- Sarah Lao
Art by Ines J. (IG: @a.creature)
Workshop started out with the exchanging of civilities about where you’re from, then sharing a unique identifier to set yourself apart from the others. Is that where I learned our instructor had a small part in the film adaptation of his book?
At the opening cocktail reception the prior night I met fellow writers who, weeks earlier, had received a spiral-bound collection of our essays and short stories. One said to me, I could tell how long you’d worked on the piece. It’s really good. Her exquisite short story detailing a cow birthing a calf had left me both queasy and in a state of awe.
The instructor’s newest coming-of-age memoir was about a bullied boy. It connected to the part of me who, like him, knew powerlessness before becoming a fighter with capable fists. His artistry comprised rage, hurt, muscle, blood and bones. The structure and pacing on his pages jabbed, hooked, and head butted. I nicknamed him “Cowboy.”
Don’t allow the mouth to yank open during your critique. Become a horse, saddled, ready to be mounted for a plotted trail ride. Don’t buck. Take notes. Sit silent.
I left his workshop on the first day.
In 1936, Wilbur Schramm founded The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was the first creative writing degree program offered at an American university and remains a leading literary institution entwined with the publishing industry. Countless celebrated authors have been shaped by their time there. It’s not, however, a place void of sexism and scandal.
Writing workshops have helped me. They foster community, improve work and, at their core, are designed to provide productive, critical, and respectful feedback.
Almost everyone in this piece appears as a stand-in without real names.
Cowboy is a good writer. What took place wasn’t a stellar moment for him.
In 2012, I had signed up for a workshop, my first since college. When it was time for me to read my pages, a woman jumped in to respond to the narrator of my material. Not well –– she needs help. She mentioned my crying.
During introductions at that workshop, the woman had identified herself as a yoga instructor and mother, then switched to a newly-minted mental health expert who insisted that we shouldn’t discuss my piece. This story is harmful.
Our workshop leader was supportive of me, firmly clarifying that I’d done the work of transforming chaos into art. Surveying the room, she asked others to contribute feedback. A toe tap of praise was provided for a word choice. Then a timid, favorable note was given. Strong dialogue. It’s only after our sophist pointed to a clumsy, vague section of the writing that the critique became constructive. At the end of that workshop, a writing conference in Italy was mentioned. The instructor, whom I then regarded as a mentor, suggested I apply.
By 2014, I’d begun to feel like a serial workshopper. My husband asked why I needed to go to another one. I told him this is how it works. You study with your teachers. I tuned out my own whispers of ashram, cults, and groupies.
Workshops create accountability. An instructor teaches diction, tone, rate of revelation and more, until it all becomes familiar. Then, tooled with descriptive ways of rooting through classmates’ material, discussions take place and response letters are exchanged. The purpose is to highlight passages of delightful engagement and point out those where greater clarity is required. Students are encouraged to make line edits and to circle typos. Underlying themes and narrative threads tend to be identified and voiced by the seasoned workshoppers. What can’t be taught is keeping your ass in the chair.
Gaining footing in a workshop may require a bit of grasping at straws. The hope is to appear sharp and relevant. Praise from a teacher feels validating.
The room reveals personalities. Early arrivals line up pens and highlighters, multi-colored Post-It Notes and notepads. The blue glow from their MacBooks shadows their faces. Others step in with a La Croix in one hand and Starbucks in the other. Latecomers shuffle in with slung over the shoulder tote bags imprinted with Joan Didion’s face as they mouth sorry-sorry and noisily wiggle into a chair.
My workshop identity was pegged to woodsy perfume spritzed into my hair. I chose it to feel grounded, but a silly thing happened. Whoever sat next to me remarked that I smelled nice. The compliment gave me confidence and, I hoped, hid any crumbling inside of me.
Typical attendees at a workshop may include a star student, an outlier, some long-time devotees, several team players, a few phone-obsessed individuals checking emails, loud snack eaters, a couple of suck ups and flirts and someone just passing through. I’m the type who might glance at text messages and bring my dog.
