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Mary Todd Attends a Writing Workshop

I really enjoy my writing workshops. I’ve found them, and the people who attend them, to be inspirational. They force me to sit down and write without overthinking. I’m always amazed by the variety of voices and stories that can come from a group of writers doing the same exercise. There’s also something comforting about being in a room full of people who are in the same boat — looking to improve their craft, or find a voice, or just get a nudge into writing a bit more, or perhaps a bit differently or deeper, than they already do. It’s an instant support group.

And then came Ted. It wasn’t his real name, which was long and had way too many consonants and misplaced vowels, but he said we can call him Ted, cause it’s easier. So why didn’t he just write Ted on his nametag?

We were going round the table, making introductions at yesterday’s creative writing workshop. “Nothing elaborate,” the instructor said, “just tell us your name (for those of us who can’t read name tags), where you are with your writing, and what you’re hoping to get our of today.”

My favorite was “my writing and I aren’t on speaking terms at the moment.”

“Well, writing is how I make my living.” Ted announced, like he was lecturing at a symposium. “I really don’t know what to expect, so I’m sitting close to the door just in case. I’m only here because some friends of mine bought this for me, saying I should get out more and meet people, and since I’m already a writer they thought this would be good for me.”

Oh boy. It was as if Addison De Witt had aged about 30 years, lost his charm and become, if possible, more arrogant and condescending.

We moved on. The first exercise was to go for 5 minutes, finishing this sentence, “It is true am I …” Easy enough. Split up into pairs, read your pieces to each other. Mine was a glib bitchfest about the polterguest. My neighbor’s was a profound couple of paragraphs about his discomfort feeling both superior and inadequate as a gay man in a hetero world. Good stuff. Then it was go back to the piece, rewriting it in third person. Change as little as you can, and see what happens. Mine lost its immediacy. J’s became much more layered, not really being able to discern the line between what the character felt and where the narrator was commenting on it. Really interesting work.

Discussion was opened up to the table. “I didn’t like the first part at all, “ Ted said. “Writing all of this ‘I’ stuff … it sounded too confessional and amateurish. All so much ‘dear diary.’ That’s just not the way I write and it isn’t anything I’d want to read.”

Fair enough. Some people like first person, and some people don’t. I think it depends on the story.

We moved on. It’s still only about 25 minutes into the 5-hour workshop.

Next up was a reading from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. I had not heard of the writer or the book. The excerpt was from the beginning of the book. I thought the writing was poetic and perhaps a bit over-dramatic. But it had a certain style, almost dream-like in some of its imagery and flow, like she was mining patches of her memory as she talked about what made her the woman she is.

We finished the three-page handout. “Any thoughts?” the instructor asked.

Ted tossed the handout into the middle of the table. “It’s rubbish.”

When asked to elaborate, he went on about how much he hated Audre Lorde, how she was overrated and was far from being the master of her craft. She was trying to be poetic and it was just drivel. “Don’t get me wrong, I like poetry very much. I write a lot of it myself and it’s very personal, but I toss it under the bed where it belongs. This belongs under her bed.” He went on to say that before his current writing work in the theater (okay, we get it, you’re a WRITER), he used to be an editor for gay and lesbian publishing in the 80s and this type of self-aggrandizing confessional writing had run its course.

“I saw her read once, alongside Maya Angelou. She fancied herself to be Toni Morrison or someone and she’s just not. If she were a white man, she’d never have been published,” he said, crossing his arms and adding, “I’ll just sit out on this discussion. It’s not for me.”

Like anybody wanted to discuss after that. But we did, a little. People tenderly danced around what they liked, often acknowledging Ted’s dismissal of it with asides like “I do agree that it could have used some editing.”

So we finished up with the opening session, and were ready for our first break. Before we left, the instructor asked if we could add one more house rule to the existing shortlist. “Can we agree to not call anyone’s work ‘rubbish’ for the rest of the day? I’d like us all to go out on some limbs this afternoon, and if we can start calling published work garbage, then what are we going to say about raw words fresh on the page?”

I thought it was nicely put. A simple request to help us amateurs feel a little safer about writing personal stories (and that’s how this guy works … he teaches to draw on your own stories and then find ways to fictionalize them).

“Oh, I’ve read your books,” Ted said to the instructor. I was waiting for him to say they’re not rubbish, but he just put on his jacket for the smoke break. He’d been very clear early on that he needed his cigarette breaks, not that his yellowed teeth (a fitting complement to his jaundiced disposition) didn’t tell us that for him.

As I was leaving the room to stretch my legs and grab a coffee I heard Ted say, “This approach just isn’t for me. I’m a professional writer and if I’m not free to call something rubbish when it clearly is … “ and by then I was out of the room.

So we lost Ted.

And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the workshop?

The rest of the day was lovely. Some really good work came up. I have several pages of new ideas. I walked away with some new jump-starts and perspectives for my writing. I heard the beginnings of great stories from a very diverse group of interesting men, some who already wrote, some who swore they had no creative bones in their bodies (and whether they believe it or not, were wrong in that assumption).

Despite having taken classes from this guy before, only one of the exercises was a repeat, and that’s a fun one I’ve done a few times since. Write down the alphabet, one letter on each line of your paper. Go back to the top and write down the first word that comes into your mind for each letter. Write down the name of someone you’ve loved deeply. Now write a love poem to that person using those 26 words in the order they’re listed. You’ve got five minutes.

Sure it’s silly. Sure it’s “rubbish.” But some good nuggets come out of it. You just never know.

The very last thing we did was to spend 6 or 7 minutes writing a list. The instructions were simple enough. “Finish the following sentence and then do it again till I say stop: ‘I want to write about ….’ “

I got about a page full of writing prompts out of that. Hearing everyone else’s list, I got at least that many more. But, to be honest, there was one I didn’t put down on my page, ‘cause I figured we’d be reading them aloud and I didn’t want to be the one who went there.

I want to write about pretentious arrogant twats who can assasinate a room's creative energy with a mere flash of their nicotine-stained grimace.

Job done.