Monday, January 22, 2018

Two Blindspots Encountered in a Workshop

I was at a writer's conference last year that included daily workshops with a regular group of around six writers. I got pretty lucky in that most of the writers in the group had an interest in writing about strange things, even fantasy and gothic horror. It was an interesting spread of interests, even if the work I brought to be workshopped was relatively mundane. My story was largely based on my life experiences, with some thematic ghosts and flubbing of time and relationships. It's a story I've been working on for about three years, and I'm grateful to this workshop group for pointing out something that I would never have noticed on my own, but someone should've brought up to me years prior.

A decade ago, I worked as a waiter at a restaurant in a mall back in Colorado Springs, and encountered a lot of strange customers and unique personalities who worked in the shops around me. One of these people was a lotion salesman who spoke almost exclusively some European language I couldn't quite place. He managed his job mostly through offering free samples and having a nice smile. He constantly proferred his samples of lotion to me and blushed every time. Sometimes we'd be in line near eachother at the Starbucks that was equidistant between our two shops, and he'd smile and try to say something I didn't understand, then get embarassed and clam up.

I wrote him into the story I was workshopping at this conference, and I rendered him as honestly as I could. I didn't change him at all in the telling of the story; I knew almost nothing about him beside his job and his efforts to flirt with me, so what could I change? This honest telling of my interaction with the man left me vulnerable to a blindspot that they brought up only very reluctantly. In my story, the man came off as a homosexual stereotype that I was making fun of.

This was a story I've shared with dozens upon dozens of fellow writers. Why did it take so long for someone to tell me about that? I'd have never known if someone hadn't told me, because to me, in my life, this was a real person I was writing about. To me, his shyness was both amusing and endearing, so much so that I still remember his expressions perfectly. But in the context of the story, an Eastern European, non-English-speaking lotion salesaman with a habit of flirting with the first-person narrator, feels a bit like something someone would imagine who'd only seen homosexuals as portrayed on 90s television.

Writers encounter blindspots like this in our stories, and in our actions. A couple of days later, this same group of writers were going over a different story from the group. The workshop's only black writer had brought in a story about racial injustice in the court system, a first-person narrative based on painstakingly-researched factual events. It was fascinating and well-written, but the plot-focused writers found that its realism made it implausible. In prose, reality often sounds contrived, exactly as my peers thought this story did. They thought the writer should let the historical details wander, telling a story that is somewhat more fictional but, in their opinion, more effective.

Perhaps because I'd just had my own blindspot pointed out by the same group of people when we were going over my own story, I was the one to observe that the workshop had transformed. It had become a room full of white people telling a black man how to write about racism. Moreso, there were white writers in the room explaining to a black historian (he became a historian wehn he researched and wrote a historical narrative as it factually occured) that they found his racial history unbelievable. It is always the job of a writer to convince their audience to trust them, and it's important to feel free to criticize the writer's success in a workshop environment, but it's possible to do this while being cognizant of the racial undertones in the room.

In this case, the right thing to do was let the writer know what our feelings were, and trust him to know what to do with them. Perhaps in any other historical narrative -- and I've heard writers of historical fiction have these conversations -- it would be appropriate to question that value of strict historic adherence to minutiae. Not in this case.

I do hope the writer of that story, and all the others in the workshop, found their way to the stories they were trying to tell. They were some great writers and important stories in that room. My own story hasn't yet found its way to an audience. I found I needed time to expunge the details of the man I met back in that mall, relegating him to memory so that I can write something more appropriate to the fiction I'm trying to craft.

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