I admired those in class who arrived stoned, and the ones that offered up pages stripped of ego, full of dark places, in search of air and light — narratives that no one else could have written. Their particulars cut into the bone, pulverized the private places of their thoughts and wrote of things that I knew little about. As I read their work, I was jolted by a thundering aliveness. Some called their material raw, but that was inexcusable to me. They had a voice on the page. I didn’t care if their sentences were too long or disjointed. It was the shape of the story I held holy in my hands.
Amalfi Coast. Thirteen towns, Positano one of them, spread across a sash of land, dangling like pendants between the billowy blue sky and sea.
Getting to this rarefied place required a taxi, a plane, a train, and a private car. A flight attendant, aware of my final destination, handed me two barf bags. You’ll need them. They proved vital during the swivel-swerve drive on a pencil-thin, cliffside roadway.
Italy. Everywhere has ‘Eat, Love, Pray’ potential. The trip, rich with promise, was also a pilgrimage to reclaim lost parts of myself.
Waiting for my room to be ready, I discovered a restaurant with a floor-to ceiling glass front. The chef, tall, boyish and aproned, waved me inside. Lemons and fresh wood scented the space. Recently delivered furniture was stacked to one side. He invited me to a soft opening and mentioned late morning cooking classes. The writing conference conflicted with that possibility. Still, I took his card.
My fledgling story, built with fervid fragments, impressionable images, and strange syntax, would be scrutinized. Arriving at Italy a day early was to settle nerves wedded to that and to my first solo trip abroad. Back at the hotel, I ran into the conference founders. Join us for drinks later. Clinking flute glasses coupled with salute or cin cin would be the custom for the next few days.
I asked the founder, by then my mentor, and her husband how they picked attendees.
We pour large glasses of wine and sort manuscripts into piles. So much is about
matching up personalities.
I wanted to know if they read everything submitted, but lemon-drenched hummus, or some kind of dip, dripped on her jeans and ended our conversation. Expensive, or maybe she said new. Her husband ordered Seltzer to dab on her pants.
The writing conference was concurrent with the biggest aviation disappearance in history: Malaysia Airline flight 370 (MH370).
MH370, and its twelve crewmembers and 227 passengers, was a non-stop breaking news story cycling on the hotel’s bar and gym TVs. Inconsistencies and botched communications were reported. A missing palm-size cell phone can be found in seconds, but a Boeing 777 with a wingspan two-thirds the length of a football field vanished into the void. Back then it was impossible to piece together shards of aircraft debris connecting what seemed to be disparate concepts and circumstances: cooking class, writing workshop, and safety protocols.
Cowboy commenced with a critique of my work.
Bring on the horrors, the violence, the rape … we the readers can take it and we need
it … I don’t think you’ve ‘man-upped’ in your piece.
I sat silent. Gagged under the writing workshop rule. Peering eyes saw my neutral expression. I made it appear effortless.
… if I read this chapter—wouldn’t read your book.
Speechless thoughts searched for words to describe the trauma of willing myself to stay in the room.
During his ambush, my eyes had fastened to his cowboy boots, without spurs, heels unequally worn down. Dark wash newish jeans, tucked charcoal hued button-down shirt, coal colored fleece sleeveless vest, hair perfectly in place. The outfit suggested him having glanced at himself in the mirror before entering the workshop room.
His vanity I understood. My own costume had been chosen from things expressly purchased to wear there and fit in. I bought two straightforward, soft fabric, seamless cotton and viscose ribbed rag & bone tops designed as fashionable and understated. They exceeded three hundred dollars. I coveted the brand’s signature footwear, but instead substituted knock-off suede half boots not priced in the range of a new washing machine.
Under Paul Engle, the director from 1941 to 1965, The Iowa Workshop took a commercial and brutish turn. No longer held in Schramm’s living room, the fostering helping hand approach transformed to a white, male-centric powder keg of tensions, cliques, harsh critiques and silencing. In an interview, Engle bragged that out of the nearly 2,300 men and women who have labored in his workshops, only one ever committed suicide on the scene in Iowa City.
Cowboy’s father received his MFA from Iowa. As a child, Cowboy watched Batman with Kurt Vonnegut, a neighbor at the time. Online I found a video of him telling the childhood story about when Vonnegut asked him which Batman character is his favorite.
Cowboy: False Face.
Kurt Vonnegut: Yeah, I like the Riddler. KA-POW! KA-ZOWEY!
