Courtesy of Marshall Astor

About a week ago, I taught a writing workshop at Workshop Weekend in Oakland. Most of the other workshops at Workshop Weekend were project oriented, things that can be taught step by step in an afternoon, so my class was a bit of an odd duck, even considering one of the classes going on at the same time as mine was about building Geiger counters.

It gets me a lot of strange looks, but I seek out opportunities like this. The people who decide to come to my class, even if it means missing the Geiger counter class, generally have had other experiences like that. They’re interesting people, and working with interesting people is fun, and it gives me hope for the future of my craft, but the real reason I do it is because teaching these workshops keeps me honest.

I’m a workshop baby. My undergrad degree is in English, and I pretty much went straight from undergrad to an MFA program. I primarily identify as a writer. A lot of my friends are writers. I read lit journals that other writers read, and I bounce around writing communities online. Spending this much time with other writers is usually a good thing. It’s easy to find people who can relate to what I’m going through when I run into snags, but sometimes it starts to feel like living in an echo chamber.

And then I get out of the echo chamber, and someone asks a question that snaps me out of it.

Or, at least, it should.

During this last workshop, one of my students asked me what to do when he feels like he’s writing by rote, like his story is just following a formula, and he gets bored. It’s a question you hear a lot in writing communities from people who know how to plot so well even their dreams are properly plotted, so I rattled off the standard answers: blow something up, step away from it for awhile, try to get a fresh perspective on something, look for cliches.

Some of that advice is very good. It’s helped me get out of a few snags before, but then he walked out of the class grumbling about how it will probably take him ten years to finish his novel, and I knew something in the class had gone very wrong.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what went wrong ever since (part of the motivation for this post). It’s not the time scale. A lot of people take ten years or more to write a novel, but with this particular guy the time just didn’t add up.

I keep returning to a review I read once of a sci-fi book that takes place in rural Georgia. The reviewer said that the book was very good because the story showed the reader something about life in rural Georgia, which, to that particular reader, was more unfamiliar than the aliens. The reviewer speculated that the writer of the book used the aliens to add interest to a story about two kids growing up in Georgia that was probably all too familiar to them.

It’s another bit of workshop advice that you hear a lot, that our ordinary lives are anything but ordinary to other people, yet I wonder about the guy in my class. See, this guy wasn’t a workshop baby. He’d spent his twenties building the backbone of software that I use every day. He’s worked at a company with a corporate culture so interesting, there’s an article about it somewhere at least once a week, so where is he going to find boring to put in his work? Does he know how interesting his life is?

Do I?

Do you?

Is this what we’re doing when we return to the keyboard day after day, learning how to see ourselves the way other people do?