LAST MONTH MY BEST FRIEND, Jeff Deal, and I made a road trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to visit my older son Zebulun, a cavalry scout with the 101st Airborne. Jeff’s son Russell is in the army as well, our two boys having made a pact while they were undergrads at Furman University that they would finish college, take a year off, and then join up in order to serve their country in return for the blessing of freedom we have been given and too often take for granted. Both our boys had served their tours of duty in Iraq and come home safely, and now Zeb would be getting married in two weeks. I wanted to surprise him, spend some time with him alone, and just be father and son one last time before all in his life changed. And because Jeff, too, is a father who knows what it is to love and miss and pray and worry over a son, he joined me for the eleven-hour drive up to Kentucky and back.
Our families have been friends for over twenty years. Jeff and I have hunted together, fished together, beached his boat out on Drum Island in Charleston Harbor and gone searching for shark’s teeth in the beds of dredge pumped out onto the flats of the island; once, believe it or not, we were stranded in a taxi stuck in a snowstorm in Jordan at the crest of the King’s Road, elevation five thousand feet, on our way from Petra to Aqaba, and had to be rescued by the Jordanian Army. When my wife Melanie and I lived in France, Jeff and his wife Hart came and visited us, and stayed with us again when we lived in Israel. We went to his mother’s funeral in the little Georgia town of Toccoa, where he grew up, one of six children, in a two-room shack. Melanie and I were the only people who weren’t family to make the drive from Charleston.
All of which is to say that what Jeff and I talked about on our way home from that quick trip to Fort Campbell wasn’t glib, pass-the-time talk. Because we are such close friends, our talk was about what matters to us, and the way we live, and how we parse out and then stitch back together who we are and what we have done and why we do what we do. It was talk born of a deep and abiding friendship.
As we drove, the conversation turned to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
See, Jeff is the smartest person I know. He recently retired from his practice as one of Charleston’s most respected and beloved ear, nose, and throat doctors. But the whole doctor thing, and the smarts it takes to be not only a doctor but a really good one, is only the tip of the iceberg.
He is a renaissance man. He is a terrific artist—his wildlife drawings have been shown at galleries in Charleston—and he has written and published a novel. He plays the guitar and banjo, both to a fine degree. He is an inventor as well, and one day when you are going in to surgery at a hospital near you, you will be much safer for a device he has created and patented that uses UV light to sterilize operating rooms.
As if all this weren’t enough, he did a fellowship last year at the London School of Tropical Medicine, this because he wants to better serve people living in South Sudan, where he has spent over a year in toto serving as a doctor in Dinka villages so remote his clinics have at times been kept safe from gun-toting rebels only by a ring of thornbushes.
One more thing (and trust me, this figures in): he is at work on a PhD in anthropology, taking courses at the University of South Carolina with people half his age. His thesis—on family structures among the Dinka peoples—is under consideration by Oxford University Press. They asked him to send it to them.
But to Heisenberg: Jeff and I were talking about medical missions, and in particular a water missions group with which he is involved, and for which Melanie works. Part of the job of installing these water reclamation systems involves surveying how they affect local people; the mission wants to know about life before and after clean water. Because anthropology is in essence the observation of cultures and societies, we got to talking about the way even an endeavor as benevolent as bringing fresh, drinkable water to people who have known only filthy water can yield unwanted and even detrimental results: Who in the village runs the water system, and what power does that give the person? What happens to the communal relationships built and maintained by people used to gathering water at riverbanks or traveling together to a distant well, but who now only stand in line in the middle of the village? What of people’s dependence upon the deliverers of the water-purifying machine, their need for those benefactors to maintain the system against breakdowns?
Because Jeff is studying anthropology, he began talking about the “observer effect,” the way that even surveying people in order to help make certain they are being served as the missions group intends is an intrusion, an upsetting of their culture. Simply observing a culture, the theory maintains, messes with the culture being observed.
We talked about the way even thinking about what questions to ask—and what answers perhaps the asker wants to receive—can skew the whole outcome. The observer-expectancy effect, or simply observer bias—in which a researcher’s perceptions cause him to influence participants unconsciously—can reveal, finally, more about the surveyor than about those being surveyed, not to mention significantly screw up or maybe even destroy the whole experiment. We ask questions we want answers to, and oftentimes we aren’t listening to the answers we get because they don’t give us what we want to hear, or—even worse—we ask questions that have nothing to do with the real system we are observing.
