Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I got my ass kicked at a writing workshop

Last night my second and final story got workshopped in my beginning fiction class.  I had been very excited about this; my first story was well-received, and I tried to really amp up the work this time around.  I was trying to be ambitious and worldly, to move around chronologically and write two interweaving stories, one when the protagonist is 15 and one when he is 45.  I was trying to write in a non-linear way about a character who was not a carbon copy of me at the present moment.  Enough of these short stories that take place within a few hours, when some protagonist who is the demographic equivalent of the author experiences some precious little epiphany.  I wanted to be narratively bold and sophisticated, to tackle some big themes.  When I passed out my story for the class to read, I was pretty proud of myself, and I thought that it had turned out well for a first draft, although obviously it needed a lot of work.

Well, unfortunately, as the workshop got under way, things were not looking so hot.  The conversation zoomed in immediately on the weak spots of the piece.  "Uneven" was the adjective that really set the tone for the discussion of the story.  I concentrated on taking copious notes, to avoid having to look at anyone as we all discussed my stilted dialogue, or how the tone was too even, or how there should be more anger.  As time passed I kept hoping for the conversation to move on to other elements (how about that sophisticated chronology?  did anyone catch how narratively bold I'm being?) but we remained mired in the bad parts.  As someone who is bad at hiding my emotions, I think it was pretty obvious that I was deflating.  By the end of the conversation, the instructor was noting that although the class discussion had focused on the problematic areas, there was a lot in the piece that worked very well -- and then he quickly went through a laundry list of good things.  But the damage was done.

I felt like a real jackass for being so proud and happy about the work.  I was embarrassed at having talked to the instructor about how excited I was to get feedback from the class.  I tried to pull myself out of my funk for the rest of the session, but I couldn't manage it -- I didn't say a word for the rest of class.  I felt like I had left my guts on the page, that I had dug really deep and put myself out there, and that I had just gotten shat on for my efforts.  I wanted to pause in the conversation and ask: "So did anyone like anything about it?  Did anything work for anyone?"  But of course you can't do that in a writing class, where workshop protocol is as sacred and inviolable as, say, the procedure for selecting a new Pope.

I had a long, redemptive, enjoyable conference with the instructor afterwards.  He said my impression of the conversation was probably a lot worse than it actually had been.  This could very well be true.  When I got home I read everyone's written critiques, and suddenly there it was -- proof that the story was not the abject failure I had thought.  People appreciated different elements of it, and found it moving in different ways, and said some really nice and thoughtful things about it.  Great.

Although I still feel dumb and embarrassed for letting myself be so crushed by all of this, I am still licking my wounds over the whole thing.  I have to put that particular story aside for a while and work on some other stuff for the time being.  Part of this is vanity, and part of it is the need for constructive criticism to come bundled with something good, something I can hang on to.  When in doubt, blame astrology -- I'm a Pisces, and I'm sensitive about my shit.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Happy birthday, Alice

Yesterday was Alice's first birthday.  The main festivities took place on Saturday, when we somehow wedged about 30 people into our apartment (the crowd included six or eight children).  Alice, looking like a confection in her pink sequined birthday dress, took it all in stride.  We ordered a box-full of Chipotle burritos and hung up some pink and green streamers.  There were balloons.  Everyone who came was really nice and excited to see the baby.  Before we had birthday cake I gave a little mini-speech about What It All Means, then we sang and Alice devoured her first bites of chocolate, quickly developing a dark brown goatee of frosting around her lips.

After it was all over -- after the guests had left, after our family members had decamped for their hotels in New Jersey -- we were exhausted.  We were consigned to eat leftover burritos for the next six meals or so.  A fitting coda to the night: Alice throwing up her cake and continuing to vomit sporadically all evening; an unopened bottle of wine somehow falling out of the refrigerator and shattering on the kitchen floor.

It's hard to believe it's been a year since Alice came into our lives.  My memories of that day and the days that followed are so vivid, I can't believe we've gone through a whole year of seasons, changes, holidays.  Like a friend told me today, with children the days are long and the years are short.  I feel like my whole orientation towards life has changed since she was born -- what I consider important or meaningful, how I value my time, where I want to direct my energy and resources. 

If it's hard to believe a year has passed, it's also difficult to overstate the joy she's brought into our lives.  Tonight at dinner we were playing a little game where we were feeding each other Cheerios.  I would open my mouth in an exaggerated way and say "aah" so that she could place the Cheerio inside.  She opened her mouth to mimic me, and said "aah" in the exact same tone.  She had never done that before. Then she would touch my finger with her finger and we would spend a few moments considering fingers.  All of these little tiny doors opening, connections being forged, ideas linking together.  It's like you can see her memories sharpening, her smiles becoming more genuine, her sense of herself and our family becoming more clear.  It's still miraculous.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Long run

Yesterday my brother-in-law Henry and I went on an epic run down the west side of Manhattan, from my apartment at 125th Street all the way to Battery Park.  It ultimately clocked in at over 9 miles, by far the longest run I've done since the marathon.  It was a beautiful day, clear and breezy, and there were plenty of other runners and bikers keeping us company.  It felt great to run beyond my usual uptown route, to then explore uncharted new parks along the Upper West Side and midtown, and to conclude the run along the familiar downtown stretches of the Hudson River Park.  I felt buoyant during those last couple of miles -- I haven't run down there since we moved uptwon, and it really felt like a homecoming.

We ran at a nice leisurely place, so I was never too uncomfortable.  Only one of my headphones worked, but I got used to it after a while.  My legs were tired but I didn't experience any alarming pains.  A few stitches in my side, but nothing too bad.  Afterwards I was exhausted for the rest of the afternoon, but no worse for the wear, and even now I don't have any sharp pains or discomfort.  All in all, it was a really great experience -- a great discovery that I can still do things I might not have thought I could.  Good stuff.