One Story Workshop, day 4: Characters, Cats, Community

A colossal event of epic proportions hit New York today. It wasn’t zombies. It wasn’t The Derecho. It was the penultimate day of the One Story Workshop, and it was marvelous.

We began the day with delicious bagels, then proceeded to workshop. As seems to be the theme throughout the week, the authors in workshop were verbosely happy with the readings and advice they received.

Overheard at lunch: “I just want to go to my hotel now and write.” It was agreed by all surrounding that this sort of optimistic drive is the best possible feeling that a workshop can give.

After consuming heaps of falafel, we trekked onwards and upwards for Myla Goldberg’s craft lecture: “How To Fake It: Creating Characters That Don’t Seem Made Up.” Myla had asked us to read Aimee Bender’s odd, beautiful story, “What You Left In The Ditch” so we could discuss the elements at work. Myla, with wit, and wild vocal inflections, stressed the difference between creating a likeable character and an empathetic character, noting that the latter is more interesting. “It is your job as a writer,” she told us, with the tone of a manifesto, “to inhabit every single character you invent.”

Other gems of advice culled from the Q/A session included:

-Subtlety is a muscle that you develop over time.

-The more scenes you write, the more you get a sense of what a scene is.

-It’s okay to know that you need to fix something and not fix it right away.

-Write until you get stuck. Then go back and make corrections.

-Read your work out loud.

-Trust yourself. Follow your character around and be open to things.

After the lecture, we took a writing break, a wine-cheese break, and met again for the evening event: a reading by Joshua Henkin, director of the Brooklyn College MFA and author of Swimming Across The Hudson, Matrimony, and, most recently, The World Without You. Josh was introduced by Marie-Helene Bertino (his former student and one of our workshop leaders) before he read two excerpts from his most recent book. The novel tells the story of the first time a family has been together since a son was killed in Iraq. Heartbreak, comedy, and delicate hybrids of the two ensue as the family members’ habits and beliefs slam into each other.

Josh’s manner was open and honest—his presence allowed a sense of openness rare in post-reading Q/A. “We both create our stories,” he told us, somberly, “and are created by them.” While we basked in the sageness of his widsom, he cracked a joke. The discussion ranged from too-beautiful sentences to bad soap operas (hint: any plotline can become one, but no plotline has to be one) to showing other people our work. “When I first started,” he confided to us, “I couldn’t write a paragraph without showing my cat. I didn’t even have a cat.”

As the workshop hurtles toward its close, there’s a palpable sense of satisfaction in the Center For Fiction. We’ve heard great advice from marvelous people—people who live in the literary world that so many of us are climbing toward. It’s been inspiring, while also being a uniquely accessible experience. We’ve formed a literary community. It deepens in every workshop and during every meal, and strengthens with every craft lecture, panel and reading. In applying to this workshop, we have followed our passion, and with each day of attendance, we are learning together how to make a life out of it.

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