Monday, November 8, 2010

Workshopping the Weird Kid

One of the first AWP panels I attended, at the conference in Atlanta, was over teaching issues in the undergraduate creative writing workshop. I went happily, all of 22, expecting to hear about the nitty gritty of administrating the class I was still taking and hoped badly someday to teach. The panelists did a really good job of talking through the practicalities of thorny pedagogical issues like getting students to turn stuff in and putting grades on creative writing. The problem arose when it came time for questions, and someone stood to ask, "Can you speak about what's appropriate instruction for a student whose work is odd?"

The panelists had to work to decode this one. "Do you mean a student who writes things that are troubling? Violent, or pornographic?"

"No," the asker said. "Just work that makes the other students feel odd and uncomfortable."

"So, work that deals with uncomfortable subjects? Sex? Drug use?"

"No," said the asker. "Just weird." He may have clarified a little more, "Off balance."

The panelists did their best, but what the asker seemed to be wanting help with was dealing with a particular student who behaved and wrote things that were just plain weird--this was a student who talked somewhat too much and offered advice that surprised and sometimes offended others; this was a student who responded to workshop with puzzling explanations of what he was attempting and seemed unreceptive to suggestions that would bring his work more down to earth. The biggest problem seemed to be that this was a student whose work produced feelings of disquiet and discomfort in the professor and in other students, and that these feelings made them nervous to discuss the story and uncertain of what to suggest for its improvement.

Weirdness Quotient: 0
My first thought at the time was, "This kid is probably Mike." At the time (and it would be a lie to suggest that it hasn't happened since), Mike was turning in some stories that confused and alienated other students--the question "Is there really a unicorn? Does it really exist?" plagued pretty much every workshop of his fifth novel, a detective novel populated with totally usual humans along with fantasy beasts. People in his workshop seemed legitimately flummoxed by such a decision and how to workshop it; even though his professor understood and advocated that using a unicorn in an otherwise realistic story was a viable strategy, many of the students couldn't get past it enough to workshop characters, events, language, pacing. Put it together with the fact that Mike was (and is) known for supplying such workshop advice as "This book needs an orgy," and you have, I thought, this AWP attender's "problem student" in the flesh.

So naturally, I thought it was a pretty stupid question--a question that revealed him as someone unable to fathom work that discomfited as work that could produce legitimate reader responses and literary benefit. I still think he pretty much was, remembering the utter confusion of the panelists--who patiently tried to explain ways to conference with students who were behaving inappropriately, only to meet with his eventual withdrawing of the question, as the student was not inappropriate, crude, unstable, or cruel, just weird. He was forced to sit with his question unanswered--there's no good answer to his question, really, except to say that there's lots of people in the world, sir, and as long as they're not hurting anybody it's probably not worth your worry.

Weirdness Quotient: 2
...and yet...
But I have seen the real effects of asking students to workshop the weird. And I've heard, with all love and no offense, some truly half-baked responses to stories that operate on the presence of the off-kilter. If you think about it, it's a wide-reaching term--everything from the tamest satire to the most sweeping sci-fi has something  in it that's plainly weird, that doesn't operate on normal rules. It's simply inappropriate to suggest to someone who's written a story with a unicorn that the unicorn be taken out because it's weird. Because it's not relevant, because it's not effective, because it's not putting tension on any part of the story, sure. But its weirdness is conditional to its existence. If it wasn't weird, it would be a horse.

But many times these kinds of legitimate critiques of weirdness in fiction are buried beneath the simple reaction--the gut feeling that something is off and therefore is wrong. It can be really difficult in these situations to examine the weirdness present in a story for its utility instead of for the effects it was intended to produce--confusion, disgust, shock, alienation. These are valid effects for fiction, but like any other writing decision, they must be made to do work on the level of story and not just the level of reader reaction. Saying "I wanted the reader to feel confused," as most of us probably learned from our early flirtations with subtlety, does not in itself justify confusion. Separating the gut reaction from the story machinery is essential for both the critic and the writer of weird fiction.

