Sitting In On Chuck Palahniuk & Friend's Writer's Workshop
Author photo by John Gress, used with permission.
So the main course of my trip to Portland was to interview Chuck Palahniuk for the release of Damned (tune in next week for that). But the dessert was being invited to sit in on one of the most coveted writing groups in the country, if not the planet. Yes, THAT writing group. The one that has given us Chuck, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake, Chelsea Cain, etc… all published and polished authors who have the collective insight, experience, and divergent POVs to make any noob wonder what the heck he’s doing there.
I knew a little about how it all worked- some details directly from Chuck’s mouth, some from interviews with Drake and Yuknavitch- but that's about it. Tantalizing glimpses that have attracted the attention of writers everywhere. To my knowledge, no journalist had ever been given this level of access to the cloistered circle and lived to tell the tale. It was a daunting experience. Fortunately someone had thought to bring wine. And gin.
Chuck and I were among the first to arrive, so I was allowed to survey the place a bit before we got started in earnest. There we were, in an artist’s environment- not the usual dark dank one associates with a metal sculptor, but the backroom of a first-rate gallery. Kinetic sculptures, paintings, gallery lighting, and comfy chairs circling a coffee table populated by a few bottles of the kind of courage it takes to attend, let alone read at, such a thing.
After a few introductions, I was asked by one among the group if I was going to be quoting. I told them no, there will be no quotes. That I understood and respected the sanctity of the writer’s workshop. It is no place for censure, or the fear of misconstrued/misquoted words being let loose into the wild, yada yada. Shoulders relaxed a bit, and words began to fly.
Two among the group were reading that night, one with a “problem piece” she was worried about. It was an inclusion in her memoir that served a greater purpose, but in her mind, was hard to justify. Another brought a powerful piece that had already been bought by a national magazine, and she was specifically looking for feedback that addressed the targeted concerns of her editors.
But first, another author presented her ARCs for review as there had previously been some discussion about color and layout, and the consensus was that what they were seeing was perfect. This called to mind something Chuck said about the importance of a writer’s group: everyone has a different strength they bring to the table. Some are surreally gifted writers, others are masters of marketing, others have a keen editorial eye, and so on. Something one might dismiss as a matter of show-and-tell, was actually the result of some serious thought and attention to detail. Feedback of an unexpected type, but just as critical to the completion of a year’s worth of work.
So with glasses filled, apprehensions at my presence allayed, and pens retrieved from pockets and purses, we commenced the workshop proper.
Our first reader passed around copies for all in attendance (such is the custom, that when it is your turn to read, you bring your pages, typically 4-8, and a copy for each in attendance, which is normally nine, my presence notwithstanding), gave a bit of back story to the piece (which everyone but myself had the benefit of knowing beforehand), then began to read. It was not unlike a poetry reading- inflections and emotions painting the written words for us, audio cues helping immensely to understand what the author was driving at. After the reading, there was a pause as the group caught up on their notes. Then, one brave soul starts the critique process, and then after her, another offers her comments, and another, all while the author nods and notates, asks a few cross-examination and/or viewpoint questions. Once all have spoken their say, all copies are returned to the author, their notes to be digested over the next week.
Our second reader talked a bit about what she was trying to accomplish for the sake of her editors, and with that seed planted in our mind, we sat back and listened just as we had done before. This piece was different, as it was a completed, magazine length work that had some dark subject matter (go figure) and some rewarding meanings for the reader who cared to go deeper. Again, the dialogue was sparked by one, and the flame spread across the room until the piece was refined back into the hands of the author.
Some ideas were minor technical nits. Others were suggestions for wholly new directions, or for lopping off a good portion of authorial voice, or for pruning one chorus while tilling the soil of others. Nothing was ever argued or shot down. Everything was taken in, everything was noted, and everything went as smooth as could be.
So why was this such an important event to witness? Because this is what a writer’s workshop is supposed to be. You see, everyone felt comfortable, immensely comfortable, with one another. This level of comfort was evidenced by the (albeit short-lived) DIS-comfort at my presence, initially. When an intimate group of people who respect themselves is formed, you have this fertile ground for ideas, for praise and criticism, for sharpening each other’s skills and works. When these same people can speak to one another freely, can stand up amongst themselves without fear, you get nothing but honesty. And every writer needs honesty when it comes to feedback. I’m sure this didn’t happen overnight, but I feel like a guy who walked into a print shop during a press run, and saw all these things working together fast and harmonious, all different machines working together towards a common result. I know this didn’t just happen, that it took time and effort to put together, and that it takes an equal amount to get it running as smoothly. But sometimes you just sit there and watch the pages turn, in awe of how it works.
And like that three hours had flown by.
So, if you are thinking about setting up your own writer’s workshop, your own little group of authors, here are some things I think, having sat in on this talent-packed group, will guarantee united success:
- Positive reinforcement. There is no room for competition or personal agendas in such a place. This is like going to see a therapist, only to have them tell you how much more serious THEIR problems are. Be unselfish of your time, thoughts, and ideas. I witnessed more than a few authors that night give some really good ideas up to their fellow workshopper, ideas that some of us might be inclined to keep for ourselves. And even when there were dissenting views, the vibe was always, always, always upbeat and positive. No one was ever allowed to feel like their work was a waste, a loss, or irreparable. We all need positive reinforcement, and when you are in a group that you are willing to open up to, to share your work, your children with, well you want them to handle you and your emotions with care. Caveat: honesty is still needed when something doesn’t work, and when an author reads their work while you are reading it, you can pick up a lot in their voice that may not be translated on the page. So you need to be able to articulate your thoughts on what did or didn’t work, and to help the author towards their goal when they state a specific agenda at the outset.
- Respect. Mutual respect of one’s work, one’s time, and one’s ability. Not only were the assembled parties attentive and focused on the reader and her piece, the reader was also attentive and responsive to the feedback she received from those who had just heard her read. As the old saying goes, it is a two-way street.
- There are no bad ideas. When a workshop fosters a safe haven for information exchange, the foisting of opinions, and all manner of crosstalk, you can feel free and secure in trying out new things. There might be some literary spit-balling going on, some unique styles and voices, some real stretches – and everyone will respect your for your effort, and reward you with an honest appraisal, good or bad – and an honest appraisal is the ultimate end-game to any writing group.
- Take it with you. You don’t just walk away from this workshop and go back to your jobs, families or drug habits – you take a copy of YOUR work, with notes and ideas from each of those in attendance. You have, in addition to the face time you enjoy with one another, hard copy feedback that you should let marinate over the coming week.
So there it is. An inside look at the mechanics of Chuck Palahniuk’s group of writing buds. No chants. No passwords. Just great writers with great feedback, wrapped in love and a familial sense of protection and respect for one another. In other words: what every writer wants and needs.
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