Go Tell it On a Mountain: My Two Weeks at the Mont Blanc Workshop

Picture this:

mont blanc

White tipped mountain tops cascading into an evergreen hillside so mammoth that when you look out of the window of the tiny alpine apartment you rented from a Scandinavian expat who currently lives in London, there is no skyline—all you see is green. This is what happens every day, for two weeks, at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop.

 

Some people may have been lured in by the fantastical scenery, or the chance to go abroad and be inspired by a foreign culture, or by the ability to spend time with like-minded writers from all over the world. These are all good reasons for a new writer to go to a workshop like Mont Blanc, but my reason was less picturesque—I wanted the chance to work with one of the writers whose work I had only just encountered in the months prior to applying, one who wrote the kind of prose I always wanted to write. For me, it was Alexander Chee.

 

group from france

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

The first time I encountered Alexander Chee I was reading an essay he wrote for The Paris Review on James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Chee began with a narrative in which he recounted working as a makeup artists on a gay porn set, recalling a scene wherein it was particularly difficult for the actors to “rise” to the occasion (pun intended). The director turned off the lights and closed the door so the actors could “work it out,” and Chee predicted that what happened in those moments were probably better than anything they actually recorded. He went on to say, “I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film…It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.”

gruope scolaire

It is clear that Chee was talking about sex—but he was also talking about the moments in life we are too scared to reveal. Moments that reveal our flaws, whisper secrets, admit to lies, or publicize truths that have always seemed better left unsaid. As a nonfiction writer, my work has always been an act of recollection—a way to grapple with the past, collecting and re-collecting the moments in my life that have the ability to say something to the world that exists beyond myself. Part of this is the pursuit Chee talks about—timidly feeling around for these moments and memories in the darkness, and dragging them out to immortalize them on the page. So after scraping around for money and expediting my passport renewal, I made my way across the Atlantic to Chamonix, a little town in France—le pays de mon coeur as my grandmother calls it—to find someone who might help me shine a light in the darkest corners of my memory.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

 I could tell you I accomplished so much work there (which I did), and how my own project began to blossom again after looking at it from outside of the confines of an MFA thesis (which it did), or the relationships I built while I was there with writers I never would have met otherwise (this also happened)—but what good does that do you? Will it inspire you to apply to a residency next summer? Maybe. It is the same shit you hear from everyone who has told you how important these kinds of programs are? Probably. So instead let me tell you what I learned in the two weeks I spent in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and perhaps that will show the value of these kinds of workshops, both for those of you who are thinking of applying, and for myself who was broke for the rest of the summer after taking the risk. After a careful re-reading of my notebook from the workshop, here are the tips I will take with me throughout my writing career:

1.) Keep A Work Journal: One of the best things I learned working with Alexander Chee was to keep a work journal for writing—especially if you are writing a long form piece. Create a new entry after each writing session, ask yourself questions you have about characters, plot or the writing itself, jot down intuitions about the plot, and keep all your outtakes that you don’t think belong. Doing this allows you to come back to your writing the next day (or week, or whatever your rhythm is) and not have the anxiety of a blank page, because you’ve already given yourself a starting place. It also helps you resist the urge to go back and re-read your work over and over again—which, when you are writing a book-length piece, can slow you down immensely.

2.) “If you need to embroider, embroider the edges and not the center:” Alex said this was something Annie Dillard told him in a nonfiction workshop when he was in his MFA. Much of the work the members of our workshop brought to the table fell into the genre of memoir or autobiographical novel (even when some of us believed it wasn’t). He stressed the importance of not embroidering the center, because this is what gives the reader something to feel, see and touch. We can accomplish this by anchoring the stories in very specific things; however, when we begin to embroider we often fill the prose with abstractions, and the longer we stay in the abstract, the greyer the line gets. For me in nonfiction writing, the center is always the “truth”—the memory, the recollection, the stories I’ve be told throughout my life—and the edges are my own imaginings of the world these stories occurred in.

