Frankly, I was scared to go. School was decades behind me and I had a successful career as a magazine editor. Why put myself out there with a work of fiction I’d been fussing over for years?
On the other hand, I had been fussing over that story for years on my own with no idea of where it was headed. What was it—a novel, a novella, a long short story? So I researched writers’ workshops and chose one that seemed serious and professional—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Program. I had no idea what to expect when I boarded a plane bound for IOW—Iowa City Municipal Airport—two runways surrounded by farm fields at an elevation of 668 feet.
Hedging my bets, I signed up for a weekend workshop that lasted two days and a weeklong one that went for six. I figured if one was a bomb, the other should make up for it. On the way to the first workshop I darted into one of the many cute shops in Iowa City and bought myself a lovely white cotton dress made in India.
For those who’ve never attended one, here’s how workshops go. We were to submit up to about 20 pages of any work ahead of time, then read each others’ work, and make notes in the margins or at the end. Our instructions were to say what each work was about, what its intention was (intention in this case was what was the story or excerpt about), how it met that intention, and where it could be improved for the reader. This sounded altogether positive so I was hopeful not to be humiliated in front of the other writers. Or, God forbid, the teachers who all had more than enough degrees, publishing credentials and writing awards to cow a newcomer like me. So I squared my shoulders and took my classroom type plastic seat in the weekend workshop. To this day I can’t remember the teacher’s name, anyone in that class, or what was said about my work. I do remember feeling encouraged enough to face the six-day class with hope and excitement. Also my new dress was a hit.
Even so, with apologies to Mr. Dickens, this turned out to be the best of workshops and the worst of workshops.
My entry was workshopped on the third day, putting me in the midway position. I’d heard others’ submissions critiqued by the class and the teacher who used the comments about each piece as an opportunity to discuss some element of writing and to refer back to the book we’d been assigned prior to arrival.
This process opened me to a new way of thinking, one with endless horizons. In that six days we discussed short stories or novel excerpts by such writers as Milan Kundera, Denis Johnson, Alice Munroe, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor and others included as examples of writing lessons in the book, Creating Fiction—A Writer’s Companion, now out of print but still available at Amazon.com.
When the class turned to my fifteen pages (we were not allowed to speak or answer any criticism or praise until everyone else had spoken) I put on my bravest face and waited. Everything went well until it was the turn of an ad exec from Chicago. He really ripped into what I had submitted. What I will always remember is him saying, “This is about a child. Who wants to read anything about a child?” I remember feeling this crushing weight in my chest and my fingers turning cold to numb. The class moved on from him and the teacher again went to the board, using my piece this time, to expand on a writing lesson.
I had begun my story with an epigraph which the teacher liked. He made suggestions for when and how to use epigraphs in fiction. Mine was:
When we are very young, dreams seem to us as real as life;
When we grow old, life seems to us a dream remembered.
When I had my private session with the teacher, and he handed me my piece marked up with his notes, the first word he’d written was “transportive.” He praised the writing and the theme, and gave me all sorts of helpful advice to use as I continued with what would turn out to be a middle grade novella and my first published book.
That evening at a local restaurant two of my class members told me that the teacher had taken my ad exec nemesis aside and ripped him apart for what he’d said in class. On the last day, we workshopped his piece. It was a about a ten-year-old girl who runs away from home.
As a literary device, irony is a contrast or incongruity between expectations for a situation and what is reality.