Review: Bausch workshop

It's a big room, that library, bigger than any workshop room in the Dey House. Eleven students were seated at the table, and various hangers-on, such as SER, TLB, myself, and Catherine Knepper appeared and took seats straight off one short end of the table. The chairs were thoughtfully arranged in rows so that we had a full view of Bausch at the far end. Kind of like watching a movie of a workshop. Ethan, Marilynne, Jim M., Jim G., Connie were also in attendance. Ethan took an empty seat at the workshop table, and as the thing proceeded, I started imagining that I was watching Ethan taking a Bausch workshop.

He came in the room last and took his seat with ease, smiling, an ornery elf in a black leather jacket. White hair combed down either side, white beard with a bit of scraggle to it, tinted lenses. His voice is low in register with a faint Southern drawl, which added to the disarming charm he began to display. Chris Merrill stood and introduced him as "Dick Bausch." After preliminaries about how he conducts his workshop (writer must remain silent), he told about the first story he turned in, for E.L. Doctorow's workshop, when he was a student here, called "Where Is John Wayne?" It didn't go well. Students thought it was "arbitrary," and he went home thinking he'd moved his family here for a big mistake. "Ever notice how when something good happens, you get published, or someone likes your work, you figure it's a fluke? And when something bad happens, well, that's the way it is, it is all bad." He said to ignore these extremes and only think about the work.

He began the first workshop by inviting comments on the story. One youngster started off about how much he liked it, trailed off, then apologized. "Don't apologize for liking something," said Bausch. "But it's an uninteresting writer who sparks no argument. Others?" The students began grinding out the you-know-what, and it proceeded like most workshops. It was undirected, but Bausch had things he wanted to say. When someone touched on them, he'd come in with advice. Without knowing the stories, it's hard to say how good the advice was, but it sounded good. He suggested the writer rework it in 3rd person. "First person is far more complex than all the others. There's an extra somebody in the story. Who's story? The narrator's? How reliable is that person? Then you get into dramatical irony. You can get across something in two or three sentences in third person that might take pages in first."

Here, TLB scribbled a note to me: "He's Frank."

"Drama is trouble in context," he was saying. "People knock Ray Carver for being spare, but if you pack it in like he did, you get really fulsome exposition. It's all a magic show." He began quoting from stories from memory -- Carver, Fitzgerald, Welty, Lardner -- and brought it all back to his point about third person. When they were done, the author of the story said, "That's a great idea, actually." Again, who knows, but he clearly had the room with him.

And so it went, for the next two. Let me just type out some random quotes I jotted down from him:

"What is the loudest note in the story? That's what the story's about."

"If you're having trouble with a certain part, it's probably the crux. Try bringing it up front and putting it out there for the reader."

"You're leading the reader through a museum. And they want to be there. Don't mess with them. Be honest."

"A story is an organic thing, always changing. You want the changes to be surprising. Trust it. Keep going through it. If you're in confusion, well, confusion's the name of the game. Just means it's not ripe yet. Keep going through it."

"There are two rules: You have to use words. You have to be interesting."

"You know how you read [someone] and think, this is it! Then you read [someone else] and think, boy this is it! Well, what is it? It's art. I hear people say writing is an indulgence. It's not an indulgence. You give up indulgences to do it. Think about this day's work. Ask yourself, did I work today? If the answer's yes, boy, you know how you feel like you can do anything then?"

"I don't teach writing. I teach patience. It's supposed to be hard, but every book happens this way, little by little. Confusion and doubt dog everybody, nobody's sure what the next sentence will be. But you've got to trust it."

He literally peppered his rambles with quotes and adages and chestnuts -- I'll bet he knows everything anyone ever said about writing. But I was impressed not so much by what he said about writing -- because really, who actually knows a fucking thing about writing anyway? -- but by his calming, wise presence in the room. There was an honest-to-God twinkle in his eye, and a slight knowing curve to his lips, and he easily achieved the respect of everyone there, it seemed. Not once was there anything uncomfortable or unclear or anything you'd crook an eyebrow at to a friend across the table. TLB may have put it best when she said, "He seems approachable." And you definitely want that in a director (remember he readily agreed to an interview right afterwards and suggested quadrupling its length). Was Frank approachable? Ha! He still isn't (bless him). Bausch simply won everyone over, it seemed to me. He was very encouraging to the students. Just my opinion, but my bottom lines are: 1) I'd hand over the workshop to him in a second, and 2) I left the room feeling excited about writing. I'm interested in what others thought.

Potential concern: the workshops were fairly short, maybe 20-30 minutes each. Could be due to the circus nature of the gala atmosphere, and the fact that this week those 11 students had to workshop 6 stories each. And not every student spoke. Dunno if that's the way he normally does it. It was unstructured in such a way that you could get away with not having even read it, I suppose, because at least 5 of them never said anything. I kind of like when everybody has to say something.


TLB said...

Actually, the length of his workshop discussions convinced me even more that he was Frank. Only more approachable. And God knows I love Frank, so take that with a grain of salt.

I think this is a dead-on rendering of this morning's events. Thank you, Grendel. You take excellent notes.

I think the biggest impression I came away with was that of trust--I trusted his advice and opinions. He knew what he was talking about but didn't overwhelm the room with his presence. He didn't lay down anything as law, except for two things:

1. You have to use words.
2. You have to be interesting.

I fully plan on stealing those rules for my future workshops, btw. But students felt free to disagree with him on issues like pov and voice and his choice of movies, and he responded with aplomb. He is not a Rule Man, I would say.

