Memories of Sam Chang's workshop

I had Sam first semester, first year. I picked her because she was young and would only be there a year and I had liked her stories in Hunger. She was a very calm and soothing presence in the classroom. She had us move our chairs in a tight circle and spoke in a subdued, informal way that put everyone at ease. She explained how the workshop would work, that we couldn't talk while our work was "up," and that prior to the class we would compose a letter to the writer whose work we were discussing. She put up on the board Frank's famous pyramid, which was my first encounter with that. Meaning, sense, and clarity. I was dazzled.

But when she asked for volunteers to go first, as in submit for the following week, I made the mistake of raising my hand. Further, I asked if it was okay to put up a story I had applied with. She said yes, though that wasn't normally done. That's okay, I thought. The piece is so good they'll all have nothing but praise. I believe Dunkeys was the other guinea pig that kicked things off (is that right? Who else was in there? TLB, cek, Kate...).

Needless to say, my story ran into trouble. Students were saying it was cliche, juvenile, they'd read this stuff before, and Sam backed them up without seeming dismissive or mean. All of what they said was true. This was my first workshop revelation about writing: you don't simply repeat the kind of thing others have already done better. I really didn't know that.

In her two pages of written comments, Sam praised my humor and tone, saying that those are hard to achieve, and then pointed out other stuff. The discrepancy between the "humorous" tone and the "traumatic" events happening to our narrator. Being more "ruthless" about scene selection and blend of scene and narrative. She suggesting thinking of a story as a play. When do the characters enter and exit the stage? Why did this one character exit right before the climax? She also talked about structure and pacing: "A linear narrative with a traditional structure of conflict, climax, resolution requires each scene leading toward the climax to increase the reader's anticipation." She finally warned me about too many adverbs and connecting too many sentences with "and" and including too many extraneous details and useless actions (walking out of a room, closing a door, how she folded her hands, etc.) -- Frank's abject naturalism.

My overall feeling as I left the class that day was a mixture of crushing disappointment and revelation. Disappointment in the ego sense, that not everyone thought I was the hotshot I thought I was. Revelation in that writing is not a talent that drops into your lap from the sky, that it must be hammered and hammered -- forever maybe -- and that this process was going to be a long, hard slog, that it was a craft I would have to learn from the beginning, and the only way to learn it was by doing it -- a lot -- and reading what other people were doing, and absorbing lessons from what other readers found in my work, as opposed to what I thought they should find.

In my next stories (somehow I got in three that semester), Sam actually drew graphs that related the forward timeline to the emotional high points -- a kind of Excel chart of my writing. This was fascinating. I copied the technique for use in workshopping other people's stuff and for when I taught undergrad creative writing. It had never occurred to me that a story could be visually represented in such a way that structural things could be immediately seen that couldn't be from just reading the pages. I still do that.

Sam's a great one for handouts and pulling out an essay or three that illuminates the topic of the day. In her seminar on "Length," I collected a good dozen of these pieces by writers such as Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, and Elizabeth Bowen. Still have 'em. She passed out a terrific interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez that was all underlined and starred in the parts she thought were most important. She's amazing at analysis and can nimbly compare what you are probably trying to do with numerous examples of where that's been done successfully.

If she can apply this broad-based storehouse of writing knowledge with her talent for seeing the structure in things and being able to tell whether it's working -- and bring these to bear at the workshop as an institution, as well as in her teaching and workshopping -- the workshop will no doubt benefit. Yet I love that she is a product of that institution and that she clearly holds Frank up as her model. That bodes well for continuity.


dunkeys said...

If I recall, Grendel, our workshop was a love-fest -- and I mean this in a good way: there wasn't a single class that passed where the author of a piece felt he or she received 'mean' feedback or, worse, no helpful feedback (it's not like we just gushed positive every week; I remember people leaving there plenty shaken, me included, but it was because we'd been helped to realize that we weren't writing very good stories -- and that's the key: a workshop should help a writer to realize rough areas, and Sam's did just that).

It'd be easy think that the positive, nurturing setting of that workshop existed because of the group of students. That's just not true, though. One of Sam's strengths is making her job look easy while still teaching -- the experience feels painless, but you're still learning. That's a pretty impressive trait.

(Maybe we're used to 'learning in pain,' and that's why teachers who are calm and supportive don't fix themselves so distinctly in our memories. Oh my silly brain!)

TLB said...

I for one think it's fantastic that Sam got the job, not because she's a known quantity to many of us but because of the ways in which she is still unknown. I will be interested to see how she deals with keeping the best of the workshop while changing the worst. I have a feeling that she may really be up to the task.

I was in the same workshop as Grendel and Dunkeys and remember it less as a warm fuzzy than as a cold splash of much-needed water on my expectations. I had neither the vocabularly to talk about writing intelligently nor the confidence of my convictions when that class began. I felt old, grandmother-style old, that first day in class; my last workshop had been almost ten years before, and I hadn't set foot in any kind of classroom since then. I kept expecting someone to tell me there had been a terrible mistake and would I please return to my regularly scheduled program? But Sam eased that transition without, perhaps, even realizing she was doing it.

My first story was a doozy, and got the appropriate doozy treatment. But Sam didn't throw it across the room, rip it in half, though perhaps either would have been in order and in other classrooms would not have been surprising. What I learned from her in that class, however, went beyond that individual story into all the stories I have written since. I think this is something we forget as students--that the work is not really about the piece on the table at the moment, but all the pieces to come.

I have to agree with Dunkeys--that workshop wasn't positive because of the students (there were plenty of contentious egos in the room, mine included) but because of Sam herself. She always got to the point without making it personal.

So welcome back Sam, and congratulations.

TLB said...
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Grendel said...

Here is a good, long interview with Sam. Link discovered thanks to Maud Newton.