On Breaking the Rule of Detachment
There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hate—and why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from award-winning writer and instructor Caitlin McGill. Caitlin will be leading the Muse session Imagining the Gaps in Memoir: How to Write a Story When the Story Runs Out with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body.
In workshops, we’re often taught to separate the writer from their work.
Critique the writing, not the writer.
Remember: the novel’s protagonist is not the writer. Even the nonfiction narrator cannot be an exact replication of the memoirist sitting beside us. And who knows whether or not the poet is writing “from experience” (aren’t we all?).
But, even when workshop leaders and participants can and do separate the author from their work, instructors—particularly instructors of nonfiction—are often left worrying another understood rule: Workshop is not therapy. Breaking this rule feels almost like committing a sin.
As an instructor, I’m very certain about what my role is not: I’m not meant to mend a writer’s past or present, not meant to question the real-life choices they’ve made and continue to make. Instead, I’m meant to question how the writer is conveying those stories on the page—to challenge craft choices and enlarge their toolbox in order to strengthen their work. Classroom conversations shouldn’t be about our lives; they should be about the narrative opportunities we have to make art from those experiences. And, of course, a little encouragement doesn’t hurt.
But what happens when a workshop transcends traditional spaces and social codes into communities where the life captured in a writer’s work is not only theirs but also endangered?
As a workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins, I ask and fail to answer this question every week. Each time I enter The St. Francis House, where workshop members are often experiencing homelessness, debilitating mental illnesses
Here I must acknowledge that most of my traditional, academic workshops don’t involve this level of corporeal uncertainty. They usually require semester-long registration and some sort of accountability that, for the most part, the writers can be held to. And although my undergraduate students are often dealing with challenges of their own—impossible tuition, turbulent families, broken hearts, and other struggles common in one’s early twenties—if ever they miss class without notice, they usually have access to phones and computers to communicate, and I usually don’t fear their lives are at risk.
But when a writer’s housing or medication is in question—and it’s always in question—how’s an instructor not to worry about the narrator (perhaps constructed with the present tense) who describes nights without food or shelter? Who arrives some weeks looking thinner than ever, or carrying all of their most cherished belongings, afraid to leave them unsupervised in whatever shared space they might be coming from? How’s an instructor supposed to focus on the writing
And what do we do with the answers we receive?
When writers record their current strife on the page or in their tangible, discernible bodies—when we as a community discuss craft and technique and then say goodbye—how does one “depersonalize” the discussion? Pretend the words “See you next week” have any real certainty at all?
Caitlin McGill is a 2016 St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Consequence, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Vox, War, Literature, & the Arts, and several other magazines. She teaches at Emerson College and leads creative writing workshops at The St. Francis House, the largest day shelter in Massachusetts. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her family’s hidden past, intergenerational trauma, inherited survival mechanisms, immigration, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016. For more information, follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlindmcgill or visit caitlinmcgill.com.
Colwill is the Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House, Instructor and Consultant at GrubStreet, and Fiction Editor at Pangyrus magazine. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is a recipient of the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Reynolds Price Fiction Award, a finalist for the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship, a "Notable Entry" in the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, the James A. Michener Foundation, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center, and GrubStreet. Colwill’s work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and GrubWrites. Along with Pangyrus, she has also served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review. Colwill is especially proud to call herself a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown