I’ll Show You Dramatic Conflict
Two weeks ago I attended my first Chicago Writers Loft workshop. I found out about the Loft while doing a Google search for something like “workshops to overcome the onset of laziness 17,000 words into your crappy novel.”
The Loft is located near Southport and Roscoe. After leaving work, I hopped on the Brown Line, getting off at the Southport stop. I believe this was my second time using the El by myself, after having lived in the city for almost five months. I am probably a little too proud of myself for not getting lost, hopping on the wrong train, or missing my stop.
I walked a little north and then a little west to the Loft. I am terribly directionally-challenged, but found the place with ease, which is why I was bemused to find Jerry standing outside the Loft, trying with frustration to talk another writer through the directions.
“Do you see me?” he asked. “I’m waving my hands.”
It took several more minutes of coaching from Jerry for this woman to find the Loft, even though she was on the correct street, going in the right direction, and looking for a building that was clearly numbered and had a conspicuous sign reading “Writers Loft”. I guess I now have a better appreciation for what people (my dad, my boyfriend, the store clerk who has the misfortune of answering my phone call) are going through when I can’t find a street or a building. Or my way out of a parking lot (my dad loves to retell that story).
I had to climb several stories of old stairs that don’t give back as well as they’re getting it in order to reach the Loft. At the top, I reached Jerry’s residence, then turned left and huffed up another flight of stairs to where all the magic is supposedly going to happen.
Jerry, a quirky and very likeable guy, gave out a complimentary copy of his book and – much like a professor on the first day of any other class – previewed the curriculum, laid out the rules, and outlined the expectations before he had us go around the room and said our names and a little something about what we want out of the class. Of course everyone tried to sound more established and important than they actually are, myself included, so we got a lot of gag-inducing introductions and a few admirably modest ones as well.
The first several people to introduce themselves described themselves as amateur screenwriters. One guy said he has written a couple short screenplays that have been turned into short films. What does that even mean? My guess is he and his friends acted out 15 pages of hastily put together dialogue while someone shot footage with their iPhone.
Then again, who am I to talk? I casually mentioned that I am a former newspaper reporter with some published nonfiction clips looking to improve my creative writing. I didn’t mention that the former newspaper was my college newspaper, or that they printed everything I wrote no matter how awful it was. (And sometimes it was pretty awful.)
One woman introduced herself by saying she’s lived a fascinating, adventurous life and is a successful public speaker. She’s here because people always ask to buy her book and are sent into epileptic shock to discover she doesn’t have one. She’s got the stories, she reassured us; she just needs the tools to get them down on paper.
The last woman to speak said she wanted to write a memoir about her in-laws because they are “a riot.” Can you really say you’re writing a memoir about other people? Isn’t that like me saying I’m going to write Mark Twain’s autobiography?
Jerry began the lecture portion of the evening by insisting we can all be successful writers, whether or not we were born with an innate talent for it. There’s no need to be a good writer, just a good story teller, he explained. Some very successful storytellers require extensive cleanup from editors. Bummer. I pride myself on being able to communicate well through the written word. To imagine certain people of my acquaintance getting a book deal when I can hardly stomach reading one of their emails is disturbing. I was hoping the literary world would be exclusive to super talented people like me, but it looks like I’ll be sharing space with the sort of people who pee in the pool.
The most important thing I got out of the first night was the importance of writing crap. Just crap it out, Jerry insisted (but in classier terms). Hemingway once said, “The first draft is always shit.” If a shitty first draft was good enough for Hemingway, I suppose it’s good enough for me. I have to stop worrying if the street name I’ve chosen is too trite – call it Elm Street and move on, Jerry said. You can suffer over those details later.
I also need to stop worrying about what my Grandma or my parents are going to think when they’re reading it. If I keep worrying about that, I’ll never have anything for them to read anyway. If the F word is absolutely critical to the mood I’m trying to set, so be it. Grandma will have to deal. If a sex scene is necessary to establish a relationship, I have no choice but to stick it in there (I’m going to leave that unintentional pun in there for your amusement).
During a break I sat next to a workshop participant – one of the “amateur screenwriters” – and spilled out my whole plot line and direction for my novel-in-progress, Spaghetti Girl. It felt good at the time to discuss my writer’s block and brainstorm new ideas, but as I lay in bed later that night, I began to worry I’d made a mistake. What if two years from now I’m still trying to figure out a good street name for the main character to make a left turn onto while the amateur screenwriter is off signing a Spaghetti Girl movie deal?
Then I got to thinking about my content. Should I be writing more about my day to day life? I’ve recently started doing that with my blogs but shouldn’t I be writing down my reactions to life on a daily basis? Won’t that make it easier to write my memoirs later when I’m famous? Should I have been journaling on 9/11 or writing down reactions to Obama’s election? All this important crap is going on with the economy, and I’ve heard there’s some unrest or quarreling of some sort in the Middle East, and yet I’m sitting here griping about Facebook and Jersey Shore.
To calm myself down and fall asleep, I reminded myself that I’m on the right path. I’m determined, I’m focused (kind of), and I’ve got some natural talent. I’m making good moves and trying to learn.
Oh and I’m not a complete idiot. On the first night, there was a gentleman in the back who thought he was quite intellectual and hilarious. Actually he was a complete idiot. I’ll refer to him as Wilmette going forward, as he wore a Wilmette sweatshirt that first evening. (Over a polo with the collar sticking out, mind you.) Wilmette would take any pause in the discussion to say something inane. During a group discussion about the importance of making readers feel an emotion, Jerry pointed out that readers are most drawn to stories where bad things happen to the main character. Wilmette raised his hand and said, “Nuh-uh. What about comedy writin’?”
The successful woman with the adventurous life rolled her eyes and shook her head. Jerry asked Wilmette what he meant.
“Uh, you know, like ‘Wipeout.’ That’s a big hit and it’s comedy and people fallin’ all over the place.” (ABC’s “Wipeout” is a bunch of people running through an obstacle course to the tune of snarky commentary.) Jerry professionally and respectfully steered the conversation back on track but everyone was floored for a few minutes.
The incorrigible Wilmette was back at the second workshop. Jerry was in the middle of a rousing lecture on dramatic conflict when Wilmette raised his hand.
“Yes?” Jerry asked.
“Yeah, Jerry, I was just wondering,” Wilmette boomed. “All this stuff you’re talking about is all about how to write and stuff. What I want to know is are you going to show us how to make us some money and send us to some publishers? I don’t know, maybe we can mingle with some playwrights?”
A few comments not suitable for retelling ran through my head.
A young guy in the back of the room spoke up. “You better fall back, man,” he said. I noticed several people (myself included) who nodded and smiled encouragingly at this man who was bravely speaking what all of us were thinking. “I’ve met people like you, and I’m saying you need to fall back.”
Talk about some dramatic conflict! The obnoxious Wilmette had the decency to look a bit chagrined and started backtracking. “No, man, I’m not saying nothing. I was just wondering…”
“We’ve only got six classes,” the young guy interrupted. “And I want to hear what Jerry has to say. Go on Jerry.”
Jerry gave a nervous little laugh and said it was okay. He spent a couple minutes explaining to Wilmette that workshop participants would all receive a marketing consultation, but the workshop itself is mostly comprised of learning the “craft” of writing. Of course this is all stuff Jerry made clear at the first workshop, but whatever.
Wilmette limited his contributions for the rest of the evening to relevant comments. I hope it’s not a fleeting change in his behavior. I hope the young guy comes back next week to keep Wilmette in check. I certainly don’t have the nerve to do much more than roll my eyes and, in my signature passive-aggressive fashion, blog about it the next day.