Talking and Listening at Tin House

Hello from Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Oregon! This is a weeklong writing workshop hosted at Reed College by indie publisher Tin House, featuring some crazy-good faculty and some pretty bad coffee.

The week is centered on an MFA-style daily meeting with a group of 12 students and one faculty member of matching genre. Each day the works of two students are discussed for nearly an hour each. Some teachers focus on structure—this character isn’t working, the ending isn’t set up well, the story should be longer or told from a different perspective. Others focus on specific sentences, lines, or words. Some teachers work like moderators, guiding students towards the areas that need refinement. Others run a workshop like a master class, speaking for an hour straight about a students’ writing while everyone takes notes and, hopefully, learns.

Today a friend from last summer’s writing workshop expresses her growing impatience with the workshop system. She says she looked up in the middle of her poetry group this morning and asked herself whether she really enjoyed or learned from hearing 11 poets talk about a single line, a single word.

I left my workshop this morning feeling strange. Had I talked too much? Had my critique of a peer’s story been too harsh? Sometimes I get carried away. Sometimes I get caught listening to myself talk.

Being surrounded by fellow writers, mostly older, generally more educated, with more publications than me, brings out some standard insecurities. Much of my anxiety comes not from my writing but myself—am I uncool? Dressed weird, or not weird enough?

A woman from my workshop joins me at lunch. She tells me agreed with my critique from earlier and thinks I expressed it well, and instantly I feel better. She’s a few years older than me and was awarded the same fellowship (for a different workshop this October) as me several years ago. She’s friendly, she seems to like me. She’s generous with her advice about MFAs, and honest about the many writing workshops she’s attended: this one is too expensive, that one too white, this one’s food is great.

Perhaps this is what workshops are for: networking, making friends. Yet I find myself obsessively measuring myself against others. My friend tells that she made the mistake of googling her classmates before starting the week. A friendly young woman passes us chatting in the dorm lounge, and we make introductions. She and my friend discover they are in the same small group and talk about how awed they both are to work with their teacher. When the young woman leaves, my friend tells me that she knew exactly who this was when she entered the room. She goes to a very prestigious program in the Midwest and is well published.

Sometimes more information feels like too much information. Sometimes more inquiry feels like too much inquiry. Sometimes there are too many voices in the room, and the writing gets lost behind layers of something else.

At what point does welcoming feedback become narcissistic? Often, asking 12 writers to weigh in on a story yields 12 different stories, and 12 different ideas on how to fix those stories. One person suggests cutting a scene that another would like expanded. A character may be despised and loved in equal measure. Why bother?

I run into another friend from last summer’s workshop, this time a former classmate from my small group, and we reminisce about our group’s drama, our impressions of our teacher. I ask her to remind me which story was hers, and I remember enjoying it. It had a unique voice, and a hypnotic, intimate sense of place. She’s scrapped it, she says, waving a hand in front of her face. It’s dead.

Good writers must be good listeners. We must study people, hear how people describe themselves, when we tell the truth and when we lie. That’s how the characters in our stories can become real, can talk right, can express the sorts of truths we want to tell. We must also have a sharp ear for criticism. I’ve heard writers test out stories on their friends, heard layers of practice and affectation in an anecdote. The best storytellers make each joke feel fresh every time. Similarly, certain themes and characters echo throughout the work of most authors. Perhaps a short story becomes a character study for a novel, or a whole collection of stories becomes a hallway through which the same images and techniques and characters can wander. We become tuned to the frequency of a type of actor, or the resonance of a certain structure, and we amplify this obsession through everything we write. Every time we tell a story, we listen for its response to determine whether this iteration was more or less effective, funnier, better-liked.

Workshop becomes another space for listening. It’s tough to tell which stories the teacher genuinely appreciated, or didn’t. It’s tough to parse the sincere compliment from the filler statement. I leave lunch to hide in my room and take a short nap. I need an hour to pass without meeting a new friend. I didn’t sleep well on my first night, and my brain and body feel tired. I want to feel ecstatic, inspired, blessed, but I feel grumpy.

In the late afternoon, I listen to a panel of literary agents. After that, my friend offers to drive me to Rite Aid to get a sleep mask, since my room is under a 24-hour floodlight. First, she asks, did I try the bookstore? I did not, so we walk there together. I buy a sleep mask. We walk back to the quad together. We talk about our workshop groups.

