Every spring I teach a 14-week undergraduate writing workshop at my university. It’s a fiction writers bootcamp. Each Monday we address a new technique: point-of-view, narrative distance, dialogue, tension, plotting, narrative college. The list goes on: thirteen topics, in all, with weekly assignments, including a pile of required readings from modern and contemporary short stories, a series of brain-stretching essay questions designed to get everyone thinking like writers, and a creative assignment.
The creative assignments are short and focused, ranging from a 200-word-story flash fiction piece t0 the 1500-word “first political memory” assignment, during First Person Week, when we tackled the task of writing from the point of view of a child protagonist. Technique builds upon technique. When we study narrative distance, everyone writes a parody of bad writing, using awkward, uneven distance shifts, on the theory that mastering pratfalls will teach us to avoid pitfalls. Everyone’s work gets attention in class,in either whole- or small-group workshops. Some weeks, the pieces are presented directly by their authors, and some weeks we have an anonymous “contest”.
On contest days, members of the class email me their submissions by 9 AM, and I create a xeroxed handout of everyone’s work, randomly ordered and numbered. No one, not even me, knows who has written what during the discussion. They read the entries aloud, going around in a circle, and critique them. Then they embark on the arduous task of choosing three winners. My only rule is that the class must decide the criteria for evaluation in advance, and they must choose the winners through a consensus process, not a straight vote. That is, everyone must be okay with the results. The prizes are simple: books of short fiction or books about technique that correspond to the topic du jour.
My students are riveted by the contests. It isn’t about winning, or the prizes, although everyone likes to win, and the prizes are nice (I spend a few hundred dollars, out of pocket, on the books, and wrap them in bronze, silver, and gold paper.) It’s because they are truly swept up in the thoughtful, responsible process of evaluation. The anonymous critiques are rough, my students say, rougher than a regular workshop because these evaluations are nakedly honest. By the time they are down to a list of semi-finalists, the discussion is pretty heated. Eliminating the non-winners feels like voting beloved characters off an island. They argue passionately about the strengths and weaknesses of the contestants (when the authors are revealed, in the end, it’s interesting to see that writers often argue against their own work.) While there is sometimes a clear winner, in the end, the chosen stories are often the result of compromise. And, while an occasional member of workshop wins more than once over the course of the semesters, the results are unpredictable.
One of the reasons we do these contests is that I want them to understand the way artistic work is adjudicated by committees. I want them to see that work that is ultimately rejected behind closed doors may have been argued for passionately, even triumphed. I want them to see that fantastic, audacious, risk-taking work can be polarizing, and is often rejected by committees in favor of safer work that everyone can agree on. I want them to see that the order in which their work is presented will affect its reception. If the group is fatigued from reading and discussing a dozen longish pieces, number 13 will be indeed unlucky. The works are read aloud, going around the circle– if yours is read by the the student with a beautiful British accent, it will fare better than the one read by a shy mumbler. I want them to see this process in action, because it will help them to weather the inevitable, baffling, and heartbreaking rejections that they will experience as they forge ahead in their lives.
Yesterday, our last class of the semester, we tackled Endings. The assignment was to create an ending from an un-Googleable published short story which I gave them– minus its last 400 words. This year, the story I chose was “Turid”, written by my former student, the deliciously subversive poet and fiction writer Rachel B. Glaser. “Turid”, the story of a talking flower and the cruel little girl who picks it, was published a few years ago in a print-only journal, Cousin Corinne, now defunct. Perfect.
As often happens, the real ending for the story, slyly embedded as #7 in the anonymous handout, did not win our contest, although it did make the finals. The class debated earnestly. Some loved #7 and felt it was perfect. Others argued that its opening, which specifically referenced the ambiguity of the flower’s gender seemed out-of-place, but loved the irony in the final line. Others liked the opening, but declared the last line was facile. In the end, #7 placed third, behind #4, the unanimous favorite, and #9, a piece that everyone agreed was flawed, but which was chosen through uneasy compromise.
As the person who chose the story in the first place, my experience of the contest was impure— I was already enchanted with #7, the real ending, and would have chosen nothing else. It was different for my students. First, they had struggled in solitude to find an appropriate conclusion to this strange, beautiful story. Next, they struggled together to come to some mutual agreement on the best of fourteen possible candidates. In the end– and the three-hour class ran overtime– after the effort of re-imagining “Turid” with its true ending, the winning writers were revealed. And then everyone wanted to guess who had written each of the alternate endings. After 14 weeks of reading one another’s work closely, week after week, no one, not even me was able to guess the authors of most of the entries. Not even after, by process of elimination, when we were down to the final two or three stories. They had worked diligently to create an ending that matched the tone and sensibility of “Turid”. We had before us 13 unique, creative possibilities, each a display of technical competence that would not have been possible at the start of the semester.
All in all, a pretty good way to end.