Monday, February 20, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It

At this point, I’ve spent nearly half my life in workshopfirst as a student, and now as a teacher. By far the most surprising thing I’ve learned is how repetitive workshops are. Especially when one is stuck teaching at the introductory level, it becomes obvious that human beingsat least those drawn to creative writing workshopshave a lot fewer than seven stories to tell. Though you might expect each workshop to be different, an assumption based on the expected creativity of the different people involved in each one, the truth is that you often see just a small handful of themes and plots over and over. How do you avoid falling in with the same old, same old? How do you attempt, for the umpteenth time, to address these tired opening moves? That is the subject I intend to tackle in a series of posts, one tired piece at a time.

The trick, I propose, is understanding the roots of the appeal these typical pieces have. I say pieces consciously, because whether prose (fiction or not) or poetry, these themes and plots have a way of dominating the beginner’s efforts. But, why? Why do beginners gravitate toward these typical pieces? Understanding their appeal is the first step in becoming a fresher writer.

Next, the beginner needs to attempt to transcend the typical in some way. One way of doing this is to turn the typical on its headonce you understand what it is that you’re trying to get at, where the appeal is, you can twist the typical around and approach the piece in a fresher way. I will try to offer examples of these twists on the typical as much as possible, but, for now, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The First Circle: The Break-up Story

Alas, one of the first stories every student attempts to write is The Great Love Story. Knowing full well that such stories are hackneyed, the beginner thinks it would be a fine idea to avoid the happy ending and provide us with a sad one, showing us how the protagonist lost his or her innocence.

Yikes. Ending in a break-up instead of a wedding is hardly that twist I was referring towe are still deeply entrenched in the realm of cliché here. Ah, the relationship didn’t turn out the way the protagonist expected. The beloved turned out to be shallow, or betrayed you, or perhaps you had to choose the uglier girl or boy instead, or move to Australia at the end of the summer. Whatever. Bo-rrring!

We all know love ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, so why persist in writing the break-up story? Well, at its root such a story taps into a universal coming-of-age experience, and the beginning writer wants to partake of the eternal theme. It can be done welltwo stories I teach consistently on this theme are “Araby” by James Joyce and “A&P” by John Updike. Both stories have the same crush-meets-disappointment coming-of-age theme, but the way these master writers approach it makes all the difference. For one thing, both stories are more than love storiesthey are both biting social commentary. “Araby” is an extended meditation on the narrator’s bleak existence on dead-end North Richmond Street, with his old books and his drunken uncle, and the specter of British rule adding a political dimension to the story. “A&P” is an equally bleak look at a suburban beach town and its petit bourgeois values. The number one problem with the beginner’s love story is that there is usually little to no setting or context outside the personal. The setting is usually Generic High School X, and the lovers are suspended from contact with the outside world. Minor characters might include the Best Friend or The Ex, but other than that the theme lacks complexity. You can’t tell a “coming of age” story like that. One doesn’t come of age in a vacuumon the contrary, the true coming-of-age story is really about the child becoming part of the world such as it is in all its harsh reality, be it a go-nowhere Irish town or a suburban supermarket where the people have all the uniqueness of sheep. The beloved is just a vehicle concentrating all the shit that’s about to hit the fan.

So what’s the beginning writer to do? Well, you can try to provide that context for your love story. Realize that the love story is symbolicnot the main show. The main show is something elsethe world and its discontents that the protagonist is about to deal with. Avoid the star-crossed lovers context, however. Been there, so done that. Whether set in Verona, the West Side, LA, or Hawaii, the opposite-tracks theme is so overdone that it will actually make your love story even more hackneyed. Keep both lovers from the same side.

Another, maybe easier way is to put an embarrassing sex scene in the middle of your story. Another problem with the bare-bones love story is how little recognition sex receives as a factor. Of course all love stories are ultimately about sex. Yet, the badly written coming-of-age story is so invested in romance that it often bypasses the question of sex altogether. The realization or epiphany involved in the resolution is something emotional, like realizing the ultimate boyfriend is also ultimately a cheat. We can pick up this kind of entry-level wisdom from watching Lifetime, howeverhardly a coming-of-age. Sex, on the other hand, is rarely accurately depicted in art, and can really push the coming-of-age story to the next level if done well. The uninitiated rarely understand how catastrophic sex can be, and a great sexual catastrophe in the middle of your love story can inject realism and even a little bit of humoralways welcomeinto an otherwise vapid story. One of my favorites is in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Protagonist Esther Greenwood hemorrhages violently after her first sexual experience. Great! Another favorite is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Protagonist Connie is all about the fuzzy romance she hears in songs, leading to a truly frightening encounter with Arnold Friend, a Big-Bad-Wolf type who blows her little romantic house in.

