I thought I was prepared for my first workshop. My ego had already been bruised when I took non-credit workshops. I’d had teachers tell me that my characters were boring, some fellow students had told me I was wasting my time, and I was having a terrible time with the beginning of my novel. Now that I think about it, I wonder how I ever had the guts to apply to a writing program. Here I was, a hardened, mature woman, ready for anything, or so I thought. One of my first jobs in the government had been putting people in jail.
Since I’d been having so much trouble with the beginning of my novel and was haunted by a writing friend’s ramblings about how writers had to publish stories before anyone would publish their novels, I decided to write short stories for the workshop instead of workshopping chapters from my novel. I’d already submitted my latest version of my first novel chapter in my fiction techniques class and had a lot of work to do on the new beginning. Working on short stories would be fun while I played with my novel on the side.
I’m nothing if not an optimist or is that shorthand for a very foolish lady? When the teacher asked for volunteers for the first workshop, I didn’t worry about not having anything written. If he needed another story, I said, I would be happy to write something up over the weekend. I strongly suggest that you don’t ever volunteer to write something over the weekend.
That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t have time to start the story until Saturday. As a starting point, I would use part of an exercise that I wrote in my Sentence Power class that had lots of long sentences, metaphors, set in a place I remember vividly from my youth,the lakes in northern Iowa. I ended up combining two different Iowa resorts to get all of the details I wanted for the story and had no trouble picturing the fairgrounds, the white clapboard cabins close to a picturesque village, the local playhouse run by students and faculty from a nearby university. What more could a writer ask?
I also had this idea that I’ve been thinking about for a long time about how to explore the feelings a person might have when they’ve decided to commit suicide. We all have things that have troubled us, questions that we keep exploring in our own minds. When I was in college, my first roommate told me about how a friend had found her boyfriend after he’d committed suicide. Much later, when I was in the hospital having my second son, I’d heard that someone I’d been close to a long time ago had jumped off a bridge when his analyst told him that he didn’t think his suicide threats were real. I guess writing the story was a kind of purging to make it all make sense when actually, it never makes any sense. This was pretty serious stuff and good material for any kind of story, right? And I had this silly notion that we were supposed to take a draft story to class, not one that we’d polished for months, maybe even workshopped before.