The Process: Learning How to Really Write
by Michael Mohr
I began my involvement with Clive Matson’s Oakland Writing Workshop back in early November, 2011. It was when the Occupy Oakland stuff was still going on. I’ll never forget that experience. I had just moved back to California, from Oregon, and all hell was seeming to break loose in downtown Oakland, and, evidently, New York City and across the globe.
There had been a call for Occupy writing submissions by a guy named Clive Matson. I heard of this, wrote a few pieces after joining the massive marches, and submitted a few to Clive’s assistant in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. The assistant assured me that he’d get it to Clive. Within a week I’d received a phone call: I love this writing: I want you to come join my workshop, Clive had said.
Thrilled, I showed up to Clive’s house on 44th and Telegraph in Temescal, North Oakland. I’d never done a writing workshop before, and I was terrified. There were about five others, mostly older women. Then me, twenty-eight-years-old at the time, male, still learning the writing ropes.
Clive, I soon found out, was a master. He’d cut his literary teeth ages ago. Seventy-one, he’d been publishing work since the early sixties. A poet at heart, he’d been on the fringe of the Beat movement in New York, and had travelled to Europe on his own dime in his twenties, doing tiny, spastic readings across the European continent for soup or a place to crash. He’d gotten around.
Clive had a plethora of published works, his most notable perhaps “Let the Crazy Child Write!” released in 1998 by New World Library. “Mainline to the Heart,” written in his twenties about his nefarious heroin addiction as a youth, was a potent and reputable anthology to the demented in us all.
In the beginning, I brought in Occupy pieces. I continued to march and be moderately involved with the “Movement.” But I soon began to realize two things: One, that my and Clive’s politics were very different, and Two, that my and Occupy’s politics were very different. One day, I simply showed up with fiction instead of Occupy material. Clive didn’t bat an eye, and we went from there. Occupy had gotten me in the door; fiction kept me there.
From that point on, the learning really began. Getting to know the other members, I started to realize that writing was a tricky and unreliable craft, one that needed discipline and open-mindedness as a core to true growth. Clive was there to softly, and eventually, as he noticed my growth sky rocketing, harshly push me forward into new and feral literary lands.
Simple concepts began to infiltrate the material I brought in: A stronger story arc (these were, at this point, mostly short stories); more memorable characters; better, stronger, more concise dialogue; more well developed scene, location, setting, tone, voice, etc. Also, on the more technical end: Less use of overbearing adjectives and adverbs. Being a stronger, more confident story teller in general.
As I grew, and as my writing flourished, Clive and the other members in the group became more willing to give critical, helpful feedback. And I became more willing to hear what they had to say. It became less a feeling of having my heart beat against a wall when someone criticized my material, and more like they wanted to see me succeed and write truthfully. I began to trust Clive, the other members, and The Process.
Along this journey, I also realized something else: I had a serious ability to give positive and helpful feedback to other writers. This was something which, lacking the necessary confidence, I’d never been comfortable doing before. But now I felt equipped. When others would lack a strong “bow and arrow” type aiming in their story arc (Clive’s favorite metaphor) I would call them out. Where’s your plot? I’d say. They’d smirk. But they appreciated it, too. We all did. We were there to help one another. This became a common journey, which was incredible because writing, to me, had always felt like a solitary and lonely occupation.
And an interesting mix of writers it was. One woman, Janit, was writing a beast of a science fiction novel. Nearly six hundred pages deep, she’d ostensibly created a world full of nanos and jungle creatures—villains and saviors interacting on the same unique planet. Running undertones of psychosexuality and latent feminism, Janit’s work was different. That was what made it shine.
Then there was Denise. She was and still is a phenomenal author; a novelist and short story writer. She’s in her sixties, has three complete novels and many short stories. She would bring in her novel, in bits and pieces, and we’d critique. Wonderful, plot-driven prose with strong characters and a setting which stood out as a character itself.
Mary was another woman in her sixties who did mostly poetry, but realist fiction as well. Mary’s work was dark. Her stuff came from an inner turmoil and a past life which would make most of us squirm in our overly-comfortable seats. She had really been through it. Her past, like an unlocked secret. Her poems were deep, cut rough like harsh, rare gems. And her “stories” were like a piece of hell wrapped up in Heaven—the writing sang about deeds done in ancient, ominous corners of her past.
Then Roger. In his early seventies, Roger was also a wonderful writer. He was working on a collection of stories for grade school kids (his career had been in teaching) in which he’d describe how to survive a catastrophe, and also how to survive in the woods. This was created as fiction, in order to nurture the kids’ minds as well as educate them, while at the same time reigning them in by touching their imaginations. Very interesting project.
