Every Tuesday, our writers group meets in Taos, New Mexico.
Every Tuesday evening, I drive the sixty plus miles from Santa Fe to Taos to join the six or seven members of my writing group, sponsored by SOMOS, the long-lived and long-enduring Society of the Muse of the Southwest.
Several years ago, Bonnie Lee Black, then living in Taos and the most gifted teacher I have had the privilege of encountering, began our workshop in the writing of what is called–rather mystifyingly, to me– “Creative Non-Fiction.” This seems to beg the question: what is non-creative non-fiction? I dread to think…
Last fall, Bonnie moved to Mexico and it seemed that our workshop, like all of them, would end.
It did not.
Due to the devoted efforts of at least one of our members, we continue, paying SOMOS twenty dollars each month per writer, for the use of their small space, which combines a big table, chairs, and shelves of mostly secondhand books. The walls are hung with posters announcing a decade of writing workshops with suitably brilliantly-colored pictures of the Taos mountains.
The decoration of our little room is of no importance. What matters are the people.
As a professional, much-published writer, I have long honored the idea that creative writing is a profession, that each start must have its conclusion and after that happy day, fierce editing and rapid publication for at least a few thousand readers.
I’ve learned the hard way that if this ever happened—and I doubt it, with a few well-known exceptions—it doesn’t happen anymore.
No matter how successful I’ve been, it has always been an arduous struggle to find and hold onto an agent—often exceptionally unhelpful to me but essential to the publishers and magazines that no longer read what were called “over the transom” manuscripts: pages by unknowns literally thrown over the transom into the editor’s office. The manuscripts landed in what were called “slush piles.”
If it were not for the small literary presses, especially Sarabande Books which brought out my last three collections of short stories, I would not have a publisher. (Doris Duke found me an agent, a New York publisher, and a sizable advance, for reasons that may not bear close examination.)
Writers, and good ones, have been found in those slush piles, but now there are just too many writers and apparently too few readers, and editors are no longer engaged in long, frustrating searches for a worthy manuscript, perhaps by an unknown, “unprofessional” writer the sales department of the publisher refuses to endorse.
And yet there have never been so many advanced writing programs, including many that exist largely online. We are grinding out “professional” writers at a terrible rate, given the poor chances of publication and the perhaps-shrinking of our audience. I’m not sure it is actually shrinking, but our readers are harder to find in the midst of other distractions and the general downgrading of reading both in and out of school. The most telling example is the deleting of essential words from our common written and spoken vocabulary and the loss of that constricting metaphorical background—Greek-based, white and male—that made the Bible, the King James prayerbook, the Grimm Fairy Tales and the Greek myths familiar to everyone who went to school. This shared background made available shared metaphors and images and references that now would be considered unintelligible.
In this discouraging scenario, what is the writer to do?
First of all, abandon professionalism. Hard work, always, is essential, but the notion that there is such a thing as “success”—a large audience, critical acclaim, and money—is, for nearly all of us, a delusion.
So—what are we to do?
Why, take a workshop.
I don’t mean an academic one but something like my workshop in Taos, made up not by people claiming, or even aspiring, to be professional writers but of a disparate group committed to groping for the truth.
A few of us will probably publish at one time or another in one place or another, but no one wastes time talking about trying to find an agent or an editor. If it happens, it happens. The point of the workshop is to write at least five pages a week of an ongoing project and to read, every Tuesday evening, to the others.
Why does this work so well for me?
First of all, there is little of the often nasty competition that holds sway in other places–especially MFA programs and writing conferences and writing classes on campus. We have nothing to compete for, in the worldly sense; the excellence we all hope for comes slowly, over long periods of writing, editing and reading aloud.
I find that the comments I receive reveal, often brilliantly, holes in my manuscript of which I was unaware, as well as confusions.
My most recent example, from last night, was a question about my description of my mother’s devotion to her youngest son, which contrasted with everything else I had written about her. I realized that my only basis for my assumption was a single, small black-and-white photo of Mother holding the baby over her head.
As one of my fellow-writers observed, “Maybe she was going to throw him against the wall.”
Assumptions of the kind I’d made don’t survive reading aloud.
And assumptions about the other members of the workshop don’t hold up, either. The man I thought a detached scientist wrote about an out-of-body experience that stunned me. The man who is writing about the progression of his illness will be working to show the meaning of his wife’s apparent detachment. Our coolest member has begun to write about the near-death of her husband.
As I labor on the first chapters of my next book, while also enduring the endless editing of my biography of Doris Duke and plunging, unexpectedly, into a series of linked short stories, these Tuesday evenings at Taos are my food and drink. Spending the night at my favorite B&B, the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, is part of it, too, and I do believe, even without an out-of-body experience, that Mabel’s is still the spirit that hovers over us all.