Another great example of this theme is Little Darlings. Fifteen-year-olds at summer camp take bets to see which of the two protagonists loses her virginity first. As their targets, one girl picks a sexy, older counselor, and the other a boy from the camp across the lake. Of course, the girl who picks the counselor has no shot at winning, yet she pretends to have sex with him and wins the bet when the other girlwho, of course, did have sexpretends not to. It’s a wonderful, wonderful coming-of-age story, because both girls start out equally innocent and the one who actually loses her virginity also loses her ability to talk about it.


From more or less the same time period comes The Last American Virgin, a schizo little teen sex flick that nevertheless presents a really interesting look at teen boy sexuality. It’s schizo because it’s trying really hard to be Porky’s, but the heart of the plot is solid. Gary and his friends are all dying to have sex, but Gary is the only one interested in love, particularly Karen’s love. He also wants to fit in, however, and winds up losing his virginity to a streetwalker he and his friends pool funds to hire. The scene is so disgusting, however, that it really shocks you into the realization that all these sexcapades are crass and horrible, and have nothing to do with the kind of feelings Gary has for Karen, who winds up preferring his best friend anyway, even after he knocks her up and refuses to help her deal with it. It’s a brutal awakening, which is the best kind.

Recognize the role of sex in the coming-of-age love story, and it’ll at least take it out of the romance rut. Make it graphic. Lose the erection, ejaculate prematurely on her thigh, fart accidentally. Anything bodily will doanything that goes against the moonlight and roses garbage. Anything except the broken condom, which is also a cliché. Condom drama is not very good a) because it’s overdone and b) because then we can always blame the condom for screwing things up, when what you really want is the people screwing up, showing their humanity in its full bodily horror.

My apologies, by the way, for all the dated examples. I was pretty innocent myself when I read and watched the stories I’ve mentioned here, and one thing that happens after you actually come of age is that you’re not really drawn to this type of story anymore. I need a lot of convincing at this point before I can be talked into giving my precious time to a novel or a film that I think is going to be predictable. What’s the point? Last time I caved it was to No Strings Attached, a Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher abomination. Hm. Yes, these sex-starved youths agree it’s best to get together just to have the good sex they crave, and nothing more. Lo and behold, they wind up falling in love! Like, duh. Man, I saw that whole movie in the second it took to read the title. What was the point of devoting two whole hours to seeing it play out? Kutcher’s not that cute. Apparently there’s another one called Friends with Benefits, and surely 1,000 more. Maybe one of these is a more current example of an old story told with a good twist, but I’m not willing to sit through the other 999 just to be able to provide fresher examples for you people. I was ten when I first saw The Last American Virgin. I was titillated by the title; being a virgin myself, I was curious to see anything that could inform me about this great mystery. Lucky for me, I wound up seeing a great film that I couldn’t really understand at the time. The first time I saw it as an adult I thought, wow. Were it in the theaters now, however, I would probably dismiss it as another stupid sex comedy.

See where I’m going with this? You don’t want that to happen to your story. You want to stand out from the pack. I hope I’ve given you two good ways to do that with your love story: create a strong social setting for which the love story becomes a frontispiece, and recognize the role of sex, in all its gross bodily reality, in the romance plot. And tune in next post for the next circle of Hell.


  1. Hey, you skipped Limbo and went right to Lust! gluttony next??

    Good points, as usual.

  2. Yeah, I know. I've never been clear on which circle is which. It's a loose analogy. Next . . . next is divorce and death of parents. I'm just going to call that circle two, I guess.

  3. I would have to completely agree with the idea that "Last American Virgin" is a coming of age story done incredibly well. Sadly, the vapid nature of many of these teen-sex comedies (American Pie, for example) has always failed to understand the difficult nature of love and sex and monogamy and companionship. Another sad note is that what used to be teen sex comedies have become young-adult or even full-blown adult sex comedies. If that doesn't say something about the arrested development of adolescence I don't know what does. On a side note, I would view "The 40 Year Old Virgin" as a near-perfect example of a tired theme done interestingly and surprisingly well.

  4. It's like you can read my mind, "wedprez"! I thought of American Pie as a slightly more current example, but it also didn't seem to me to be anything more than a sex comedy. And, true, these have largely disappeared or migrated toward older age groups, making the loss of innocence theme much less likely to appear. The times have changed. The 40-Year-Old Virgin doesn't seem the same; it is a great love story, and a great exploration of male sexuality, but not a coming-of-age story or a loss-of-innocence story because of the age group, and that seems to be at the heart of the desire to write these in the beginner's workshop, which, of course, is usually peopled by the college-age group, who are working out their own issues in their writing.


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