Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ann Weisgarber and I and The Other Workshop

Soon after hurricane Ike stormed through Houston, we were left without power and water. We were well prepared though. Canned foods in the pantry, storage bins full of water, and, of course, candles, flashlights and butane lighters. No, we don't have a generator. All day my husband and I read and read and read. One of the books I finished reading was Ann Weisgarber's, The Personal History of Rachel Duprey, a story set in the Badlands. I recognized many sections in the novel. It was so thrilling.

I met Ann Weisgarber in the fall of 1999 in an Inprint workshop with Farnoosh Moshiri. Ann was easily the best writer there. I had not even a story then (it would take all of Farnoosh's persistence and patience to extract the story within me). Coming back to Ann...her story was already well-developed and I was filled with awe.

Farnoosh did not have a workshop the following winter and so Ann and I joined The Other Workshop. As in Farnoosh's workshop, we had to turn in our first 25 pages. And when my turn came, this time I handed out my print-out with great pride. The focus in the The Other Workshop was on language. It was all about the elegant variation of which I knew nothing. I had just begun to make small trips into my past for a story and I came back each time gasping for words. And when words came, they rushed out of me like diarrhea. And my mind was no more than an eight-year old's.

"It must be hard for you to write in English considering that it's your second language,' said one kindly gentleman.

"Do you know what that means? It means ignorant,' said another, when I used the word, Agnostic.

"You should write non-fiction. That's so much easier to write. Other people can help you put it together,' said yet another. They were all very kind and generous hearted people.

If they had been racists, that would have been OK. If they had hated me personally, that would have been OK. But I clearly did not belong in their writing group. And that hurt like hell. Especially because the moderator was drooling over Ann's manuscript. I was so envious of Ann. I wanted to be that moment. Oh how I longed for all that praise!

I felt like crawling under the table and not coming out. I didn't want to continue the workshop.

And then I got a call at home. From Ann. She had noticed how my face had crumpled and she was calling me to cheer me up, urging me to get back to the workshop. She would sit beside me and give me that moral support. Of course, everyone was full of smiles and encouragement when I returned, which made me feel even worse.

I was determined to write well. I forced myself to read on a sentence by sentence level and write on a sentence by sentence level (which was even more difficult). I have amblyopia; my brain has adjusted to the lazy eye but I have always read speedily, grabbing words here and there, without really seeing or appreciating the beauty and structure of language. Eight years later, in 2007, when I was doing my final edit, I would pretend that I was in The Other Workshop, and write. I have to admit that it was a great workshop. Today, when I read some of the reviews of The Finger Puppet, I smile. I did it -- thanks to Ann and a lot of beautiful people in my life! And, of course, The Other Workshop.