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.