Workshop Guidelines

I mentioned in class that we’d take a structured approach to our workshops. It will be a pretty straightforward structure. I’ll spell it out here.

When a person submits a piece for us to workshop, I’ll post it to our site, on page called “Workshop.” Then, I’ll ask the writer to send us all a note answering the following questions:

  • Is there anything particular you’d like the group to look for in your piece?
  • Do you have any particular questions?
  • Anything you’re trying to work out?

The writer can choose to answer really specifically, with something like, “I’m deciding whether to narrate in the past or present tense” or “I’d like to experiment with more imagery.” The writer can also just answer, simply, “I don’t have specific questions. I’d rather you all just read what I sent.”

Then, as you read, choose 1-3 elements of craft to track through piece. Focus really specifically on those and be prepared to talk about them. I’m listing a bunch of those elements here, but you can choose others that come to mind.

On workshop days, I’ll begin by asking the writers if there’s anything they’d like to say to the group. They can say yes or no. Then each of us will talk through our observations about the elements of craft we focused on. Somebody will start us off and then I’ll ask if anybody else tracked similar elements. Hopefully the conversation will unfold fairly organically from there.

After the workshop, I’ll do my best to send the writer written feedback within a few days.

Some Elements of Craft

Sentence patterns

Continuity and Discontinuity

Pronouns

Verbs

Time

Structure

Imagery

Orienting / guidance for readers

Abstract and concrete diction

Sources and quotation

Tone

Hybrid forms

Character

Paragraphs

Dialogue

Punctuation

Transitions

Exposition

Scenes

Exposition

Place

Narration

Adjectives and Adverbs

VOICE

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For Tuesday

We’ll do some work in breakout groups this week. To prepare, read Parts 1 and 2. Let me know if you have questions.

 

Part 1
In There Was This Goat, Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele go to great lengths—and take great care—to relate to and create mutual understanding, a with Mrs. Konile, a person they first encountered through her testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. For readers, they work to  illuminate the contexts that surround her testimony and give it meaning.

 

In philosophical and pragmatic terms, we can never experience another person’s subjectivity—never feel what it’s like to be another person. But we have all kinds of ways of trying, of getting as close as we can (sometimes). Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele use a wide variety of intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal tools to get to know Konile. This involves navigating all kinds of differences and potential barriers—linguistic, cultural, political, psychological, geographical, economic. I could go on.

 

A crucial part of the process is working together, across and with their own differences. They use their disciplinary tools, as journalist, anthropologist, and psychologist. They use their cultural tools as members of an intensely diverse and divided nation. They use their personal tools as people interested in respect and justice. They make it really clear that Mrs. Konile is not a representative for all poor, rural South Africans, for all Xhosa people, for all mothers, for all people who suffered under apartheid. They make it equally clear that all these categories of people and experience must be thoroughly examined if they’re going to do justice to the job of representing her with respect.

 

Complete empathy is impossible. Empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to action or change. Imagine if each of us could find the time, ingenuity, and dedication to get to know other people this way—say half a dozen people, or hundreds, or everybody in the world—if we could find the means to cultivate mutual understanding across the differences between us and all those people. Of course, this is not possible, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

 

Keeping all this in mind, choose a moment or passage from the book that demonstrates an illuminating or surprising or wise means of seeking the kinds of empathy, respect, and justice the authors hope to find or make. 

Part 2

Take a look at the list below–of contexts for Mrs. Konile’s testimony about which Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele conducted research. Choose one that changes their understanding. Be prepared to discuss a couple of pages where they discuss your chosen topic. NOTE: If you need help finding those pages, let me know. This is maybe my seventh reading of this book, so I should be ahle to help.