After dinner, a fabulous reading from Karen Shepard, Joshua Ferris, and Renee Gladman. Gladman’s short essays, taut, circular, storyless, gorgeous, blow me away. I need to go back to my room and write, and my friend feels the same way. I start walking with her and we end up crossing campus to her car. We talk about similar authors, other texts that fascinate with their complexity, past obsessions, about the use of repetition, about a certain poem we heard at last summer’s workshop that still rings in our heads with a certain repeated line. Together we search for the line between pretension and authenticity in poems. Another friend, I tell her, became a poet when he was learning to read and spoke out the words from a shirt’s care tag: machine wash cold, tumble dry low. He said the phrase to himself again and again, a mantra: machine wash cold, tumble dry low. The rhythm became hypnotic.

Two women I met at lunch told me that their teacher is opposed to prompts. The world is a prompt, she said. Go to the park, see a woman walking her dog, and then write about that: the park is your prompt. We argue together for the benefit of prompts. They can push one into new styles, force a crutch out of one’s hands, they demand ingenuity to work beyond the prompt—yes, we think, I’ll write a story about a person tripping out of a bus, but not that story. The teacher’s reasoning, we figure, is that a proper writer is always pushing herself already, always dropping the crutch, the comfortable subject, the well-worn styling. The good writer is always listening for when that technique gets old, always listening to the repetition that has made its final return, always watching for that woman in the park, the next step.

So it makes sense that writers become defective listeners. We unknot conversations for the hint of condescension or boredom. We fray our experiences in our hands looking for the shortcoming, looking for the next opportunity, the seed of the next story.

Any muscle, overused, becomes inflamed. Any sense, overdeveloped, becomes pathological. The composer Robert Schumann depended on auditory hallucinations to write music, hearing entire symphonies from the beyond, but eventually this music faded into a single, persistent tone that continued day and night. Good writers dedicate themselves to finding new ways to elevate and refine their works. Great writers can go crazy with self-critique. We hear criticism of our work where none exists and invent reasons why we are not good enough, and never will be.

My friend is about to open a gallery exhibit in which her poems will accompany the work of a skilled textile artist, and then will be immortalized in a chapbook, but feels her publication record is too scant. I had several pieces published within my first year of submitting, but have hit a dry spell in the past six months. Unlike most Tin House writers, I have no published book, no MFA.

At a publishing conference a few years ago, Kelly Link confessed to a thousand-person auditorium that when she gets stuck on a new short story, she often wonders if she’ll ever write again, or if she’s finished her last good piece.

This feeling never goes away.

But that’s not how I feel now.

There’s no sport like this. No tennis player emerges after months of solitary practicing and says, “Well, I thought I’d try a serve like this,” and sees if her friend likes it. No soccer player offers up a pass to no one and then asks the whole team for feedback. But then again, every sport is like this, every skill worth learning, every art: there is a talent we must nurture. There is an ego we must starve. We lean on ourselves, pushing on, filling the gaps, making attempt after attempt, and then we lean on others. It’s creation by echolocation: we present the work, and then find the shape of it through how it’s seen by others. It’s a weird, backwards game of Pictionary: we make a drawing, and then we ask questions.

Is it a dog?

What color do you see?

Does it make you sad?

George Saunders writes about his meticulous, crazy-making editing process for The Guardian like so:

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts.

And this is absolutely crucial: the exacting development of skill and quality from raw material.

But writing a story isn’t baking a cake for yourself, which you eat, alone, not giving a shit about what other people think, and feeling awesome. Writing a story is a birthday present or a sex act or a t-shirt design for your pickup badminton team: it has an intended audience, big or small, and its success depends on its reception from that audience.

Because writing a story is a version of talking. It is a highly refined, ridiculous, absurd attempt at honest and beautiful communication. And communication requires listening. Just as George Saunders slowly perfects his message and its medium, we must work to perfect the depth of our listening, the sensitivity of our perception, the quietness of our compassion.

So workshop becomes a form of prosthesis. Lend me an ear, fellows. And maybe I’ll ignore your advice, and maybe I’ll hate you for it, and maybe I’ll throw my story in the garbage after hearing what you heard in it. But at least I will have heard my story echoed through twelve pairs of ears instead of one. My range of perception is deepened and expanded by being routed through yours. And in the process I’ll hear your stories, and her stories, and Morgan Parker’s and Aimee Bender’s and Paul Lisicky’s too, thank god, and by the end of the long and strange and wonderful day the world will be a little larger, and a little weirder, and a little louder. And perhaps we will feel a little less alone. And that, to me, is the whole fucking point.

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