Wordless workshop mates remained seated as they tolerated Cowboy’s cattle prod phrases and let them go unchecked. Their synched silence was thunderous and puzzling. Where was the voice of the bovine-scribe who had admired my work? Did the group’s muteness fear Cowboy taking a branding iron to their pages?
Bolting from the workshop was my bodily reaction to his cocksure harangue—horrors, violence, rape—framed in a salty sermon to corral conference cows. (Sorry cows.)
After leaving the workshop, I wrote an email to the conference founder. She responded: Unfortunate that you were the first to be workshopped … going first may have made the discussion seem harsher than it might have been.
My being the first writer up at the workshop was not the issue. I’m not even the first woman to be in this situation.
In another email to her, I stressed his domination, and though not described as sexual assault, on some level it can’t be wholly dismissed. His ‘man-upped' was an inexcusable remark.
The specifics of why I didn’t tolerate Cowboy’s fuckery were explained to the conference founder. And, having already been her student, my disquieting complexities were known to her.
My distress to her, my former mentor, was expressed with rugged composure to mask my pain.
My being the first writer to be workshopped was not the reason for my walking out.
His use of “bring on the horrors, the violence, the rape,” that were then attached to
saying, “I don’t think you’ve ‘man-upped’ in your piece” is what I found problematic.
He left me seeing him as a caricature, not someone in a position to run a workshop.
He can re-contextualize and intellectualize his remarks to you. In performance art they
hold up. In a workshop, they set a tone and lack respect towards a great many things.
Before sending I slowly read aloud each word with hyper articulation. I didn’t want to allow the false perception of me being traumatized to overlook the instructor’s blatant misconduct.
The effort to explain what took place, my testimonial truth, stabbed heartbreakingly within the masculine spectrum of having to man up. Cowboy up. Get tough. Be tough.
She wished she could scoop me up, place me in her workshop, but there is no way I can do that. She’d wanted to see me the day before, but … so exhausted … took a three hour nap and then … and then, then, and then.
The tap on my door was expected. The conference founder had asked if she could see me in person. She asked to come in, though she was already past the threshold. I waited for the conversation to begin.
HER: Nice room.
ME: Yes. Very nice.
HER: You moved the desk. It looks good there. You’re all set up to write here. That’s
good, very good.
I waited for the conversation to begin.
I told him you were locked in a car trunk.
Tucked into the Lattari Mountains, the town is surrounded by colorful flowers and the sweet scent of lemons and orange trees. The salty air of the provincial enclave is infused with fragrances of bougainvillea, wisteria and eucalyptus. The vertical coastal city, known for its linen, leather sandals and limoncello, is a treacherous climb.
Six days after MH370 went missing, the numbers associated with the route, and its return flight 371, were retired as a “mark of respect.” The hope was to remove the images of devastation from the memories of those taking the Kuala Lumpur/Beijing journey. The flights are now designated as MH318 and MH319. Thank you for flying Malaysia Airlines.
Under international agreements, families have two years to file a lawsuit against an airline. In September 2015, less than two years after the disappearance of MH370, Malaysia Airlines was dissolved in a massive corporate restructuring and replaced with Malaysia Airlines Berhad. The new holding company maintains no liability for flight 370. Voice 370, an association of families of the passengers and crew on board flight 370, has called the shield move by the airline a despicable act of irresponsibility and cowardice.
Grace Nathan’s 56-year-old mother, Ann Daisy, was a passenger on flight MH370. Her daughter Grace struggles to move on. A man who lost his wife on that flight spoke at the fourth anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. It’s important to know what happened. If it’s happened once, it can happen again. There’s a bigger question of safety in aviation that needs to be addressed.
Grace Nathan added: It involves the larger question of aviation safety. We strongly believe that this really needs to be prevented. It is more about setting the right precedent and making sure the government remains accountable.
The conference founder doing nothing kept wrongdoing alive. It tucked the masculine bed covers into the mattress for the next person to lie in.
Back then I cared too much about her liking me. Other thoughts followed, including how women are conditioned to not upset or make men uncomfortable. With time comes empathy. Rereading her work I discovered a passage I’d overlooked, one about her confronting truths on the page and fully feeling the accumulation and enormity of losses. Her acknowledgement tagged to the fear of becoming the crazy woman, never able to recover. Perhaps, with time, hardwired in difficult moments is our ability to see ourselves in others.
