I’m in Josip Novakovich’s fiction workshop, which met today. There are 10 of us in the workshop plus one auditor, who sits in and reads the stories and participates in the discussions but doesn’t turn in a story of her own to be commented on by the rest of us, which is the Bread Loaf equivalent of paying your dentist to not fix your toothache but to just jab at you with his metal hooks and bloody up your gums for fun. I can’t understand why someone would want to be in a workshop but not turn in work. Our auditor, on the first day we met, said that she was doing it for mental exercise. (“Some people go kayaking on vacation, I want to exercise my brain.”)
Rachel, another waiter in Josip’s workshop, and I made up nicknames for some of the people in the workshop we didn’t already know because there are 200 people here and you meet them all at once, so it’s impossible to keep all the names straight. (Also, we thought it was funny.) We call a woman who just gave up her career in advertising to write fiction full time Snappy Pants, because she wore jeans to the first workshop with snaps up the calves. There’s a girl who graduated a year or two ago from Middlebury (which owns the Bread Loaf campus)—Rachel thinks she looks kind of like a ballerina, so we call her Dancey. We got bored of the nicknaming, so the rest of the people in our workshop don’t have them: The auditor, who works as a lobbyist in Washington, occasionally wears a tan fishing hat with a patch that reads DENNIS HASTERT, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE. There’s a girl in the 200-person MFA program at Emerson in Boston, and there’s Porter, a nice guy from Maine who works for a skiing magazine that once sent him to Turkey with a $10,000 expense account. There are a few other people in the workshop, including another waiter, Agi, who read last night.
Today, we talked about Snappy Pants’ story “The Last Four Songs,” which is based on a newspaper article about a nurse’s aide in Fort Worth, Texas, who hit a homeless man with her car. He went through her windshield, head first, and she drove with him like that, impaled in her car, to her garage—where he bled to death after several days. (For a Web site devoted to the story, click here.) In Snappy’s version, the man hit by the car is a masochist ad executive, Ivan Tatty, who wields a lot of power at work but who likes to call his S&M partner, Dominique, on the phone for orders during the day. (” ‘I want you to shove a pencil up your ass and go to your fancy French lunch. Ivy, are you listening to me?’ barked Ivan’s mistress.”)
We talked a lot about the unintentional race issues raised by her story (in both real life and Snappy’s story, the driver of the car is black), and about how black characters are portrayed in the fictionalized version (the man in the window, Des’ree Wilson—”better known as W.”—comes off looking a bit like a caricature), and, by the end of the discussion, Snappy’d pretty much decided that when she got home she’d rework her story and make the driver character white, because the story’s really about issues of being “stuck” more than it’s about issues of race.
We also discussed Porter’s story “Florence” about a former artist, an American, who visits Florence, Italy, and becomes so upset with the tourists (“Middle-aged Ohioans in sweat suits surrounded me … they all wore puffy red name badges that said Ciao! in fluorescent green”) that he goes a little nuts and destroys a fresco by shaking his bottle of seltzer all over it.
Most people in this workshop make comments that are constructive but not overly critical, as if each story’s some near-perfect gem that just needs to be polished up a little. (Someone told Dancey that he really enjoyed her story about baby sitters a lot, so much that he had nothing bad to say about it, and that night I’m pretty sure I saw him and Dancey slow-dancing together at a party.) This sort of thing’s pretty common in workshops, but it drives me nuts. When I leave Bread Loaf on Sunday, I have to drive 22 hours to Missouri, where I’m teaching a fiction workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s the first workshop I’ve taught, and I’m not going to let this sort of everyone’s-story’s-wonderful attitude fly—I’m going to spend the 22-hour drive to school figuring out a way to explain that flattering a first draft in order to spare a writer’s feelings does a pretty horrible disservice to the writer, fails to take short stories seriously, that sort of thing. Hopefully I’ll think up some way to say that that doesn’t come off sounding so obnoxious. When we do my story in Josip’s workshop on Thursday, I hope the group’s more aggressive in its criticism; if someone doesn’t have anything bad to say about my story, I hope he’ll just step right up and punch me in the face.