Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reflections on the Tin House Summer Workshop: “An Amazing Display of How Many Ways You Can Do This”

By Drew Ciccolo
Reed College, Portland, OR
July 2017

Rapt attention: Workshop participants
On July 9, along with upwards of 250 other odd ducks, I arrived in Portland, Oregon, for the 15th annual Tin House Summer Workshop (THSW). In a packed Reed College lecture hall, the magazine’s editor and co-founder, Rob Spillman, reminded us that all writing is political and to take care of ourselves over the course of the next week before introducing the workshop’s hard-working director, Lance Cleland, who bears a strong resemblance to the late actor River Phoenix.

Lance is frequently likened to a ship’s captain, and in his welcome speech, he joked that some of us might be thrown overboard, that we only had so much food. He also characterized his relationship to the workshop as a marriage, and since it was his seventh year as director, he said he’d felt compelled to spice the marriage up this year by role-playing with our manuscripts. But what I found most interesting was his elucidation of the Tin House aesthetic, which informed the difficult choices made while culling the 212 participants from a record-number of applicants (just over 1300, if I heard correctly), as well as the selection of faculty. Briefly, this aesthetic might be defined as one focusing on writers who exemplify the idea that there are a multitude of ways to write compelling work that demonstrates a spirit of generosity. He urged us to help shepherd others in our workshops down the path they want to forge, not the path we think the market may dictate or a path we might, for whatever reason, be tempted to impose on their work, to be kind to one another, to be critical of the work and not the person, and to let everyone in the room have a voice.

The Workshop

The short fiction faculty this year was comprised of Aimee BenderAnthony Doerr (whose collection Memory Wall won the 2010 Story Prize), Danielle Evans, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Link, Jim Shepard (whose collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway won the 2007 Story Prize), and Claire Vaye Watkins (whose collection Battleborn won the 2012 Story Prize). When a writer applies to THSW, they’re asked for their top four preferences. Though I’d read and liked stories by almost all these writers and had a hard time ranking my preferences, putting Manuel Gonzales at the top turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent memory.

Workshop pilot Manuel Gonzales (green cap)
and the eclectic dozen (Drew in red cap).
In line with the Tin House aesthetic, our workshop consisted of an eclectic dozen, including: a tax accountant with five graduate degrees living in Chattanooga; a Pakistani journalist and fiction writer who now lives in Dubai; a woman from Salt Lake City who now lives in Maui (with goats); a writer, playwright, theatrical director, and producer living in LA; and a woman born in Thailand and raised in Hong Kong who now lives and teaches in San Francisco. Ages ranged from early-twenties to early-forties. Some had MFAs and some didn’t. We quickly developed a strong sense of camaraderie, in large part because Manuel—a wry, easygoing bear cub of a man whose voice reminds me of Jerry Garcia’s—created a warm, down-to-earth, frequently funny atmosphere.

On the plane to Portland, I read a story of his, called “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” about passengers on a plane that’s been circling the Dallas/Fort Worth airport “at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to [their] best estimates, around twenty years,” which, along with other stories in his debut 2013 collection, The Miniature Wife, placed him high in my pantheon of great speculative fiction writers. Most of us in his workshop submitted speculative stories—to wit, five dystopian stories (three of them post-apocalyptic), a story containing a portal to another world, a ghost story, a story narrated by a woman with wings, and a story in which the narrator inadvertently kills a gnome.

Over the course of the week, we delved into a slew of craft considerations. Among the topics we discussed were:

•  Methods of inspiring a reader to suspend disbelief, taking care not to cause a reader to ask superfluous or distracting questions about the story-world; 
•  How a reader can feel satisfaction when a narrator brings up the very doubt the reader is harboring;
•  The idea that if a conceit or phenomenon in a story is far-fetched, there doesn’t necessarily need to be an answer as to why what’s occurring is occurring, but a character or characters should, generally speaking, have questions akin to those a reader would have;
•  The relationship between a given character’s level of self-awareness (especially in terms of how s/he comes across to others) and a reader’s inclination to sympathize with said character;
•  How the oldest story can be opened up in a different way and made new when it’s being processed through eyes that are not our eyes;
•  Using a negation of normal reality or an unreal proxy—like the protagonist’s interaction with his father’s ghost in Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin,” or a meditative dying moment like the one in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”—to trick your reader into believing they’re in a situation that allows you to just “come right out and say the shit you want to say” and not have to rely on metaphor or subtext;
•  How it can be a good idea to be sappy and over-the-top in terms of emotion and sentimentality in a first draft, then pull those elements back in future drafts, which is usually easier than going back in and injecting emotion and sentimentality later;
•  Raising your freak flag and raising it high by digging right into any bizarre conceit(s) or phenomena at the beginning of the story; and
•  Not being afraid to ask a lot of fundamental “what ifs” during revision, e.g. “Instead of [this], what if [that]?” (this advice came from Manuel via Ramona Ausubel’s fall 2015 craft lecture at the Institute of American Indian Arts).

We also talked about putting together story collections with overarching narratives, so that they’re cohesive collections as opposed to The Collected Works of [You, Me, Whoever]. 