Standing up to Cowboy, who was placed on a pedestal, put me at disadvantage. Overseas, no credentials, the conference founder very tired and my peers witnessing our workshop turned into a blood sport.
Everyone there was vying for a competitive edge. One less rival was a benefit.
Developing material in hostile conditions can be couched as preparation for agents, publishers, critics and readers. Think a reconfigured Nike advertisement: Just Take It.
As far as I know prior to a workshop, there’s no training given to an instructor. Students sign up for the investment of working with echelon writers to improve their work and to network.
Instructors’ books are readily available for purchase. Signings follow author readings where cocktails are available at a cash bar.
Months later a fellow attendee at the same conference wrote to me.
I've thought a lot about what happened to you in your workshop and find myself
wanting to discuss it with my therapist. Workshop leaders may need some sensitivity
training in order to have a better idea of what they're dealing with and how to be
constructive with their comments. To my mind, this is a very serious issue with the
potential for great destructiveness.
What kept her from voicing this then? During her critique did something happen? Why did everyone sit silent?
At a fourth anniversary remembrance event for flight MH370, next-of-kin, Grace Nathan said: It’s still so painful, like it happened yesterday. People are wondering why we’re still pursuing this. I don’t hold it against them because I know there have been many times in life that I’ve been ignorant to someone else’s tragedy or pain.
The workshop environment enabled Cowboy’s rodeo routine.
I’m not the first, nor the last, person to be pummeled at a workshop.
It has taken me six years to find a structure to encapsulate my experience that highlights the need for safety in that environment.
Workshop leaders have power. Their egos, like ours, are fragile. And who doesn’t want to be liked, even revered? But harmful behavior shouldn’t have an elastic girth, or be given a pass.
Some may say it’s hard to rein in a cowboy and risk what that may entail. Or is it?
I didn’t write about this until I was able to process it. Was there anger? Yes. Loss? Yeah. Did it hurt? Badly. Did I say nothing because I feared retaliation? Yup—even though the facts speak for themselves.
We all know a Cowboy, or someone we thought was a mentor, and formed friendships with others that turned out not to be genuine.
Sometimes workshop leaders are not prepared for issues that arise from harmful comments, even their own. Certain voices are heard more than others. Occasionally, instead of meaningful engagements with material, remarks are laced with micro-aggressions.
Creative writing teachers are not trained therapists. They’re often placed in a difficult position where cathartic exposition spills beyond the page. I attended another workshop where, in an extreme case, a student posed a potential danger to others. Police arrived and she was asked to leave.
I came to Italy for a writing conference, not to take a cooking class.
MH370. What happened? What? Happened? Passports get stamped, boarding takes place, and the thrill of anticipation accumulates. Everyone is going somewhere—departing, arriving. The pushback of the airplane starts with one engine, followed quickly by the second. Cleared for take-off. The fasten seat belt sign simultaneously dings and lights up. Throttle and thrust felt. First class has been provided with blankets, pillows, and noise-cancelling headphones. When the flight disappears, comfort will not save them. What of the lost ones not found?
In 1923, Frederick Mockford, a London senior radio officer, originated the Mayday international distress call. In an emergency, he thought all pilots and ground staff would easily understand the word. Mayday is derived from the French word m’aider —“venez m’aider”—come help me. No Mayday call was heard from the Malaysia Airlines flight. A plane vanished into the void.
Seventeen months later, after the plane vaporized, three confirmed pieces of wreckage from flight MH370 washed onto Reunion Island’s shore, near the east coast of Madagascar. Flaperon, wing fragment, wing flap. The island’s famous volcano, the most active in the entire world, is named Piton de la Fournaise, which translates to “Peak of the Furnace.”
Positano. My furnace.
After leaving the workshop, I started a project on Tuesday that began with rearranging the furniture in my hotel room. I set up an office and a reading area. The bed was strictly for sleeping. I put together a curriculum as I waited for my cooking class that had been arranged for Thursday.
Cowboy: Declarative sentences—use too many of them.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, was afraid to ask, and kept listening.