Clive, our hallowed leader, didn’t read his own work. He listened to us rant and critique and comment, and pulled us back in when we began to get off track, always reminding us of the time.
This is how it works. Each writer receives a fair portion of the time. Said writer hands out copies of their work to each person, reads their piece, then the group takes ten minutes to think about what was just read and make written comments on the hard copy. After that, Clive guides the workshop: We go page for page, and comment on what we “liked” on each page. After this, the session is open for critical comments. The author at this point is a ghost. He or she doesn’t exist. No one acknowledges the author. The group speaks as if the author is not present. This is very effective. The author can learn about what the group really thinks of their piece. This is standard workshop protocol.
The first piece that I brought in which got published was a story called Tightrope. Tightrope is a short story about two guys in their early twenties, who live in San Diego and decide, against all common sense and intuition, to go on a quick trip to “good ole Mexico, baby!” Well, as you can already probably imagine, the trip goes south. That’s putting it mildly.
The story, in its original inception, was a staggering twenty-seven pages long. I was very proud of this story, even in this stage of its development. One of the first things the group said was: Cut the first two pages out. I was horrified. What do you mean, cut the first two pages out? I felt like they were saying, go ahead, throw your newborn baby out the window!
Well, terrified as I was, I followed suit, and brought the thing back again, the first two pages gone, a distant memory, wham: Out of this world!
Then they informed me that there were way too many adjectives and adverbs used to describe the two main characters. They were having trouble really seeing these two young idiots, these two young guys who were hard drinkers, womanizers and clueless wrecks. They wanted to believe the story worked, but weren’t sure yet.
Ok. I troubleshot the whole story and cut as many adjectives and adverbs as humanly possible. Brought it back again.
Now the problem lay in the core: What was the story really about? Think of that Bow and Arrow, Clive reminded me. Pick a target, aim, and fire directly at that target, Clive said, satisfactorily.
But they were right, of course. I went back again and really looked at what I had. Ok, there were entertaining moments, tension galore, but what, really, was the STORY? I had to force myself to think about what the point was. After doing this for a while, I realized that the tale was actually about the “I” narrator and what he goes through, emotionally, during his journey after waking up alone in a Mexican alley, having passed out drunk. That’s really what the story was about. Not the two of them together. Not women. Not drinking. Not the chaos. Those were the things I’d thought the story was about. But it wasn’t what the story was actually about.
Ding-Dong: Blammo! That was a huge revelation!
I went back, did some reconstructive revising, then cut out anything (the bow and arrow) which truly didn’t NEED to be there; any extraneous material which had been inserted, not for the reader, but, I found out, more likely for the writer: Me. And when you’re writing for yourself and not the reader; please, do us all a favor and don’t try to publish your work. Unless you’re David Foster Wallace, of course. D.F.W. claimed to write for “No reader.”
Tightrope returned to the group, down to seventeen pages, cut from twenty-seven: New, tight, concise.
The group loved it. They really fell in love with the story, with these two characters, with the plot line. Now you have a story, Clive beamed. You’re getting it!
I was beyond exhilarated. I had done the work. That’s what had happened. I had done the work and it had paid off handsomely. There had always been a part of me which naively believed that by being a professional writer, I’d somehow evade “real work.” This was the young, early twenties, irresponsible American kid in me; what could I say? But, joining Clive’s group, and really sinking my teeth into this whole process and doing the real hard work of cutting, revising, showing up to the group on a regular, disciplined basis: This was what being a writer really meant. It meant, just like any other career, doing the deal. To be a plumber, you have to be trained and take classes to become an apprentice. Why should writing be any different? Because it’s “sophisticated?”
Honestly what I was realizing was that my youthful dream of Poof: Just becoming a famous writer overnight, was, in all reality, just that: A dream. I’d be lucky if I struggled most of my life to become a working, local author. And I should be so lucky.
But the cool thing was that this was beginning to sound very okay. This confirmed my desire to be a true writer—I was willing to make a living doing it, the hard way. The only way. The true way.
Tightrope finally got the Ok Signal from Clive and the group. I made a few more minor alterations and cuts and began submitting it for publication. Within a month or two, Alfie Dog Press, a U.K. online journal, sent me an email. The editor was interested but had some minor changes they’d like me to make. There were some overuse of adjectives, adverbs, etc, and some minor syntactical changes needed.
I couldn’t believe it!
First off, I was thrilled and honored that a journal wanted my piece. But also, I was shocked that there was still MORE to be cut and revised. But the fact that an editor took the time to make these suggestions was also a pretty big deal. Editors, I found out later, don’t always do that.
