Distracted by the world around her, a writer returns to a tender place to reset her intentions. And it works. She also reflects on what it felt like to be among like-minded creatives at a writing institute.
By Guest Blogger Cherline Bazile '18
PART ONE: Meeting folks
My time at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College wildly surpassed my expectations. I was looking for a place to get feedback on some of the writing I had done in the past year. The most impactful part of the experience, however, was the lovely group of writers I met.
I took an Advanced Fiction class under two professional writers, Nick Delbanco and Adam Haslett. They both had very different workshop
As a result, I was putting immense pressure on myself to do well. Being workshopped by 17 other writers was a way of entering a state of humility where I remembered that I still have so much to learn from the people around me and shutting criticism out doesn’t help anyone. It is necessary and wonderful to understand how people are reading your work and what aspects stick with them. The feedback I received was that the story I submitted was beautiful in its rhythmic and dreamy language. But my POV was whack and I hadn’t given my reader enough context to follow the story.
My class had writers from various ages. Some were still in school, some had never done an MFA, one person was already a published novelist. The majority were in their mid-20s and either halfway through their MFA or finished. Everyone entered with their own ideas of what a workshop was and should be. Some people were quick to criticize and slower to praise. Others were in continual awe of the stories they got to read. As we spent more time with each other, it was impossible to separate the work from the person, and people began to moderate their responses more, which created a kinder energy. In general, the baseline was that everyone was doing good work, and if you came to the program it was to improve what you were doing. As such, the focus for a given workshop was what wasn’t working and why.
I loved being able to spend time with like-minded people who had a similar sensibility to me but vastly different personalities. The writers I met at NY State shattered any stereotypes I had about the writer archetype, made me realize there were so many people out there trying to achieve the same goal, and gave new life to the work I do. I’m certain I’ll see many of them again in the near future, and I’m excited to learn from them over the years.
Here is an excerpt from my book:
She began to forget him. Time heals many a wound. She would always feel, she suspected, hollowed out, but soon she grew used to the incompleteness, the understanding of her body as a creature of yearning, and since he, Finn, was undoubtedly not feeling the same, she resolved to think of him less. Soon he was a memory that bubbled often in the background and only in moments of stillness—on days when she wondered if this was all there was to life and attempted to cover this suspicion with hours of reading—would he surface, wild eyebrows, bold green eyes, Finn, hers again, reaching for her face, folding his forehead into hers, saying, "Willow," before she shook her head and pushed him away.
PART TWO: Sit down and write
Because I pulled off writing a short novel in a year, and because I was used to churning out assignments at a professor's whim, I thought that I could give myself a deadline and produce in months a first draft of my second book project, In All That Darkness.
Instead I oscillated between projects, used my pay-the-bills work as a productive distraction, and couldn't get further than stream of conscious scenes and other scenes that wouldn't make it to the next draft. Writing can be movement within stillness. The moment when my thoughts slow down enough that I can move with each word is exhilarating and makes it all worth it. Writing is also a line of work that comes with self-doubt and an overwhelming amount of equal parts guilt and joy.
A couple months into the summer I realized that I had rewritten the same scene at least 10 times. In this period, every time I pulled out my notebook, I had a physical reaction. Every time I thought of the book, I felt like throwing up. I was sharing this with a friend, when he said, "You're creating from a place of guilt and cruelty. That doesn't seem to be working." And it was true. I couldn't shake off the dread. And I couldn't tease out the moments of wonder that keep a book alive.
It's important to me that I write from a place of love, and if I'm forcing it, I pin the project and switch to another one or write lovely stories that no one will ever see. I ended up putting the project aside and re-oriented myself to what mattered, and I've since written the first few chapters of In All that Darkness and am on a final draft of the first project, This Is War.
I'm coming to terms with understanding that I'm not able to do all of the things I could do in undergrad. Those were extraordinary circumstances. I was a struggling superwoman then. Now I am slower, but I work with more tenderness, which is reflected in the dignity and attention I give to myself and my characters. It is okay not to meet your artistic goals right when you want to meet them. Your time will come. It is okay to seek space until you can come back to your work with love and open arms. This will build stamina. And it is crucial that we be forgiving.
Here's a line from In All that Darkness. After a man gets shot by a vigilante group in front of a crowd, Ailah, the narrator, watches as he tries to get up again:
He thought he could get away—if he tried hard enough he'd do it, and even though he knew it was impossible to live, and I knew it was impossible, I believed him anyway, because everyone needs someone to believe in them.