Day one in my own workshop began with decoding Cowboy’s note on declarative sentences — use too many of them. Online I read that it’s the most common of sentences. My heart sank in acknowledgment of being flat and ordinary. I saw his point.
Western. Pointy. Positano is suited for casual footwear. Sandals and sneakers are commonplace for the steep hills, stone beach, and cobbled roads. Cowboy boots are a choice. These are declarative sentences.
In my room I studied sentences: declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory.
Then advanced to their structure: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.
Workshops have helped me.
Workshops have helped me, but have sometimes resembled a blood sport.
Workshops are like the Positano landscape, a place where there are many stairs to climb.
Workshops are like the Positano landscape, a place where there are many stairs to climb; I enjoy the challenge.
Cowboy: The rooms, (I’d described in my piece), those were real.
Cowboy paused, making sure I’d written that—“rooms-real.” He seemed to count each of the nine letters I’d put on the page. I was there in those rooms with you. After his lengthy invective remarks, this came as table scraps offered to a dog.
Tired of being alone in my room, I asked the hotel to make arrangements for me to take a cooking class.
En route to the restaurant, a shuttle bus traversed a hairpin curve and passed me at hip’s length. The vehicle’s thuggish airflow forcefully pushed into my body. I froze and skipped a heartbeat, then readjusted my oversized sunglasses and continued up the steep incline of Positano, feeling both dazzling and out of place.
Chef was prepared for our cooking lesson. He handed me a souvenir apron to tie around my waist, then walked me into the kitchen and explained the layout. It was tidy and well organized. Everything had its place.
The open kitchen was rooted in transparency. Displayed were the fresh ingredients available to make the perfect combinations of meals. Assembly happens right in front of you. The smell and sight of cooking produces an appetite.
How to stay in my body was measured in teaspoons and cups. The session involved chopping, stirring, and pushing potatoes through a vegetable mill. Then fist-rolling dough into coils one centimeter in diameter and slicing them into fingertip size dumplings to be cooled on a tray in a special fridge.
Each new activity renewed my confidence. The steam, sustenance and savory fragrances engendered a closeness of purpose and belonging that is intimate. Cooking requires a person to be present and aware of their body. It’s physically demanding. Three hours later, skills that I’d never use again were plated. The chef asked me to sit at the table set prior to my arrival. He poured Chianti into my glass and brought me each dish one by one. The chair across from me was left empty and there was little talk between us. Not an unfriendly gesture. It was his desire for me to reflect on, and enjoy, each morsel of the meal.
Chef wanted me to own the accomplishment of preparing food from scratch. Between us was a bond of partnership. I was his first pupil. First. Nothing about being first would have changed a single moment of his artful schooling.
Back at the hotel, satisfied and with a slight buzz, I spotted a group of writers talking about the next evening’s open mic. They hushed and nodded in my direction. I got it. I was the plague.
Cowboy and I ran into each other in one of the hotel’s maze-like hidden hallways with a back staircase. Were we both trying to avoid being seen by others?
As he approached me, I moved away, but not out of fear. It’s not what he’d expected. His desire to be liked, respected, and revered were not honored.
When our eyes met for that scant, single second, there was no tough guy in boots. He was the scared boy he’d always been.
In leaving the workshop room something was lost, taken.
Cowboy had come from a damaged childhood. I had imagined commonality between us. Thought I would learn from him.
Strengthened by a good meal, I recognized we were alike. However, what I hadn’t reflected on was how differently we had responded to our residual childhood traumas. His was used outwardly, blindly, as a weapon. Mine, turned inward, punished my immune system, and left me hidden inside rooms.
His wife and I had talked the first night at the cocktail party. It wasn’t until he walked over and touched her gently on the small of her back that I realized she wasn’t another student. She was lovely, lovely, just the kind of lovely that makes you like life more than you can imagine. She reminded me of my husband. Yet another kind of likeness we share.
To see him only in one light would ignore the beauty that exists in trauma’s complexities.
Continuing onto my room, sure as fuck, I decided to attend the next night’s reading with my work.
I’m done hiding inside rooms.
Had he simply said I don’t think you’ve found your voice yet, I would have agreed.