December 23, 2007
Today is Festivus, the Holiday for the Rest of Us. That’s a reference to an event introduced into pop culture on December 18, 1997 during the tenth episode of the ninth season of Seinfeld. I’m not the kind of Seinfeld fan who can quote chapter and verse like that, since I came to the show casually and in reruns that air at 7:00, my kitchen clearing and household paperwork time. I think I first knew about Festivus (which now has its own website) from somebody’s Holidailies post. As my holiday season practice grew over the years to incorporate what a friend described as “just the right mix of Jingle Bells and Jesus,” I came to be amused by “the airing of grievances,” a concept that helps to leaven all the season’s earnest good will that can become treacly after a while.
I first aired a grievance in 2004, when I wrote about a woman whom I witnessed haranguing a hapless Michael’s clerk about the absence of the word “Christmas” in the store. “It’s Holiday this and Holiday that!” she hollered. Holiday, it turned out, was the brand name of the tinsel and lights she was buying. In 2005 I got more personal, writing about how a relative’s admonishment of me for worshipping with a Lutheran congregation instead of a Catholic one (included in her Christmas greeting) had hurt me. And last year I got even more personal, when I whined about the way a boyfriend had broken up with me more than thirty years before. (He simply stopped speaking to me, which was awkward, since we served on the same faculty and saw each other every day. Now you don’t have to go read it.) This got me a special commendation on a site dedicated to making fun of Holidailies posts they thought were whiny, overly sentimental, train-wrecky, or ridiculous. They were right, I guess, but both Holidailies and I are still here and they’re not, so there you go.
This year I am airing a grievance that has festered for more than four years. I have alluded to it, never naming names. This year, well . . . read on.
I first attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2003. I’d stepped onto the campus for the first time since my graduate school days there in the 70s the year before. I’d known the Writers’ Conference reputation as a grad student and I knew it as an aspiring writer — that it was for serious but mostly unpublished writers with lots of experience, that it was difficult to get in (they get 2000 applications for 200 spots), and that the criticism could be tougher than a writer might be accustomed to but that it could lead to great personal and professional growth. I’d thought that Bread Loaf was way out of my reach, that I wasn’t talented enough nor accomplished enough nor had enough potential to even get in, let alone profit from the experience.
But something in the trip that summer opened me up, made me look down roads not taken. I’d already received a research grant on the basis of a proposal and 6000 words of my historical novel. Maybe I could make a go of Bread Loaf. I applied and, mirabile dictu, was accepted. I was assigned to the workshop of Lynn Freed, I don’t remember now if I listed her as my first choice. I wasn’t really familiar with any of the writers announced for the faculty that year, and chances are I picked her because she had the same first name as my daughter.
The workshops at Bread Loaf follow a traditional pattern. Ten apprentice writers assemble with a faculty member and a teaching fellow (a writer with less experience and only one book published). Each writer has a 6000-word manuscript, which the faculty and fellow are to have read beforehand. The work is distributed to the rest of the workshop members at the beginning of the conference. The group meets five times for two hours each time. Two writers’ work is examined at each meeting. Some faculty members shape the conversation with focus questions, some let the session be a free-for-all. The writer generally remains silent during the discussion. Each writer is also afforded an hour’s one-on-one session with both the faculty member and the fellow.
Lynn Freed had an air about her. She didn’t come across as a warm and outgoing person, but rather more aloof and superior. I quickly determined that I was the least accomplished writer (in terms of publications and degrees) in the group, as well as the oldest. The others had manuscripts that were trendy and edgy, about the problems of alienated urban hipsters. My manuscript was about domestic life among the Pennsylvania Germans in nineteenth century Berks County. Even I would rather read a short story about a man whose major rival for his wife’s affection is his wife’s dildo.