3.) “The writer must survive the writing:”  This is perhaps the sentiment I find myself recalling most after leaving France. Alex said it at one of our first meetings, where we all spoke about what we were writing about and where we stumbled into the area of trauma. As writers, regardless of genre, we often pull inspiration from our own lives and experiences, and oftentimes this involves moments and experiences that are traumatic. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of this kind of work, and that—as writers—it is important to realize when we aren’t ready to take on these experiences on the page. Often in workshop (I’ve seen it most commonly in nonfiction, but I whole-heartedly believe it is true in fiction and poetry as well), we submit something we’re not ready to receive criticism or feedback on, or we begin writing about something we haven’t finished emotionally processing and feel obligated to press forward in order to finish the project. This is putting the writer at risk, not only for the emotional repercussions of revisiting these traumatic experiences, but for not doing justice to the writing—we leave things out we don’t want to remember, or skew them in a way that feels less authentic to avoid dealing with the pain, or we are unable to receive any negative feedback about the work because it feels like our lives are being judged. Maybe this isn’t what Alex meant by his sentiment, but I think that in order to survive the writing, we must also survive the reaction to the writing. If we are not ready to hear those things, it is better to leave some stories untold—at least until we are truly ready to tell them.

4.) “I hope you leave more of yourself than when you came:” This is the wish Alexander Chee has for all of the writers that leave his workshops. At the end of two weeks I left France with thirty new pages (about 15 of which were usable), a recommended reading list that spanned four notebook pages, a copy of Erin Belieu’s Slant Six, a couple blocks of cheese and a group of friends and writers that I still talk to today. I learned about surviving my work, embracing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses as a writer. I learned that inspiration is everywhere—not just in colossal mountain ranges across the ocean, but in people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t taken a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. I learned that there are working writers and professors from around the country who are willing to guide and teach you, but also treat you as equals, and as friends. I learned about myself, and remembered why I started writing in the first place, and in that way I did leave more of myself than I was when I arrived. So you got your wish, Mr. Chee, and I hope one day I can help other writers feel that way too. For now, I hope this blog post will help inspire some of you to decide to travel to re-find your writely selves, wherever that may take you.

french peoplephoto credit: Michael Dahlie

This post was originally published on Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Blog 

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What Is The Truth Of The Matter?: Part II

My curiosity about how truth functions in writing is insatiable—so much so that last year I wrote a blog post about it. The blog starts with a question that has plagued me from the moment I first came across it…here is me quoting myself:

“Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
What is the truth of the matter?”

The first time I saw it I remember thinking how appropriately deep it was for someone like her. I thought about what it said about her as a person, and about the kinds of people who would ask her about it, or try to answer it, and all the conclusions I could draw about someone who would write a question like that on a piece of paper and tape it to their refrigerator…but in the end the question only led to more questions.

The contemporary literary landscape has created a struggle for the working writer, who is torn between the blurring lines of genre boundaries, and the traditional rules that have been put in place to compartmentalize their forms. Historically, the rules of writing have followed the black and white sensibility that a text must be classified as is either factual or fictional…However, there exists today a debate in the non-fiction community about whether truth and fact are always identical, or if there exists a flexibility somewhere—an emotional truth that can be separated from factual truth.

It is fair to state that both poets and prose writers can reveal absolute truths about the human condition and emotional exploration without the concern that any image, character or action that is presented in their work is or is not a recollection of fact or the authors’ organic fabrication. Conversely, journalists are depended on to report the facts, unadulterated and wholly (though they often don’t), and non-fiction writers—biographers, memoirists, and essayists are under constant scrutiny—waiting, post-publication, to be lambasted by readers for the slightest skew or embellishment. So is it fair to say that these rules must be followed in order to create valid examples of texts in each genre? Are novels based in truth less credible because the author chose not to create an entirely fabricated world? Is the memoirist a fraud for conveying an interpretation of his or her own memory that cannot be corroborated?

I find this rigid divide problematic, both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I want to believe that the author—regardless of genre or theme—is passionate about his or her work, and this passion—if it is to be believed—must come from a place of authority that should emanate from the work that has been created. This authority would most likely stem from a place of personal experience…of retrospection and recollection of a moment, a feeling, a place that has affected the writer enough for it to become an inspiration for their work.

In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Three months later, reports exposed parts of his book as being exaggerated—most notably that his account of his 87day stint in prison was no more than a few hours. In a live, on air interview, Oprah Winfrey chastised Frey for his embellishments, saying “I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” It was a literary event great enough to merit a re-evaluation of the terms of memoir writing.

What the New York Times coined as, “The Frey Effect” set off alarm bells for publishers and agents alike, some of which had once encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs. New York Literary Agent Christy Fletcher told the New York Times, ”The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story, that’s not enough any more.”