Craft Lectures

In “This Lecture is Like a Smoldering Rabbit,” Anthony Doerr, who’s become concerned of late that similes have fallen out of favor, energetically sought to “examine the power of similes, study a few good ones, marshal a defense of them and, by association, their more capacious kinfolk, metaphors, by suggesting that they present to us as writers a unique superpower, a superpower of connectivity that, when used well, like all superpowers, might just save the world.” He began by citing Frank Jenners Wilstach’s A Dictionary of Similes (1916), the 540 pages of which contain “thousands of unattributed, folksy, weird, and futilely sexist similes” (“quiet as a woman the first day-and-a-half she’s married” inspired quite a ruckus), to show that “language, like biology, is subject to the forces of natural selection,” that “the fashion for combining certain words in certain combinations comes and goes and no cliché is a cliché forever.” So, even hackneyed “analogies such as ‘cold as ice’ or ‘busy as a bee,’” Doerr explained, “given enough time, perhaps after the polar ice caps have melted and the bees have gone extinct, might become fresh and interesting once more in the way that, say, ‘bright as saucepans’ or ‘hot as the hinges of hell’ probably sound more strange and interesting to our contemporary ears than they did to Wilstach’s readers a century ago.”
Anthony Doerr talking about simile
like someone with a point to make

Doerr also provided us with a couple of honorable mentions from The Washington Post’s twice-run painfully bad analogy contest:

“McBride fell twelve stories and landed like a Hefty bag full of vegetable soup.”

“She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.”

Doerr went on to discuss the use of simile and metaphor in the Iliad, T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo.

One of the biggest highlights, though, for me, was an analysis of two similes in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (which uses nine of them in total, each brilliant). Doerr focused on four images of the woods, the second and the third of which are similes, in order to show that they do an immense amount of work (in very few words) and substantially affect the way the final, simile-free image of the woods functions. The first image of the woods (simile-free) alongside the road the grandmother and her family are stranded on comes just before the car carrying The Misfit and his accomplices appears: the woods are “tall and dark and deep.” A little later, after The Misfit and Co. have arrived and as the family sits vulnerable in the ditch, O’Connor, as Doerr put it, “smacks us with her biggest simile so far”:

“Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” 

For Doerr, what this simile “allows O’Connor to do is open a second eyeball in our mind—an open mouth overlays the woods, and now the threat that surrounds the grandmother and her family and surrounds us as readers is both amplified and complicated.” At this moment, he explained, “O’Connor needs us to see a line of trees but she also needs the trees to become more than trees; she needs us to see the woods while simultaneously seeing something darker, something more chilling, something that devours.” Two pages later, after Bailey Boy has been taken into the woods and two gunshots are heard, “just in case the first simile has started to fade from our attention,” Doerr explained, “O’Connor invokes the magic again—again she starts with the trees (a) and ends with the body (b)”:

“She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.”

“For a second time,” Doerr noted here, “trees (a), become linked to something strange (b),” and  “through the magic of simile, the connection is buttressed.” Nature, he enthusiastically continued, “is activated, the woods come further to life—they’re insucking, they’re salivating, they’re gonna eat the whole family,” and “weirdly, the woods and the devouring mouth become of the same kind,” so that “by the time O’Connor again allows the woods their own sentence…

‘There was nothing around her but woods.’

… she no longer even needs the simile at all. In the system of imagery O’Connor has built in our mind,” Doerr concluded, “the woods have already become far more than woods—they’ve become oblivion.”

Aimee Bender gave what may have been the most ambitious of the lectures I attended: “Pace, Suspense, Locomotion: What Makes Something Move on a Page?” In this talk Bender ruminated on how certain writers work with pacing and gave some helpful tips on how to most effectively pace a narrative—essentially, she sought to de-abstract the idea of pace, and, to my mind, she succeeded brilliantly.

In “In Particular, the Universal,” Manuel Gonzales contrasted contrasted the lyrics, all vague and abstract, of a popular song from 2013 with the poem “A Woman with No Legs” by Natalie Diaz, one of the poetry faculty at THSW, in order to show that a writer must earn abstraction by first digging down into the concrete particulars of a given narrative. At some point in the lecture, maybe during the Q&A, he also offered the following wisdom: “Write better shit.”

In “Structure Where You Least Expect It,” Jim Shepard opened up his late friend Denis Johnson’s short story “Emergency” by giving it an awe-inspiring close read, contrasting Fuckhead and Georgie by tracking their dreams of themselves and their probable realities, then showing, having broken the story into distinct sections, that the nuanced disruptions of linear chronology in the story have huge implications.

Closing Thoughts

Reed College: Seeing the light
By the time July 9th rolled around, I was already feeling a good deal of apathy toward the story I submitted to be workshopped. On the second or third day, though, I was walking back to campus from Safeway when I had a revelation concerning how I want to approach my writing going forward. This revelation, which has to do with voice and form (I’ve got plenty of content in my head already), shook loose for myriad reasons and had been, I think, a long time coming, but reading stories by Manuel Gonzales and workshopping with him was what finally sent it over the transom into my conscious mind. It seems to me this is the sort of thing that spending a full week thinking about and discussing the craft of writing can bring about, a fresh take on one’s own work, and though the revelation I had is difficult to communicate, of all that happened during my week at THSW, it’s what I’m most grateful for.