I made the suggested changes (she used red tracking on Microsoft Word to show me her desired revisions) and re-submitted. Tightrope got published! I was ecstatic. The originally twenty-seven page story finally made it into the journal, after several months of work-shopping, as a thirteen page story. Fourteen pages were cut! And I hadn’t known where my story actually started or even ended: My group had to show me that! And not to mention the assistance of the Alfiedog Press editor.
This reminded me of the collaborative effort in writing. It may seem like a solitary endeavor, and it is to some extent. But when all is said and done, writers ultimately have to surround themselves with other writers and workshops and editors in order to really find out what the hell they actually have to offer.
From there I went on to publish several more stories, in different journals and magazines. I learned how to write a “bow and arrow” arc; how to describe a character; how to use back story effectively and not lose your reader’s attention. This became easier. Also, I learned how to work with editors and how to cater to their suggestions, which were always strong ones and helped my writing immensely. I think one of the hardest things for writers is not being able to see their own work objectively. That’s why it’s so important for us to join critique groups; take creative writing classes; meet up with others and share our work.
Not only have I gained a lot of insight through my own work and being a part of the group within this framework, but I’ve gained a lot through others in the workshop as well. Figuring out how to tell another writer that their character is one dimensional, or that their setting is bland, weak, irrelevant, is hard. But I’ve gotten pretty damn good at it, because they give me feedback on my work; I have to return the favor. It’s an uncomfortable thing, criticizing other people’s personal writing. You don’t want to offend anybody, and you don’t want to encourage recrimination. Nobody likes to feel bullied. Especially in a writing arena. We writers are sensitive.
But learning how to do this has been key in my progress as an author. If I can’t honestly tell you what I really think of your work, then I won’t be able to take your feedback, either. And then I’m pretty much dead in the water. Nothing will get done if there’s no honesty, no authentic critique, no voice/opinion expressed.
Clive has been a good voice of reason in these moments—times where he senses that maybe the writer, for whatever reason, is unsure how to say what he or she would like to say. Then he can jump in and save the day by using his own expertise to assuage the situation. I think what Michael is trying to say, Denise, is that your tone needs to be more serious for this kind of story. And I’d have to say, I agree. A quick wink and a nod confirm we’re on the same literary page. And Denise nods, too, her face a blanche white, mouth a tight line, but her eyes still have that miniature sparkle, that indicator that she begrudgingly understands.
The hardest thing is when one of us brings in something which really doesn’t work at all. It has been rare but not unheard of. Sometimes the creative wheels get stuck: Could be the stress of work; the mundane week; the kids; school; something happening in your life; whatever. When this happens, Clive sort of lets it swing around on its own. We have less to say; the session for that writer ends a little bit more quickly that day, and they understand intrinsically that what they’ve brought in is subpar.
It’s alright. It happens.
I used to think that getting a story published would be the most exciting thing in the world. And don’t get me wrong—it’s fantastic! And Alfie Dog Press even pays money! That’s a typical modern writer—being thrilled that they will get paid (hardly anything) for publishing their work.
But the truth is that it’s just a small stop at the fruit stand, along the long and dusty road of career writing. There is so, so much more road to explore, to drive through, to learn about. It’s not about the destination: It’s about the journey. Someone told me that once and it annoyed the shit out of me. But it’s true, I get that now. And man, have I grown.
Nine of my short stories, along with several poems, are published now. I have a blog which is doing well: Michaelmohrwriter.com. I am interning with a Bay Area literary agency. Things are moving for me in the writing world. It’s all because I started saying yes. Because I let go of my childish notion that things “should” be a certain way. That I should get my novel published because I’m so goddamn special.
Writing, just like anything else in life, is about hard work. It’s about determined persistence. It’s about saying yes and not giving up, no matter what. It’s about using resources like workshops and instructors like Clive Matson as leverage to push your own literary boundaries. It’s about networking and connections. It’s about faith. Really, it’s about finding out how much, how badly, you want this: To be a writer. Really: To be an author. I wrote a creative non-fiction piece, which is on my blog, called Are you a Writer or an Author? which delves more deeply into this notion.
So I leave you with that sentiment: That writing is both a job and a passion. And that I have found out where I stand. Growing up is weird enough, let alone doing it as a writer. We like to chronicle our growth through publicly displaying our struggles on the page. Rather bizarre, if you think about it.
But I have grown up. And I have found myself as an author. I’m on the path.
*** For more information about Clive and his workshop, please visit his website: matsonpoet.com; and his blog: matsonpoet.com/wind/