 

Language
Translation
Transcription
Race
Ethnicity
History
Culture
Family
Geography (rural / urban; regionalism; resources)
Land distribution
Psychology
Dreams (from psychological, cultural, and historical perspectives)
Media
Education
Social Relations
Identity (singular, communal, cultural, national, familial)
Communication (multilingual, verbal, nonverbal, gestural)
Violence
Government
Interpersonal dialogue
Physical presence
Gifts
Trauma theory
Theories of testimony
Emotion
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Streams of Consciousness on Heroin(e)

Heroin unnerves my insides. If you believe in reincarnation, I was all about the nice and easy in a past life. The sickly unsteadiness I feel when heroin creeps into my universe—someone offering it up at a party, addict friends, listening to guys in workshop talk about their past—it’s the same lead-weighted descent that I fall into when I think too hard about how short and impermanent life is and how one day I just won’t wake up. Maybe worse.

Still, Babitz’s piece was bearable (I don’t mean this about her writing which is beautiful, of course, just that each mention of H threw me into a minute paralysis) and what endears her to me even more is how she avoids it herself, how she seems to fear it, too. The guy who calls her chicken, what a shit. With friends like that…? Oh, and this line: I felt afraid. I was just beginning to feel something for her and now it turned out she might do herself in.

This piece seems to explore happiness, the tragedy of “having everything,” and how fame is a lonely and loathsome construct, but as I suppose it ought to be in the best kind of memoir, I think I discovered more about Babitz herself that made her the hero — her ability to see people, to see things for what they are, to hope — she is rife with courage.

Complete non-sequitur but related to the start and something to go out on: Any time I have blood drawn the phlebotomist inevitably remarks on how easy it is with me. One once said plainly, “Your veins are perfect for IV drug use.”

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a week, a ritual

It’s been a difficult week. Is that even a thing to say anymore? I guess I’m trying to mark weeks as more or less difficult in some attempt at marking time.

I thought every day last week was Friday, and I don’t even know what Friday means anymore. So how can something feel like a day I cannot define? That’s like love, right? People have a difficult time defining love, but they still say, I love you.

Maybe no need to get into the details here – I’m sure so many have equivalent lists:
1) several deaths close to home
2) the furnace broke again, in the middle of the night
3) leaking radiators means loss of sleep during the only time I get to sleep, that is, when both of my kids are asleep
4) what is daycare? They were part of our family. It’s another piece of family to let go of right now.
5) My daughter turned one. That brought feelings of joy but also just feelings, and lots of them.
6) I’m missing some things. My brain can’t hold it all right now.

How I measure my days: I have one consistent ritual. I make a daily soy mocha with the espresso machine we are lucky to have in our house. This takes a certain amount of time: grind the beans, heat the water, melt the chocolate, run the espresso, foam the milk. And then I need to clean the machine. It’s a process, with steps, and I know that I will get through a certain amount of time in my day, at least, if I do this one ritual. Time will move forward if I make my soy mocha. It means a huge deal to me.

My skin looks like shit. Too much caffeine. Too bad. The ritual is keeping me alive, and it’s a substitute for a daily afternoon cocktail. Life is a matter of relativity, now more than ever.

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My head this week

I’ve been thinking a lot about the transformation that NYC is going through as this pandemic moves through us. Most businesses are shuttered now – many businesses will remain that way.

Will we see a less populated, poorer, and younger NYC in a year than existed a couple of months ago and for the past many years? What does this do to gentrification?

Some people are leaving, if they have the means. I am not one of them. I don’t have the means, and regardless I have no plans to leave this place. I’ve been in NYC for over 20 years, and I had been growing a little tired of it the past few years, tired of working so hard, tired of the stresses, done with a need to prove myself. I thought I was ready to leave then. But not now. Fuck it.

There is speculation that we will see a city much like the NYC of the 70s and 80s again. The population will thin not because people are afraid of crime this time, but because they are afraid of getting sick. Look around at your streets and your Instagram feeds. Listen to the relative silence. The population has already thinned, and its thinned more in the wealthier areas. Bring it on.