If a fact cannot be corroborated on a work that is defined as non-fiction, does the “larger truth” that in offered within the text lose it’s legitimacy as well? In the case of James Frey, the line between aesthetic enhancement and outright fabrication was not toed so much as sprinted over. But would the outrage of his readership been as high if he had said he was in jail for 8 days instead of 87? And would the entire message that comes out of A Million Little Pieces come undone without including the narrative of a three-month stay in prison? The Frey Effect is not a consequence of poor authorship, so much as improper representation. If Oprah’s producers had done fact checking of their own, they would have discovered that Frey had shopped the book out as both a novel and a memoir prior to publication—a clear indication that the book was at least partially fictive. Regardless of who is to blame for the misclassification, the fact that the book had an audience at all is based on what Times book critic Michiko Kakutani calls, ”a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.”

Our job as writers is not to define truth for our readers, but for ourselves. We must accept the fuzziness of our memories, and acknowledge that our perception of things is as unique and personal as our own genetic code. I wrote once that these truths that writers use in their work are “a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.” That each individual detail, no matter how unique, is just each writers way of converting their truth into some universal truth…and I again recalled the piece of paper taped to my grandmothers’ refrigerator door.

A few months ago I sent her some pages of my retelling of her life, and the life I was living as I wrote it. Along with the manuscript I attached a note that said, …what is the truth of the matter? She responded, via voicemail, something that will most assuredly make into the next set of pages:

“There is no such thing as truth. My truth is not your truth. The truth is the seed that you put in the ground and it grows. Life has no purpose; life is an experience. What you learn is through experiencing life, your life, and that is what you write. That is the truth. That is life, and you cannot stop it.”

 

This post was originally published on Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Blog 

What Is The Truth Of The Matter?

Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
“What is the truth of the matter?”

I don’t remember not writing, and that’s the problem. My mother—as mothers often do—has given me, over time, historically ambiguous documents revealing that at some point I was a child with a pen and paper and almost illegible handwriting who composed disturbingly dark poetry to appear on lilac-colored construction paper:

Translation:

The flawr (sic)
Ugly and dead
Faints and rots
Surftly (sic?) death

 

 

 

I was young then, but I wasn’t wrong. The flower would in fact die (in a surftly way perhaps? Or maybe I meant “surely”—surely death. That sounds right) and rot, and dead flowers are ugly. So perhaps this poem was not a foreshadowing of my maudlin pre-teen prose and soon-to-be angsty adolescence, but just…well…the truth.

I—and maybe all writers—have a perverse relationship with the idea of truth. As a card-carrying “nonfiction” writer, the truth is something I’m always looking for…but for the other part of me, (the closeted fiction writer who stomps her feet asking when it’s her turn to get a fancy college degree) it is something I’m constantly trying to hide. But the reality is that all writing, regardless of genre, comes from somewhere familiar. Somewhere we have known, deeply and intimately, to the point where we could navigate every inch of it without map or compass, or trace the lines of its silhouette in the darkness.

The only piece of writing advice I would ever give anyone is “write what you know,” because how can you expect to create something that feels real if it’s built on a lie? Listen, I get it. “Fiction” isn’t supposed to be real—but that novel you’ve been working on for god knows how long (you know, the one you write ideas for on cocktail napkins and pocket-sized notebooks?) is just a mess of words on a page if it didn’t come from somewhere real. Somewhere you lingered longer than you should have, where you drank too much or said too little. Somewhere that changed you, or broke you. Somewhere you regret leaving before you knew why you were there in the first place. Somewhere something happened, or someone happened; the first place you fell in love or the last place you said goodbye, before driving or walking or running in the other direction to somewhere new where the whole things starts all over. This amalgamation of somewheres is the framework—the bare bones—of anything worth reading. Do you really think when Thomas Wolfe opened Look Homeward, Angel with “a stone, a leaf; an unfound door. And all of the forgotten faces…” that he didn’t know exactly which faces he was forgetting?  Those were bones, easily covered by the fabricated, malleable tissue of the narrative, smoothed over by each characters’ skin to look whatever way the writer wants them to, different each time. But it is the skeleton that holds the story up, and what endures long after the body rots away. The bones are preserved, like artifacts in a museum—the fragile remains of a reality all too familiar. They are what remind us that everything that happens—every stone and leaf and unfound door—has happened before, but is reborn differently each time…a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.

And that is the truth of the matter.

This post was originally published on Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Blog