A series of essays on writing short stories, timed to coincide with my class “Spellbinding Short Stories” at the 2011 Cape Cod Writer’s Center Conference. — Sallie
TEACH-A-THONS, READ-A-THONS, AND DIGITALIZATION
After teaching last week at the Cape Cod Writers Center Conference, with, for and among an amiable group, I came home with a few thoughts: what students are seeking in workshops such as this one (I imagine academic classes may be different) is contact: warm, accepting, amusing contact with the teacher. They are amazingly grateful for this contact, which in my case, is easy to supply, far easier than a more rigorous approach that might well dismay them.
The perils are many.
Encouraging unformed writers to publish—and especially to enter into that delusional hell called self-publishing—is wrong. They are not ready; they may not realize that they are not ready, since they may have been writing for some time.
If they submit unformed material to publishers or magazines, it will be rejected, summarily, with no clues offered as to what might be done to improve it. Disappointment and discouragement may lead them to spend thousand of dollars on self-publishing, ending with a trunk full or a basement full of books only their most devoted relatives and friends will be willing to read.
Another peril faces the teacher herself: these students will never be able to approach her books as fiction. They are under the sway of their impressions of the teacher’s personality, this likable person who speaks to them as friends. How can they believe that the vicious old men, the whining adolescents, the cruel adults she creates in her short stories and novels are not simply disguises for the person they know and like? Since many students don’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction to begin with, this trap yawns.
As to readings—and the readathon I am now starting for my newest book, “Mending: New and Selected Stories” (Sarabande), some of the same traps yawn. At my readings, I want to look well, read well, and answer questions; I want to appear to some degree approachable. Again, the audience is impressed more by the person reading than by what she is reading; our hunger for human contact exceeds our hunger for the written word. This audience, too, may be betrayed by the writer’s presence into believing that what they are hearing is “the truth”—that is, the truth in its most limited sense about the human being they see in front of them. I notice an extension in the way many potential readers ask for their books to be signed: to friends or relatives rather than to themselves, since the reading itself has exhausted their interest in the book.