I know this all sounds abstract, but believe me, we had a fine conversation that applied wholly to the water missions group and its good work, as well as to Jeff’s experiences serving the Dinka people and gathering their family stories for his dissertation.
It just so happened that then we started listening to Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Everything, and through the speakers came words about Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle, and the news that, in the effort to predict simultaneously an electron’s position and its momentum—the key physical quantities of quantum theory—researchers discovered that when you tried to measure one quantity, the other quantity was altered. Trying to measure the velocity of an electron significantly alters its position; measuring its position involves significantly altering its velocity. Therefore, in order to predict an electron’s life, one has to get one’s head around the fact that there is no way to predict an electron’s life. Our popular models of electrons as stylized little planets zipping in perfect arcs around an atom are in no way representative of the truth of an electron’s path: an electron is nowhere; an electron is everywhere. To try and spot it is to change it.
As I sat behind the wheel of my truck, heading down through the Smokies of eastern Tennessee toward the North Carolina border, there lingered in my ears the notion of surveys of villages, of benevolent endeavors to bring fresh water to people who had none, of the good and bad of monitoring the ways we serve others. Then into this mix came the impossibility of trying to see and name and measure and touch upon something as elemental as an electron’s path, and suddenly I felt click into place an understanding of something that, for a long long time, has worked on me—I am trying to avoid using the words bothered me—about teaching creative writing.
That is, I had an epiphany. The same phenomenon happens in a creative writing workshop as happens in the measuring of an electron’s speed, and in the installation of a water system, and in the telling of a Dinka family’s story to an anthropologist: there is an intrusion upon the real life of the matter at hand.
I know I am not saying anything new here. Anyone who has taken a creative writing workshop knows that external observation and input are part and parcel of the endeavor itself.
But what occurred to me, finally, was to ask what effect the workshop has—deeply, truly—on the creation of genuine art.
Don’t think I am against workshops. No. I would not be the author of thirteen books if it weren’t for a creative writing class I took while I was an RC Cola salesman who’d quit college to pursue a career in soda pop. After a mediocre performance in my first two years at Cal State Long Beach I quit, worked for RC, and saw after a year of that that sales wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I enrolled in a course at the local community college because I wanted to get back in the groove of having deadlines and assignments before reenrolling full time at Cal State that fall. The only night I had free was Tuesday; the only course open on Tuesday nights was creative writing. Here I am.
But I also want to say this: creative writing workshops are about the most unreal model of the writer’s life that has ever been concocted. Never in your real life as a writer will a group of people take your writing seriously enough to ask you to write something, and then gather together in one place at one time and discuss it with you. Writing is, finally, a matter of being alone and putting words on paper and hoping they will capture as clearly and deeply as possible what you are seeing and feeling and discovering as you write those words.
Workshops are in and of themselves observer-based phenomena; although they are definitely not the generative moment of art, they are predicated on a belief that observation improves output.
I came home from that trip with Jeff and went back to my semester’s worth of workshops. But there was something different about the way I looked at my classes. I was suddenly aware of an obtuse angle between the students and myself. In my head I saw myself standing on one side of a canyon, the class on the other, all of them—well, maybe a few of them—furiously writing their hearts out and then waving their stories at me and shouting across the abyss, What do you think, Mr. Lott?
I started wondering what they were all thinking about me, the observer of this thing called a creative writing workshop; then started to wonder what they thought of the other kids in the class, those other observers who would read their work when it was finished; and then thought of the fact that some kids in class were friends with each other before they’d ever signed up for the course, while others were absolute strangers. I started wondering about everything they were thinking when they wrote these stories.
I had thought of these issues before. Of course I had. But after this particular trip, for the specific purpose of bidding goodbye to my older son, a young man who had been to Iraq and back, who had seen strangers and friends alike killed on the battlefield, and who was now on the eve of entering into the joy and comfort and upheaval and brand-new world a marriage is, and then to have had this conversation about the ineffable nature of art and time and life with my best friend—well, things were different. I was different.
I’d had my epiphany. My role as an instructor was different now.
Just as trying to measure an electron in no way measures an electron and a dissertation on Dinka family structures in no way captures the Dinka family structure, I’d seen that workshops do not predict, spot, capture, or create art. They cannot. They will not. They won’t.
Because the creation of art is a private affair. It is born out of solitude, of sitting one’s butt in a chair at a desk somewhere and putting one word after another after another, and seeing through this laborious rote behavior to another world, a dream, a deep vision of an other-life that becomes more alive than the world in which one is sitting and being alone.
Kafka, in his Letters to Felice, wrote of this quality of deep privacy, this integral retreat from humanity in order to find the right words to make meaningful art that encounters humanity:
Writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind…. Even that degree of self-revelation and surrender is not enough for writing. Writing that springs from the surface of existence—when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up—is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around when one writes, why even night is not night enough. This is why there is never enough time at one’s disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray….
And as I insert this quotation into this essay, meant as a piece of grand evidence for my argument that workshops alter the generative moment when art arrives, I am thinking that perhaps at the root of all this claptrap about workshops there might very well be a longing for my own writing life of long ago, the one that seemed genuinely to begin only after I had graduated way back in 1984 from UMass Amherst with my MFA.
I must admit to my observer bias regarding the entire creative writing–industrial complex from which I draw twice monthly my very manna: I miss the days when, just after graduating with an MFA buttressed by three years of workshops, I was alone, and had only to write, and to write.
I miss getting up every morning between four-thirty and five am and going to the basement of our townhouse apartment in Columbus, Ohio, the city in which I’d gotten a job teaching five sections of remedial English a quarter at Ohio State. Five classes a day, twenty students per class, three quarters a year. Believe it or not, I sorely miss that time, way back when I was embarked on writing the first book, what would one day become The Man Who Owned Vermont, though my only tangible literary accomplishments at that point were a handful of published stories; I miss that time when I had to sneak down the stairs and avoid a particularly ornery step that would creak so loudly that our then-toddler and only child Zebulun would wake up, and the entire endeavor to find quiet would crumble around me.
I miss that aloneness, there at a desk in a basement, where the only window was six feet above the floor, a narrow thing that looked out at ground level, and through which I could see stars when I sat down with my mug of instant coffee and piece of toast, before me the life of an RC Cola salesman and the landscape of western Massachusetts, his sales route, and the shambles of his marriage.
Though I get up at five every day still, and go to my desk to write—I am in the middle of my thirteenth book—I miss that time, because before then, no one—no one—was watching me write. I was the only one on planet earth who cared about what was going to happen to this RC salesman; no one else even knew about him, and each morning down in that basement were words about him waiting just beyond my reach, words that, if I just listened closely enough to this salesman, would allow me to grab hold of them and put them in the order his actions and thoughts and heart showed me was the right way.
Maybe that’s where all this comes from: my longing for that time before I’d ever written a single book, that time when it seemed, for a while, night was night enough.
So, what did I do with my epiphany about teaching creative writing?
Despite my so-recent realization of the risks of observation, I decided to observe: I wrote a questionnaire for my students. And not only my own students, but creative writing students in other classes at the College of Charleston.
I am not in the habit of taking surveys. I don’t like them, because it seems their aim is to find the average, the mean, the lowest common denominator, while as a writer of fiction I’m trying to traffic in the anomaly, the out-of-the-norm, even when I’m writing about what generally interests me: normal people (such as they are). And though my bias against surveys runs so deep that when I was hired by the College in 1986 I refused to take the mandatory Myers-Briggs personality assessment, chiefly because I don’t want to know what type I am, my bias didn’t stop me from taking my survey, because I was the one who wanted to get to the heart of my students, and to know what they were thinking of when they were in the private moment of generating a story, essay, or poem. What I wanted to know was important stuff.
My questionnaire was a beautifully crafted thing: twelve questions (No. 1: “When I am writing a story, essay, or poem for a workshop, I think about the response the work might receive from the workshop as a whole”) that sought on a scale of 1 (“Never”) to 5 (“I think a great deal about it, and let it influence my work to a large degree”) to pierce the mysterious penumbra of the privacy of writing; there was also an introduction simultaneously funny, disarming, smart, and heartfelt (“I want honest answers to these questions, and no beret-wearing, clove cigarette–smoking, cappuccino-sipping I’m an artist! heroics: the art of writing insists upon an inner honesty that is coldly ruthless in its assessment of why we do what we do, both in life and in the creation of art. No posing allowed. Tell the truth”). I even had a section of questions for people who’d been in workshops before the one they were in right now.
It was a beautiful thing. And preposterously stupid, and sadly self-serving.