I’ve been reading more of Michelle Tea’s essays. Today I read a piece she wrote about her favorite movie, Times Square, filmed in 1980. She writes, “Times Square is an inspiring document of New York City during possibly its last lively era, its last era of possibility.” We’ll see about that, Michelle.

-Catherine LaSota

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Michelle Tea + Revelation

“It’s about the irrevocability of revelation.” Tea meant this in relation to self-revelation but something was just revealed to me about someone I love that was universe-shifting and I wish I didn’t know it. Not because it changes how I see or feel about them, because it doesn’t, but because I know this information was withheld purposely and I feel that I’ve betrayed them despite receiving the information mistakenly and certainly not seeking it out.

This makes me wonder about revelation in general—or information, perhaps—and how we craft stories. We curate, we choose what readers (or people in our lives) know and when they know it. And thus, endless questions: Can we reveal things that don’t help the reader? Can we reveal things too soon? How do we know what to reveal when? And how do we delicately allow the story to unfold so that the revelations are made by the reader through the story rather than from a sledgehammer of a line? Not to say that sledgehammer lines aren’t helpful sometimes too. But don’t you love that slow-burn puzzle piecing that leads to the revelation (sometimes in fiction, even before the characters themselves!)?

What is revealed (either to oneself or to others) is also complicated by third variables such as choice or desire. “Does turning against your highest knowledge do something bad to some very good part of you?” You can probably argue both sides. I lean towards no. I am going to work to forget that I know what I know. I am going to disavow the revelation because it is irrelevant to my relationship with this person. But, not all revelations are equal.

We are all doing our human best.

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Michelle Tea

i loved this piece by michelle tea. she’s slightly older than me, which made her ‘a generation ahead’ back in the day when we were all babies.

i love what she’s saying here about writing as a compulsive addiction. yes, buddhist enlightenment calls for an erasure of self but life is varied and there are moments where we need to process, and other moments where we’re called on to pursue enlightenment. there are times where we need to spew bile about Cruise Dude or Sara/ Emma, and there is a time to accept that this venom has lost its potency… or relevance.

i already sent this piece to my twin-flame cousin and i’m excited to read it again when i need a smart older woman to remind me about why i write.

i also realize that i did last week’s assignment wrong and was supposed to write out some actual notes rather than describe what i’m working on (lol :)))

today i am thinking about ‘charlie’, a white man at work who was hired as a project manager but seems only to schedule and attend meetings in which the other white men high five and make bad jokes. this morning, charlie put on his ‘i’m an authority figure’ voice – which he’s used on me before – to try and coerce me into taking on responsibilities beyond my scope as a writer/ editor. my sweet boss, who is five years younger than me and a ‘model minority’ (chinese), never speaks up against white men. instead, she urges me to follow the rules so that i don’t get in trouble.

perhaps because i underwent a similar queer-fronted journey as michelle tea, instead of fear i get filled with rage.

so here’s what i’m going through:

we live in a world of white supremacy. it’s ingrained in all of us, including me. my response is rebellious, and that confuses / disorients people who believe that my ‘place’ is to be fearful. so it’s not that it doesn’t occur to me that the normal thing to do would be to write directly to ‘charlie’ saying: hey man, sorry i got tense in the phone call earlier, but here – let me explain to you for the 40th time the thing that you seem too dense to understand without me holding your hand through it…

it’s that i know that while such an expectation – for me to act my place and obscure my own intelligence and do some extra emotional clean up work for the sake of a man’s ego – is heinous, it is also absolutely justified in this world of stacked values.

<– deep thoughts that i will integrate into writing somehow.

thank you catherine for bringing michelle tea back!

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This Week’s Class

Hi everybody. Here’s the plan for this week’s class. We’re reading Michelle Tea’s “Against Memoir”–at Catherine’s suggestion. (You can find it on our Further Readings page.)

1. We’ll convene on Zoom. I’ll send everybody an invitation around 4:30. Catherine will say a few words about why she chose Tea’s essay.