I felt a certain coldness from Freed toward me at the first workshop session, and was sure of it by the second. We had assignments to write a paragraph for every session (for example, “a stranger comes to town, third person limited POV”). She had us read them, and after everyone else’s she’d comment about something amusing or some elegant turn of phrase, but after mine she’d just say “thank you,” and move on.
She did the scheduling of the private conferences and the order in which our manuscripts would be addressed in class. She scheduled my conference for two days before my manuscript was to be discussed. When I arrived for the conference, she said that she didn’t like to address a manuscript in a private conference before it was addressed in class. Since she hadn’t read anything else I’d written, we had nothing to talk about, really. So we talked about her, about her career, about her books. The next day I learned that another writer had her manuscript addressed in private before the workshop session, and thus wanted a different manuscript looked at, which she then passed out. I would later come to understand that Lynn Freed was setting me up.
By the time we got to my turn, at the fourth session, I knew the flaws that ran rampant through my work. I’d learned a lot from the lectures and the craft classes, and I knew what I had to do to reshape my manuscript. Lynn Freed and the others (except the teaching fellow, who never spoke a word to me nor about my work) launched into a rundown of all the problems in it. “It needs more sexual tension!” said the creator of the character who is jealous of a dildo. “This jumps around too much,” said a woman with a PhD. from Yale who hadn’t bothered to read the prefatory note that explained the context of the excerpts. Another member on a waitstaff scholarship fell asleep. (The waiters are known for their late nights and strenuous social schedules.)
Lynn Freed rolled her eyes and talked about how clichéd she thought the whole thing was. “The innocent are properly innocent and the bold are bold and just strike up the band for all these good people!” She thought the point of view was too distant (she was right) and recommended some spots where internal monologue might improve the characterization. “Here, for example. The bottom of page five. Everyone, pick up your pencils and write some internal monologue at this spot.”
And for the next several minutes I sat there, feeling smaller and smaller and smaller, while my classmates scratched away. I picked up my pencil too. All I could hear inside my head was Linda Ronstadt singing, and I wrote her words in the margins of my copy: You’re no good you’re no good you’re no good, baby you’re no good. When everyone had finished writing, Freed asked them to read their paragraphs. I felt like Salieri in Amadeus when Mozart turns his pitiful little melody upside down. After the last classmate read, Freed turned to me and said, “There, isn’t that better?” It was, of course. Every one of them had written material into my manuscript that was better than anything I had offered.
The session was over then. She didn’t invite me to comment on the commentary. This was just as well. I was not going to let anyone see me cry. It took all my strength to gather my things, walk out of the room with my head up, and out to my car. I didn’t break down until I was thirty-five miles away at the Shelburne Museum, sitting in front of an exhibit about Clement Hurd’s work for Goodnight, Moon, hearing a recording of Meryl Streep reading the book the way I used to read it to my baby.
When I got home it took me six weeks to even take my writing materials out of my car, and I never went back to that manuscript. I never told anyone in the conference administration what had happened. But by spring I was more angry than humiliated. I decided to treat the matter as an aberration, as a bad fit between instructor and student. I applied for admission the next year, and for every year since, and have been admitted every year since, and have had positive, growth-inspiring experiences. Freed was on the faculty again in 2005. I kept my distance from her. She’ll be back this year, and so, I hope, will I.
I might air my grievance in person then. If I do, I will say to her, “Dr. Freed, I deserved better than that. I neither expected nor wanted a ‘read and rave’ session. I wanted honest criticism and direction that would help me grow as a writer. It was your job to provide that. Instead, you used me as a tool to show off how intelligent and talented you are, how disdainful you are of wannabe novelists like me who come to the craft late and have little to offer you in terms of a good read. My experience with you was no less a waste of my time than it was a waste of yours.
“I bought a copy of one of your books when I learned I was assigned to your workshop and read it through. I didn’t really like it, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn something from you. The only things I learned from you were bitter lessons about my inadequacies. I rarely part with books, especially autographed volumes, but this is destined for the next library used book drive, if not the trash heap.”
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