This will be a fairly short post this week, as I'm in the midst of our fall workshop in Haverford, PA. I arrived a day early, and sometime in the first half of the Steeler game Sunday I made my way to Kelly's Pub up on Lancaster to grab a bite and watch the game. As it turned out, a gang of Steeler fans were there, celebrating someone's birthday, and I unwittingly became part of the party, even signing the birthday boy's t-shirt.
This past weekend I was visited by three spirits. I don't consider myself an Ebenezer Scrooge, or at least not the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, and my three spirits weren't ghosts. They are very much alive, and their aliveness is a part of why they spoke to me.
Mr. Wouk is a gifted storyteller who held me enthralled through City Boy, The Caine Mutiny, and Youngblood Hawke. However, it was when I read Winds of War and War and Remembrance that I was lost in wonder, and at times horror, at the worlds he created. The two books cover the lead up to WWII and the entire war, and until I read those books, I didn't grasp what the words "World War" meant. He wrote from a wide and deep perspective, and every time I re-read those books I am awed by their vast scope and their intimacy.
A friend (with whom I shared the books) and I were talking at a crowded dinner table one night, discussing the characters in the books and what was happening with them. Another friend, overhearing, interrupted and said, "Who are these people? Your family?" We burst out laughing and explained, and later agreed that our engagement with the characters was unusual, and the author deserved a lot of credit for that.
I watched Mr. Wouk in an interview in July 2017 with CBS Sunday Morning, and noticed that even at 102, there was a twinkle in his eye, and an irrepressible energy that made me smile. He was one of the most alive human beings on the planet, and his work has been an enormous part of my love of story.
It is a time of transition for Helio, and for me. He is moving from 20 years with Team Penske in Indy Car to the Penske Sports Car program. While it seems clear he'd like to have stayed in the Indy Car program, he gracefully acceded to Roger Penske's request that he move to the other program. And in his first race, he won the pole (meaning they start first) for his three-man team, and the team had a podium finish, coming in third overall.
I've written of my own transition, of moving across the country, leaving my life in California to return to a new life in Pennsylvania. If I can handle my transition with a fraction of Helio's grace, I will be doing well.
While I can't say I see myself as Wonder Woman, one of the great gifts in life is not necessarily to have the life you think you should. As Emilio Estevez's character says in his film The Way, "You don't choose a life, you live it."
My three spirits have all shared something about how they've lived their lives with me, and now I share it with you. Like all of us, they have each had their griefs, their losses, and their heartbreaks. And still, the joyful glint is there in their eyes, in their being. May we all live our lives with that joyful glint, and share it with the world. The world could use a little joy.
At the same time, you are thrilled to be at this workshop, with an opportunity to get feedback (which you are sure will be wonderful) from a writing teacher whose work you respect, and whose books have helped many an aspiring novelist. You want to bask in the opportunity to spend this time completely focused on your own work-in-progress and not have to worry about cooking your own meals and then doing the dishes. Here, you are a writer.
Without any maneuvering, the workshop leader sits next to you at dinner, and appears to be amused by your witty repartee. Everything seems to be working as planned.
A funny thing happens after dinner. The group gathers for the opening session, and lo and behold, you are the first one to share your book title and the hook you have crafted. Suddenly you discover that you don’t have a protagonist, you have a victim. To be a protagonist the main character has to act, rather than simply be acted upon. Yours doesn’t act, she reacts.
You also find out that your book title, which is your protagonist/victim’s first name (evocative, you felt), tells the reader nothing. And you realize that if all of this is true, you have to throw out everything you’ve written to date and start over.
After the session is over, you realize you have a choice to make. You can crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and wail that everyone is just jealous of your talents and it isn’t fair. Or you can face the fact that you are here to learn, and the first lesson was a tough one to swallow. You came to see what the experts could teach you, and now you have to decide if you are willing to be taught.
Feedback is one of the most difficult things to accept as a writer. It’s easy to convince yourself that the person questioning your choice of word, or character, or storyline, doesn’t understand your intention. And if they don’t, it isn’t your fault they’re dense. You’ve labored over this work for years, and you know you’ve honed it brilliantly.
Or have you? It can be enormously confusing to go to a workshop, sit through classes with one or more instructors, meet one-on-one with several mentors/editors, and have critique sessions with your peers, with everyone telling you something different. After a few days you are reeling from the contradictory suggestions, and it’s tempting to ignore all of it and go your own way.
…if you put aside your bruised ego long enough to look at it clearly, you might realize several different people all seemed to be asking what your main character wants, what her story arc is. And almost everyone commented on how they wanted to know more about your villain, but didn’t seem enthusiastic about your protagonist. So perhaps there are a few things that keep cropping up that might be worth your attention.
Carol (Doc) Dougherty
An avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop