Writing workshops are where people go to conceal and reveal themselves
In 2017, I spent a week facilitating a writing workshop. Sitting in front of me at their desks were well over a dozen children aged eleven to fourteen. We were in a beautiful old brick school building in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Cloverdale, which briefly became famous in the Canadian media because of the emergence of “Accidental Beach” on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River.
As the room’s solitary fan whirred in a vain effort to cool us down, I tried my best to memorize the names of the students that the coordinators had given me, paying particular attention to those that had chosen gender-neutral pronouns. Initially, when the workshops were being set up, I’d wanted a different age group. The topic of my week-long workshop was narrative. Because it had been so long since I’d been in the company of eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen year-olds, I really didn’t know how ambitious we could collectively be.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline is the story of a writer — an English woman — who is leading a writing workshop in Athens. I’m not overly fond of writers who write about writers, although I’ve had my prejudice successfully challenged several times. The opening page of Outline disarmed me immediately. The narrator’s encounter with an eccentric billionaire en route to Athens could have been written in no other century than this one, which is a quality in novels I find myself particularly hungering for these days.
The next character the narrator encounters is an affluent Greek man who she refers to only as “my neighbour,” because he sat next to her on the plane. She goes with him on a boat ride to an island that is the ancestral home of his family. He tells her about his son, a schizophrenic, who recently liberated a menagerie of exotic animals to the consternation of their owner.
It takes a few chapters for Outline to arrive at the actual workshop. On the way, the narrator dines with other writers and artists, each of whom exposes some of their most painful family memories and experiences. Marriages and children are recurring themes.
It had taken me a while to write the blurb for my workshop:
Is your story BIG, ENORMOUS, OR GIGANTIC? Everyone knows an entire world — or even the universe — can fit into a story. This means your story could potentially be infinite in size. But wait! No one has time to read an infinite story, and no publisher would be willing to cut down all the trees of the world — and then some — to print a story so big. Join Laurence to find out just how big YOUR story is and learn how to fit it into a form that will satisfy readers of all appetites.
I had discussed the “curriculum” of my workshop extensively with my wife. As a therapist by training, primarily working with children, she is adept at finding age-appropriate activities that will create safe boundaries and encourage creative exploration. One game in particular unleashed a wave of giddy excitement and hilarity in the class. Students are in pairs, facing back to back. One student tells a story. The other illustrates the story on a small, hand-held whiteboard ($4 at Dollarama). Then the students reverse roles. The activity produces outlandish stories and even crazier drawings.
My main concern was that students gain an appreciation for constructing narrative, but not feel undue pressure to complete a finished piece that week. It would be almost impossible, I told them, especially given all the other classes they were attending, to write a movie script or a novel. It would suffice, I said, to have an outline.
The students and I had conversations that could become deep very quickly. One girl wanted to write a novel about a Jew during WWII, who, to evade capture, disguises herself as a Nazi and joins the German army. I asked the student what would happen next in the story? She told me a series of quite exciting adventures, and I nodded my head, intrigued. I then delicately pointed out a particular problem that she might encounter in carrying out this narrative. Even as I was talking, I wasn’t sure I should be challenging her narrative at all. But I had respect for the maturity of my class. The previous day we had discussed a short story called Mr. Fixit, and the students had dissected it and explored every aspect with an acuity that amazed me.
“The problem you might have to confront,” I said, “is that your Jewish hero is likely, at some point, to be asked to do something horrible to another Jew.”
One of the students in Cusk’s fictionalized Athens workshop tells a story of her relationship with her children and an adopted dog. Despite the intense violence and emotion of the story, this character never reappears. In a conventional novel, the commonly received wisdom is to not do this sort of thing as it’s likely to frustrate readers. That is not the case with Outline.
It’s fitting that Cusk begins and ends her novel on a plane. Chance encounters with strangers during a time-constrained journey are plausible analogues for fictional narratives. One of many questions Cusk’s novel seems to raise is: what exactly is the difference between an outline and the story itself?
The parents came to collect their children at the week’s end. I was given another caution from the workshop coordinators about pronouns. The ones I’d used for some of the kids in my class might not be the same ones used back home.
That week lingers in my memory as one of the happiest in my life. My wife, who had joined me in Edmonton, was two months pregnant. We had told our closest family but no one else in our extended network of friends. Taking the plane back to Montreal, I became keenly aware that I had used the workshop, in part, as a testing ground for my ability to relate to children, in anticipation of having my own child one day. “Those kids were so amazing,” I said to my wife. “I had no idea they would be so serious and profound. I’ve had literature classes with English majors who didn’t take writing so seriously!”
Then I thought back to the way I’d problematized that girl’s WWII story about the Jew in disguise. Her eyes had opened wide and, after a long moment of careful reflection, she’d said, “Oh man, this novel is going to be complicated.”