Wednesday, September 28, 2005

its an MFA in writing and I, like, totally earned it

The token boy in my graduate nonfiction workshop this semester is named Jason. It is my second year at Sarah Lawrence and this is my first co-educational class and the truth is, of course, that I hated him immediately. Despite the fact that I spent last year bemoaning the lack of "male energy" -- blaming the circles of women (some of them actually knitting) for the easy slip that our workshops took as they adopted the feel of group therapy. We would read Anne's essay, a profile of her friend Sohrab, and go through the motions of discussing its structure until one of us finally asked what we had all been thinking: "Did you sleep with him?" Somehow, without men around, it seemed okay to do this. And Anne blushed, shook her head. Our teacher looked at her, said, "Well, then, what happened?"

For the past four Wednesdays, Jason has worn the same pair of cut-off jean shorts, black shoes with black socks that are scrunched down around his ankles, black T-shirt. It's not his fault that we've stopped discussing our sex lives during our *critiques* (that's due, I think, to the influence of a more serious teacher, who, when revealing her personal life, does not expound further than, "I really"). But Jason has been offering the sort of criticism that goes nowhere. To a girl who wrote about a night at a comedy club, he said, "This just didn't do it for me. I didn't feel it. Show, don't tell. You need to build up the tension to an a-ha moment."
I raised my hand. "Actually, I disagree with everything that Jason said. The freeing thing about nonfiction, according to Philip Lopate, is that you don't have to 'show' us. And if you're going to build up something, why not let it be the a-ha-ha-ha moments? This is about comedy."
Jason annoyed me. And last week, when our teacher stood at the blackboard with a piece of chalk in her hand and said, "Some of you don't seem to know the difference between 'its' and 'it's'..." I started to feel claustrophobic. At the end of the two hours, I pushed back my chair and ran from the room.

I saw Jason in the library yesterday. Same shorts, same socks. Before I thought to stop myself, I waved my hand and whispered hello. He sat down beside me and we talked for a few minutes. "I haven't left my apartment in days," he said. "Are you sick?" I asked. He looked at me strangely. "No," he said. "I've been busy writing."
He offered to give me some of his work and fished around in his messenger bag for two essays. Half an hour later, I sat in the library basement, beside the Coke machines, reading them one after the other. They are about his depression, his suicide attempt while he worked in the Peace Corps. The words, sick and ugly, that he carved into his arm with a pair of scissors.

I am learning and re-learning that I can never have too much compassion. I am learning, the more I do them, how little it matters what you actually say in a writing workshop. What matters, I guess, is that the people whose work is being read feel that attention is being paid to what they wrote. I don't think Jason, for all his proselytizing about taking his writing seriously, needs to be critiqued as much as he needs to feel that we are listening. That I am interested in something other than a fight.


Anonymous Meg said...

Sarah, Your story about Jason, about the importance having compassion and listening, is beautiful and true. Hope you're having a good week. XOXO

6:08 PM  
Anonymous camille said...

in this you feel like you are hovering nearer to the earth.

10:09 PM  

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