volunteer to read mine, I’ll reproduce it (oh sorry, sorry) here:

Troy craved the feel of her oily, matted wool against the bare skin of his belly.
“Baaah,” she said.
“Aaaah,” he said.

Aren’t you relieved that was all I got down in the time allotted? The upshot of the lecture was that sex should reveal something about the characters and/or advance the plot, and it should be organic to the story, or get rid of it.

Stephen Elliott on writing from experience: A writer should not deny himself the tools provided by his own experience when he creates a story. To get going, list your five most powerful memories and choose one as a starting point, even when writing fiction. Elliott suggested asking permission to use a story if you think someone will recognize herself. (So, what do you do about people who “recognize” themselves in your work when it’s not about them??)

One of the more contentious discussions occurred during a panel on the question of authority, or who “gets to” write about what. Some in the audience bridled at the suggestion that it’s all right for a writer who’s not a member of a particular culture or group to write about that group, to presume to tell “someone else’s” story—Does that in effect constitute “stealing” their voice? Panelists and other audience members pointed out that one person from outside a group writing a story doesn’t prevent someone inside that group from writing a story. (And, interestingly, those who protested were not members of those particular groups.) Karen Shepard said that writers are all truly “reptilian” beings—In other words, isn’t that what we do? Once we filter a story through our imagination and put it into words, it’s our own story, no one else’s.

Several mornings I awoke East Coast time, before the heat, to shuffle along the trail that goes around the pond. Something about it must have inspired me, because by the end of the week, I was jogging, having never done so before.

I came home from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose and ready to get to work, plus I have some new colleagues who I’d trust to read and comment on my writing, and a jogging itch I need to scratch. Now if only I could find a swamp with some nutria or even some ill-mannered ducks... ~~Paula Whyman

About: Paula Whyman received the 2006 Washington Writing Prize for a story that appeared in The Hudson Review. She’s a graduate of the American University MFA program, where she received the Myra Sklarew Thesis Award. She’s in the process of revising her novel.

Here is more information about the conference.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.