I agree with Grendel that I think it's best when everyone is forced to say something, if only because that's the only time some of us shy and/or intimidated types ever speak up. But he did pick on people when the workshoppers were being coy.

I was predisposed not to like him, another old white guy, but he won me over, I have to say. I think he could take over and do a great job.

TLB said...

Whoops, sorry, Grendel, I repeated the two rules. Should have read your post more closely. I must not be an Ideal Reader, alas.

Grendel said...

No, you had them right. I wrote down "must" but that was shorthand. I remember him saying "have to."

My tension about the whole thing eased when I left the building. Somebody knew what they were doing, at least for this first candidate. I now believe Frank will be replaced, assume his place in the pantheon, and the workshop will go on in just as capable hands. Maybe even ... gulp ... more capable (don't shoot me!).

Can't wait for his talk tomorrow. And for the other candidates! If they're all this good, there's not a thing to worry about.

SER said...

Nice summary, El Grendel de Amore. I'll add a few things I wrote down and a few things I observed from my very comfortable chair in the rear of the library.

- One refinement to your notes, Grendel - the comment about the loudest note in the story was (I think) meant to point out that in the story in question, the loudest note in the story was NOT what the story was about, and it therefore was distracting to the reader and readers don't like to *feel* manipulated. Not having read the stories, I can't provide any further commentary on that.

- I loved his comments about first vs. third, and about the versatility of third. He pointed out that people go to extreme lengths (as in: pages and pages) in first person to set up a situation so that the narrating character can state something about himself, whereas in third person, you can just state it. He did say that some stories lend themselves to one or the other. One thing he believes is that writers might think that first person allows for more immediacy, but that the contrary is often true. In the story being workshopped, it seemed that the glib first-person narrator was robbing the story of some necessary pathos. Bausch read out one paragraph just changed into the third (ie, no other changes made), and it transformed it from something distant into something much more heartbreaking.

- He called the old editor of Harper's (I missed the name, but I think I've heard of this guy before) the "prince of fucking darkness."

- He does (and advocates doing) many, many drafts. The number "47" came up in connection with one of his stories. He also said that his third drafts usually "look like they were accidentally typed up by baboons." He told an anecdote about finding old typewritten pages of one sentence that he'd rewritten a gazillion times. "I was such a hard worker back in the '80s," he told his wife.

- He was big into starting all the stories later, and he was also into the short, declarative opening that sets the situation and tension (e.g., the opening of "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and some Carver story that begins by saying that these two people were convinced that the couple who lived across the hall from them had a much more exciting life - or something).

- Along these lines, he quoted Hitchcock - something about its meaning nothing if there's a bomb under the desk, but the audience can't see it. That is, drama depends much more on what the reader *does* know versus what he doesn't.

- Every time you write/revise your story, you're educating yourself about it. So you shouldn't freak out when there are inconsistencies, because you'll get to the point eventually where, once you really know your story, each thing will contribute to every other thing.

- He talked about "story logic" - in this particular instance, he was discussing how the retrospective voice of a story needed to be clearer (ie, it needed to be clearer throughout that these events had already happened to this character and were not currently happening). The reader must also be clear early on as to WHOM the story is happening TO.

- "The condition of life is failure; you'll fail more often than you succeed."

- "Only ask yourself one question at the end of the day: did I work? If the answer is yes, you need ask yourself no more questions."

- You should view your work as simply that - a day's (or many days') work, and nothing more personal or farther-reaching than that.

- "Every story is the cry of an occasion" and "Every story must explain why the silence was broken" and "the Human News" - his versions of why is this story being told today?

- Quoted some John Wayne movie: "You don't have to be fast; you just have to be willing"

- He went on about writing not being an indulgence, and if you are talented, you are obligated to write. And so even though writers look idle (and the only thing more idle seems to be sleeping), keep at it and don't waste a lot of time worrying about it.

Overall, I liked him. I am curious to see how the others look. I'm also curious to see if his persona changes when he's off-stage - not sure that will be possible for us, but I had a sense that he was performing (understandably). Also, he used "imply" when he meant "infer." Oooooh, burnnnn, RB!

Grendel, do you know when the next one is (and who it is)?

ian said...

Wow, guys. Great summaries. Thanks! Almost made me want to be a student in the workshop again. Almost.

TLB said...

The editor was Ted Solotaroff. The Carver story was "Neighbors." Just thought I'd mention since I remembered after reading Sarah's post.

PJKM said...

You are brilliant reporters, and I love reading about this from my distant southern exile. Please, report on all the contenders in this amount of detail. (Grendel, your past as a comment whore is serving you well.)

El Gordo de Amore said...

nota bene: Grendel is not a member of the De Amore family.

SER said...

El Gordo, you do not own Amore. Lumpy may think that you do, but Amore, by its very nature, is inclusive. Viva Amore!

Jane said...

Oooh...check out this cool new comment format thang.

Anyway, thanks for the lively review. He sounds like quite a charismatic fellow.

A friend of mine who is one of the Wisconsin fellows recently hung out with him at length when he visited Madison, and said he was very approachable, fun, etc., and more interested in hanging out with the fellows and MFA students than with the faculty. This suggests that he would be an approachable director, which would be a refreshing change for the workshop, methinks.

El Gordo de Amore said...

SER -- Don't fuck with a man's amore.

Grendel said...

I don't know if she's next, but there are signs up in the Dey House for a Sam Chang reading Feb 24.