Gut Punch My Writing

Holding hands eating snakeskin sandwiches in front of an obelisk in the rain! OK, now that I’ve set the emotional tone…

Earlier this month I stepped out of my warm blanket/secret laptop/encrypted file comfort zone and took a few hesitant steps into the bigger world, the brighter world, the terrifying world…of aspiring writers. Participating in a Clarion West one-day workshop with Helen Marshall, it was my first experience in “coming out of the closet” as a writer to anyone but my boyfriend (hashtag bless his patience and encouragement…), and the hopeful beginning of a new chapter (har, har) in my on-again, off-again relationship with artistic expression.

Here’s what happened.

We started with name tags. Actually, with folded pieces of paper that we set in front of us like Microsoft employees at a team-building weekend. I folded my in half, name on one side, and set it way too close to the center of the table. As such, it flipped and flopped throughout the entire workshop and I’m not sure anyone but the person sitting directly across from me even saw my name. The guy to my right had the brilliant idea of folding his into thirds, setting it upright like a tower, and writing his name on all three faces at the top like Sauron’s Dark Tower, only friendlier. I was really jealous of his tower but wasn’t assertive enough to knock down my own drooping name tent and build another in its image. Pro-tip for next time.

So we knew each other’s names, and the person sitting directly across from me knew mine. Now we did introductions. Name (again), why we write, what we write, and where we’ve been published. Wait, what? I wasn’t sure if Twitter counted as being published so I said “Hi, my name is Ross [gestures to flaccid tent] and I write because I’m used to work in theatre and now I’m a scientist and I need a creative outlet and I ‘write’ [air quotes] speculative fiction and short stories and stuff and iveneverbeenpublished.” I sank several inches in my chair and waited patiently as a few dozen published flash fiction authors and again as many published novelists told tales of their forthcoming omnibusses (omnibi?)* to rival the worlds of Tolkien and Whedon. After introductions were complete we dug into the workshop.

I won’t go over the gory details here, but suffice it to say the atmosphere was mostly collegial (except for that awkward moment when one participant engaged in major eye-rolling because they thought their exercise partner was taking too long to write a prompt), and consisted of readings, discussion, and the aforementioned exercises designed to evoke emotional resonance (the “Gut Punch”) in our writing. I even followed through on a secret promise I made to myself the night before that if we were called upon to read something we’d written, I would definitely volunteer. Of course it was a secret promise because I didn’t want anyone to know if I chickened out at the last minute, because Helen and the other writers were mean and nasty and witchy and I didn’t dare share my writing because they would record it and pass it around in emails to feed their darkened souls that grew fat on the misfortune of others. Luckily, Helen was delightfully nerdy, knowledgeable, and kind, and instilled in me the confidence to share my paragraph like the seasoned pro that she is.

After ruminating on the lessons of the day for the past few weeks, I’m left with the following tidbits:

  1. Twitter does not count as being published
  2. The purpose of writing is to evoke a feeling of empathy in the reader (this is obvious in hindsight but boy-howdy did it rock my writing boat).
  3. Exploring emotional dissonance (unexpected juxtapositions of emotional action and reaction) is fertile ground for stories.
  4. Readers often enjoy accessing ‘taboo’ emotions in characters.
  5. Emotional resolution of a story usually trumps resolution of action.

And of course I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least include a tiny tidbit of what I wrote for one of our exercises. Tried but true, the prompt was to ‘describe a building from the perspective of a man whose son has just died in war, without mentioning either of those things.’

The exposed girders of the unfinished office building reached up into the sky, like ribs of some enormous beast, until they disappeared into the thin, low hanging clouds. Garish caution tape was draped across the sidewalk and cheap plywood protected the valuable reams of copper pipe that sat untouched on the other side. Scaffolding crisscrossed the first several floors and shredded visqueen flapped in the breeze like ghosts waving pedestrians away. “Don’t come any closer, there’s nothing left for you to see here.” A loud clang rang out from the higher floors, but there were no workers to be seen. The echo seemed to linger for an unnaturally long time, bouncing off the smooth faces of the buildings that crowded on either side. Eventually, it faded, the light breeze slackened, and the building seemed to hunker down and wait.

Done and dusted. Now it’s time to start practicing my emotional evocation and name-tower-folding in anticipation for the next workshop.

*I looked it up, 4 out of 5 random online sources prefer ‘omnibusses’

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