I received fifty responses, had to throw out two (one because the respondent wrote “zero” in a couple of places instead of using the point scale, the other because the respondent didn’t bother to read the questionnaire, and simply wrote down either “yes” or “no”), and found from the forty-eight students left that, well, yes, above all, when they are writing a story, poem, or essay, they are thinking of the teacher’s response (3.7 on my 1 to 5 scale). Next, they are thinking of the workshop response as a whole (3.0), and coming in third was their thinking of the response the piece would elicit from a specific prior workshop instructor (2.5).
No news here. Students are thinking, in the moment of trying to create art, of the instructor, both present and past, and about those around them in the classroom. Of course the response I would get would be the response I was looking for, though I’d hoped for something different: that our students would be writing only toward the story or poem or essay they were in the midst of creating, trying to let it be itself instead of fashioned with an eye toward the others there in the classroom with them.
A day after the class meeting in which I’d administered the survey, I got an email from a student in one of my workshops. One Lauren Capone, a graduating senior from New Orleans who was planning to take a year off before applying—if she decided she really wanted and needed it—to an MFA program.
It was a long email, one I very much enjoyed for its candor, its clear-eyed freshness of thought. “I found my way into writing late in high school,” she wrote. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with it; it was the summer after senior year, and I recall simply wanting to get out of the house so I went to coffee shops all day and wrote, or made small sketches in a notebook. I didn’t share it with anyone, not because it was private, just because it didn’t come to me to do so.” She also told of how she sort of backed into workshops: “For a while I took drawing classes, photography, then printmaking. But what I found was that the writing was always there. And that of all mediums, it had the potential to contain me, whereas with something like photography, I felt it was too easy and that I could control most everything. So I started considering writing classes.”
And because my mission in this survey-giving was to try and figure in my sadly academic, 1-to-5-point way what my students were thinking when writing, I quote the following assessment of the worth of a writing workshop, with her permission:
The difficulty with workshop is that the written thing is so big, and often treated as a completed piece of writing, when in fact, at least in my case, I am well aware that it needs more work. Additionally I’ve become less and less concerned with the finished product itself and more in it for the practice of writing, and the discoveries therein. I can sometimes benefit from a workshop if it addresses possibilities for further development of the piece; things to try with the writing. As for people feeling confused [about a story], I for one do not frequently think about the fact that someone might be reading the piece. So in class when peers are confused by something, these kinds of things can be helpful [to the author], but judgment calls are difficult. I don’t think that we ought to be given these kinds of things that we can grasp onto like a flotation device, I think [a story] needs to be self-perpetuated, because in the world, you don’t get these pillows to rest on, you must find them yourself and keep plugging along. With some mental work I’ve become pretty good at quieting the distracting judgments that can arise in my mind while I am trying to write.
No number yielded by my wonderful survey struck me as more on the mark than this remarkable offering, made by a student I was doing my best to observe as part of a classroom of students; her email quashed beautifully any further notion I had of asking a pile of stupid questions about what they were thinking about workshops.
So what ought a workshop to be?
When I was a graduate student at UMass, I had the great good fortune to be selected for a creative writing workshop taught by James Baldwin. The class was made up of three students from each of the Five Colleges (UMass, Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire), and we eager students became aware pretty quickly that Mr. Baldwin wasn’t much of a workshop instructor. He’d never been in one, much less taught one, and after we turned in our stories and showed up the next week expecting exquisite assessments of the work at hand and how we might make it better, we were sorely disappointed. He had no vocabulary for this endeavor; he had no spirit for it; he had no means by which to impart to us, from the wellspring of the creation of his own art, the sorts of things we wanted to hear from him: how to improve the dialogue, the setting, the structure, the characters, the plot.
All that crap we wanted to talk about.
The problem, we classmates soon realized (among us, in their chrysalis stages, were the novelist Susan Straight and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks) was with ourselves. We were seeking from him what he could not give; we were expectant electrons in a system waiting to be observed. But he wasn’t even looking at us.
This was because he was a writer, and not a trafficker in matters of technique.
After a few weeks of this charade called a workshop we were putting him through, Mr. Baldwin, a soul at once as meek and as dignified as I have ever encountered, turned out to have been giving us something we hadn’t been looking for at all, a system we weren’t a part of because it was a system we hadn’t been interested in: he began to talk to us about art, and literature, and their importance, relevance, and necessity within the life of the writer. He spoke of the need to write, the need to keep writing no matter what, and the redemptive quality a life in art might afford us.
