Day 2, Humber Summer Workshop and two things occurred to me on the long drive home. First, I may have to accost Alistair MacLeod and this makes me sad because already I like him very much. Two, this course is so all-encompassing that I barely know how to drive when class is dismissed. I hardly recognize my family when I walk through the door.
I guess I should explain about why I might have to not only accost Dr. MacLeod but rob him as well – after only just meeting him.
He is a literary icon here in Canada. Things occur to him that don’t occur in my mere mortal brain. Important storytelling things. In the hour that he spoke to us, his students for the week, I realized (in blinding Technicolor) how inadequate my writing is. I could give you details but they are just too horrible to divulge.
He spoke softly but devastatingly about theme, scene, and characters. It was then I began to wonder how to get my story away from him. As the class ended he placed my papers (along with the six others) in his charmingly scuffed book bag. I fought back a very strong urge to knock the dear old man down, grab his bag and run for the lake. Knocking down a literary icon seemed, for a split second, a rational act for this fifty year old writer, wife, mother of two teens, and normally law-abiding citizen. Ok, except for those speeding tickets in Alberta.
Knocking the old guy down was the best I could come up with – see how unimaginative I am?
The next 3 days might be agony (we’re going alphabetically – I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack). I cannot bear to look at the fifteen pages I submitted for fear of discovering more inadequacies. Sweet Jesus, give me strength.
The piece I submitted was not one in which I’d lost any blood, sweat or tears over. Big fat lie. I wrote it, therefore I am naturally, organically invested in it. Like, on a cellular level. I don’t care if any of my classmates eviscerate me; I worry about Alistair.
I worry that he will take me aside – after class, because he is polite – pat my hand in a paternal way, give his head a slight shake and say gently, “Oh…my dear. What shall we do about…this?”
On a brighter note, the morning lectures were very interesting for me but perhaps excruciating for twenty others. Two editors from “big houses” went through twenty anonymous submissions at the speed of light (as editors must), passing a yes or no judgment on each.
I learned something about editors today: the story – the hint, the shadow, the possibility of a good story sometimes can save sloppy writing. Editors are like very busy cats. Cats cannot ignore their most primal instinct: curiosity. The more you intrigue an editor – genuinely, honestly and not with any clichés or tricks – the more pages you might get him/her to turn. The more pages they turn, the better chance your manuscript will live another minute out of the slush pile.
In ten years, one of the editor has only pulled ONE manuscript from the slush pile.
Editors, I learned, hate clichés. They also hate adjectives. They hate stories that start with the weather. “The hot sun beat down on the crowd mercilessly.” They like simple, direct writing that is fresh, that describes something mundane in a new way. They don’t mind being shocked but you’d better be able to live up to your own hype.
They’re busy people. Don’t make them work too hard to figure out what the hell you’re talking about. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, spoke in the afternoon about how story truth is sometimes more true than real truth. Story truth is emotional truth. He made me cry. He cried. It was great. Real truth can be pretty boring; fiction better not be.