Seeing the Forest
By Michelle Huneven
This is the ninth in a series of posts leading up to the AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known” with novelists Jane Smiley, Lucy Silag, Doug Unger and Vu Tran. Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center.
Michelle Huneven published her first novel twenty years after leaving the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her third book—a masterful tale of guilt and growth—Blame, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010. She is working on her fourth novel.
I wish I’d known that it would be all right in the long run.
I went to the workshop when I was twenty-two. I was too undisciplined and unformed to get a lot of work done. I had been considered a talent in my undergraduate writing classes, but at the workshop, I felt intimidated and invisible. Classmates would write stories that seemed so fleshed out and shapely and polished—and they’d say, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in…” “Oh, I wrote it after midnight for the next morning.” Everyone, it seemed, knocked out a story in a few hours at the very last minute.
Now, I could occasionally turn out a decent little story, but it took me many weeks and a lot of revision. So I felt like a total fraud. There wasn’t much discussion of process in those days (although Henry Bromell once did extoll the pleasure of drinking Scotch at the typewriter “until, when you go to get up, your legs won’t hold you!”) I had no idea that stories by other writers also went through ugly stages. I thought that I had an inferior psyche, one incapable of spilling brilliant sentences at will.
It took me many years to realize that all those writers who “knocked it out drunk when it was already a day late,” were lying. But they weren’t lying to aggrandize themselves, they weren’t bragging–I see that now. They were issuing disclaimers, distancing themselves from their work lest they face a drubbing in workshop.
I wish I’d known that then.
Ever use self-preservationist tactics to protect your work? You’re among friends: Dish!