And though we ended up without a clue as to how to make our stories better, we received an extraordinary education nonetheless.
Now that was a good workshop.
In 1981 I read What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, my first encounter with the work of Raymond Carver and the way he rendered with awesome precision the razor-edge lives of people who might fall apart at any moment, or who might very well hang on to the bitter end. I saw people who mattered to me, and saw that the author’s job was to get out of the way of these people and let them speak for themselves, for better and worse, on their way through their own stories.
That was a good workshop, too.
And even the traditional workshop, the sort I’ve been taking to task, can be a good workshop. One autumn Tuesday afternoon in Amherst, I walked into the second class meeting of Jay Neugeboren’s workshop—Neugeboren was a writer whose stories and books were legend among us. I’d handed in my story the week before, and sat down to see my work examined in the most traditional of ways, each student weighing in one way or another, Jay patiently leading and prodding, then stepping up at the end with his own two cents.
He liked it. He suggested this and that, things here and there. He suggested ways to make it a better story in the traditional ways a workshop teacher can. More importantly, the careful and generous and even-handed way in which he let us express our views and then expressed his own made me a better writer, one who could sit alone and write stories those early mornings and then feel confident that the response they might receive in class would be just, and genuine, and true. His workshop was a gift to me, and led to my choosing him as a mentor.
The story I turned in? A little thing—seven pages—about a rocky moment within a young marriage. “I Owned Vermont” would be its eventual title.
Hebrews 12:12 is a verse that comes at the end of a passage in which Paul exhorts his readers to remember everyone of faith—from Abel to Abraham to Moses to Rahab to the nameless men and women martyred through the ages—and their perseverance in that faith: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run the race that is set before us.”
The witnesses—that great cloud—aren’t, as is often thought, some sort of swirling mass of spirit entities watching what we are doing as we do it. Rather, what is meant by the word witness here is the quality of the lives lived before ours; the measure of faith, and life in that faith, that each brought to his or her relationship to our creator God; it is the example, if I may, of the artistry by which each lived his or her life in service to that God.
I think, finally, that the best workshop we can have might very well be with our own cloud of witnesses, people who went before us and people who are still among us, whose lives in art—that is, whose giving of fresh and enlivening water through their words—most affect us.
My witnesses include Baldwin, and Carver, and Neugeboren. But chief among them has to be Flannery O’Connor, who wrote:
One thing that is always with the writer—no matter how long he has written or how good he is—is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer “learns to write,” as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished. If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him that it can ever be to his reader.
Yet another key witness for me is John Steinbeck, who wrote on the eighteenth day of the journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath—a book he completed in a hundred days—“If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these.” I come in close contact with my own ignorance and inability every time I touch the keyboard, and to know Steinbeck wrote that book in full embrace of his own gives me the courage I need to move forward, in spite of me.
Perhaps the newest member of this workshop of witnesses is Lauren Capone, who reminds me that it takes mental work to quiet the distracting judgments that arise when I am trying to write.
This is because writing occurs within an immeasurable moment, in the privacy of the way synapses fire within the brain, layering one impulse onto another until an image occurs, begins to breathe, then stands up and walks its way through nerves into muscles into the fingertips and onto the hard plastic of a keyboard, or through the kiss of a pen on paper.
This moment is brittle, ready to break at the smallest creak of a stair step or gulp of cold coffee. To call this act of synapse to fingertips writing is to describe it in the most rudimentary way, revealing to no real extent what the engaged imagination is in the act of doing: creating a new world.
What I think I may be understanding, now that the whole of this moment of measuring the immeasurable is over, now that my clever numbers have been recorded and tossed away, is that the business I ought to be about in the workshops I teach is to be not only the teacher but also a writer, there at my desk at five each morning with my coffee and the next new world I am imagining. As the observer observing, I must first and foremost be the best witness I can be.
As I write this, Zeb is now married. Jeff Deal is in Honduras, working to provide potable water to villagers high in the mountains. A new flareup of tribal killings has occurred in Wernyol in South Sudan, and the weather this moment on the King’s Road to Aqaba is a warm eighty-eight degrees.
That is, the electron-world is busy spinning, being itself.
And I am here, however preposterously stupid or sadly self-serving, writing this; trying to find with each word when night is night enough; trying to write, and to be writing.