>Over Under the Volcano

>I have returned home from Mexico, unpacked, gone through the stacks of papers and mail, paid bills, picked up Bhikku from the kennel, restocked groceries, caught up on sleep, and have generally settled in. Before I completely return to my regular schedule, though, I wanted to record some final thoughts on the workshop experience with Grace Paley.

Grace was wonderful, filled with honesty and directness, but not quite as teacherly as I’d expected. In contrast, Russell Banks last year used almost every paragraph under discussion as a tool of one kind or another, either to demonstrate a flaw or a strength, or to link to some relevant story from his own experience. Grace just isn’t that way.

Still, there were a few important tips.

“The short story is closer to poetry than the novel.” As practiced by Grace Paley, this is demonstrably so. As practiced by me, not so clear. But it is good advice to keep in mind.

“Write what you don’t know about what you know—what you don’t understand.” When she said this, I commented that it echoed the advice in her essay The Value of Not Understanding Everything.

“Dialogue is action, it moves the story.” Especially in a Grace Paley story.

Is the workshop a valuable experience? I was a bit frustrated by the reaction of the group to my stories, and probably they were to my reactions to their stories. As is often the case in these sessions, Grace was far less critical than the rest of us. Rarely did she point to specific language, but was more interested in character and thrust, in endings. With less confidence in our own critical abilities, we tended to look at the finer points for flaws. This was a talented group—the 4 more experienced fiction writers (including me) all had MFAs, and two of those teach creative writing. The three with less fiction experience all had considerable non-fiction credentials and interesting work histories. I duly wrote down everything that was said when my stories were workshopped, and soon I’ll need to begin the revisions. Again.

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