2. We’ll turn off our cameras and use the chat for a little while. I’m going to offer some prompts–with certain people assigned as point people on those prompts. If you are a point person, your job is to  offer some ideas in relation to the prompt and invite the rest of us into the discussion. Point people for particular questions do not need to convene in advance–unless you want to. I’ll just ask each point person to post an observation, respond to each other, and then the rest of us can jump in.

The Prompts
Salazar, Jen, Ra: How does time work in Tea’s essay? What are signs or words that signal time? How does the essay move around in time? How does Tea make that movement work?

Nick, Sarah, Lucy: What are the effects of Tea’s humor and self-deprecation? Where does the humor show up? What kind of humor is it? How does the humor work as rhetoric?

Matt, Cordelia: What language does Tea use to name herself as a writer? How do the various writer roles she names shape the dimensions of her persona or voice? How is her use of first-person and third-person pronouns related to all this.

Ariel, Catherine: How does the structure of the essay work? How is place a factor in its structure? What recurring motifs, images, or rhetorical moves create continuity? Or interesting forms of discontinuity?

3. After this, we’ll reconvene on video. When we do, we’ll discuss the variety of ways Tea defines writing. As you read, look out for–and mark–moments where you notice these definitions. Some key words to look for: hypergraphia, storytelling, stories, memoir, performance, writing, typing, book, narrative, personal narrative. 

4. As we do number 3, I’m sure other ideas and questions will emerge. Hopefully that will just happen organically.

And that’s it!

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Semester Project

I joined the MFA with Fiction on my mind, but -partly because I haven’t yet taken a Fiction class!- I’ve been flexing a more ‘auto-fiction’ muscle (which is basically how I wrote all my life before deciding to be a ‘real writer’ of Fiction).

For Memoir class last semester, Bri assigned us the goal of submitting some work for publication. Best goal ever! I worked over the winter break to create a very long piece that I have since hacked into chapters. This piece reflects on my woes of working for the Man in a corporate start-up setting.

This semester, I would love to workshop an extension of the above piece. I have a draft of something to submit, and am also taking notes for newer pieces.

 

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Masks and Date Nights

(apologies for the relatively late post this week…just some rambling thoughts without clear structure or end)

My response to the Dessa essay, as read during the COVID-19 pandemic:

My husband Karl had already been to Sleep No More a handful of times before I met him. Among other items on his list of things to which he felt it urgent to expose me was immersion in the experience of Sleep No More, an interactive theater performance in a large hotel on the edge of Chelsea.

I want to say that it was sometime after we had become parents, in the year after the birth of our son, that Karl and I finally made a visit to a Sleep No More performance together, but I’m not sure that’s right. In any case, I have a retroactive memory of especially appreciating the night out together, like it had become a rare thing to do since we brought a child into our lives. But now I don’t think that is right, either, because after the show we treated ourselves to some food at the restaurant upstairs, and that place wasn’t cheap, and I can’t imagine we could splurge in that way if we were also paying for baby things.

It was a more innocent time. Or a different time, at least. That restaurant where we had our post-show meal was so crowded, we had to squeeze our chairs tight against our little table to avoid being jostled by a waiter or another customer every two minutes.

Remember crowded restaurants? Remember being seated in a restaurant? Remember doing something without the children?

A lot of people save their Sleep No More masks after attending a performance. I know we have a few lying around our house, still. They are white and designed after plague masks, with long white bird beaks.

During the plague, doctors and those removing the bodies of the dead would wear bird-shaped masks for two reasons: 1) birds were not catching the plague, so there was a superstition that wearing a bird mask could be protective, and 2) you could stuff the hollow bird beak full of herbs to mask the smell of decaying bodies.

The plague. We have become anonymous with each other in everyday life, wearing coverings on our noses and mouths when we go outside, not limiting this experience to a theatrical performance. This is real life.

-Catherine LaSota

 

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