Weirdness Quotient: 8.5
In my creative writing class this semester I have a student who is--just a little--weird, and who writes deeply weird things. Nothing worrying, nothing to occasion an intervention or a call to the campus crisis hotline. He's got evident skill with language, with scene, and with narration--he's particularly good at putting himself at a remove from his characters in order to bring us face to face with them and not face to face with the author. Which is, I'm starting to realize, a nearly essential characteristic of the mature writer of weird fiction--you really can't have the access to the writer that you get with a lot of literary realists, who, in an effort to achieve closeness with their characters, can fall into the trap of letting their perceptions leak into their narration. His confidence with many aspects of writing sells the weirdness in his stories, so that other students in my workshop find themselves forced to grapple with what the weirdness is and what its purpose is, even if everything else in them is telling them that it's too weird, that it ought to just be removed.

And in conducting these workshops, I realize how difficult it is after all to be a good teacher to the writer of weird fiction, particularly in the workshop setting. While I can usually provide pretty analytical feedback in notes, withdrawing myself completely from whether the weirdness works and instead examining how it could work, has worked in other examples, et cetera, in the workshop itself I am limited in my ability to direct other students toward the analytical. When I suggest that we take a look at what's striking us as weird and consider how that could have importance for the overall story arc, my students rarely make it past the first part. And it's often difficult to get writers of all stripes to talk really analytically in a workshop conversation--to work analytically, you usually have to speak for longer (a workshop no-no) and, to some degree, you have to set the terms for the discussion. You have to lay out an argument in the expectation that others will continue to tease out and articulate thoughts within that framework, and you have to be confident that others will find aspects of your argument interesting or important enough to discuss. Typically the point of workshop is not to lay out an argument beforehand--because it's partly based on reader response, on enacting for the writer the experience of several smart and savvy readers--and in an undergrad workshop, I think laying out an agenda is directly counterproductive, as students need the practice with identifying and explicating general issues in writing (contradictions, cliches, characterization) as much as they need to analyze and weigh elements of another student's story as elements to examine and experiment with in their own writing.

Weirdness Quotient: 9
...and yet...
I have a feeling this particular student in my class is getting a lot less from his workshops than the others because the students don't know yet how to interpret and put to work their gut feeling that something is weird. But taking charge of the discussion and setting its terms seems equally unhelpful, and ultimately destructive to the premise and goals of workshop, where together we arrive at better understandings than we would individually. I've begun to take the stance of that former professor of mine and Mike's, who didn't shut down unproductive talk about the believability of unicorns, but who did say that it was a decision that could work, and that it was a decision that was clearly consciously made. Often with all of my students' weirdest or least familiar stuff, I seem to take the position of gentle advocate--validating the fact that the decision to be weird is a purposeful one, and that it is a decision that has been made before, by countless successful and beloved authors.

Is this enough? How can we as teachers better make space for weird fiction in the workshop, and how can we establish a framework within which to analyze it critically--as a product amenable to change within its terms, and not as something we can't understand and thus must either shrug off, as an author's weird whim, or deny, as an author's weird mistake?


  1. That book really does need an orgy in it.

  2. Nice article and good question. Maybe the solution is to prompt/force everyone to write at least one piece that, to them at least, is weird. It might free people up to deal with the resulting stories instead of with whatever particular elements skew them. And it's probably worth doing considering the kid writing the weird fiction is probably the one most likely to produce something, someday at least, worth reading. I know that when I think about my undergrad workshop days, the only stories I remember clearly:

    1) dealt with the capturing of the Devil in a curio box

    2) was a bloody mess of romantic revenge


    3) took place in an S&M club.

    The ones I hardly recall were the safe relationship stories.

    Also "Is there really a unicorn? Does it really exist?" would make a perfect title.

  3. Oh man you're right that's an incredible title.

  4. Great article. Something I come across with 'Inkspill Magazine' submissions, too.

    I want to publish things that are different and 'weird', but they can't just be weird for the sake of it, just because they want to confuse the reader, as you put it. As you say, the weirdness may be intrinsic to the story, but it needs to be effective, relevant and able to build tension. Something I found in one of Mike's stories, which will be appearing in the January issue of 'Inkspill Magazine'.

    I'd like to link to this post on my own blog if you don't mind :)

  5. Of course you can link -- by all means.

    Also thanks.