Writer’s Block


It’s often hard to know what will help and what will inhibit a student. Some teachers swear by tough tactics. My mother, a high school teacher, used to describe a colleague who would enter the room on the first day of school and kick the wastepaper basket to establish that he was tough. My own tendency is to go the other way, sometimes too far, with the result that canny students may take advantage of me. Still, after a particularly painful episode of toughness in my own history, I prefer to err on the side of indulgence—to be kind rather than cruel. It is painful for me to write about this episode even now, and although I’ve told the story to a few people in my family, the public airing I am about to give it feels both humiliating and courageous.

More than 30 years ago, a recent college graduate, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was a time when it was still possible to aspire to be “a writer”—not a screenwriter or a blogger, but a writer, pure and simple. And so, even as I took the practical steps of looking for a job and applying to graduate school, I was also writing short stories and the first 20 pages of innumerable novels.

I sent some of my hopeful juvenilia to a famous summer writing program and, several months later, learned that I had been “accepted.”  I was not aware at the time that there were different levels of acceptance to this program: the few favored candidates, invited to come at no fee; the lowly auditors, allowed to pay money to sit in on workshops but not allowed to share their own work; and the mid-level acceptees (of which I was one), whose work could be discussed but who were expected to pay. The writing staff was also arranged hierarchically. There were the “big name” writers (“big name” being a relative term, of course, in the writing business), who led the workshops; the lesser-name writers, responsible for administering the goings on; and the up-and-coming writers, mostly recent graduates of the program, who helped out in unspecified ways (i.e., sleeping with the star writers and otherwise ministering to their egos).

This not particularly palatable hierarchy was obscured by a romantic fog. Everyone knew about the unruly lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not to mention Mailer and Ginsburg, and believed that eccentricity, appetite, and volatility were hallmarks of the writing life. That we lower-rung aspirants were meek and docile was a function of our lesser creative power. If we became better writers, our more Dionysian impulses would presumably come to the fore. None of this was articulated, of course; at age 23 one isn’t able to put such things into words, which is what I suppose the program counted on.

I felt uncomfortable as soon as I arrived, but being an insecure person, I figured that the problem lay with me. I hadn’t liked summer camp or high school either, but those places, I assumed, were different. This was group-think of a higher order, and I was willing to make an effort. I gossiped with my peers about the literary luminaries who were present and excitedly awaited the first workshop. Having been placed on the fiction side of the program, I was assigned to a writer of note: a man in his 40s who had published several well-reviewed novels and short story collections.  These were gritty, hardboiled works, which might have warned me that he would not be the best match for my tentative, mannered prose.

As it turned out, I would not spend any time conferring with him. On the day workshops were to begin, the students were called together for a meet-and-greet at which the famous writers were asked to say a few words. Two other literary stars—a wispy-looking woman poet and a male writer in the then-“new” journalism school—made their introductions: the woman read a fragment of a poem about a miscarriage, and the man, an angry piece about a Vietnam War protest. Then came my “mentor,” a wiry beady-eyed man, who looked us over for a moment with a penetrating gaze and then abruptly began to read. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was not reading his own work; he was reading the short story I had sent as part of my application. When this realization hit, I was thunderstruck: first, numb with shock, then filled with joy. Was it possible that my work was so brilliant as to have caught the eye of this literary paragon and compelled him to share it with the entire program? I had been unsure about the story when I wrote it, had worked on it quite a bit—overworked it, I suspected. It was, like almost everything I wrote at the time, a fictionalized version of an event from my own life: the divorce of the parents who lived next door as I was growing up. The situation fascinated me, perhaps feeding into fears about my own family.  I had written it as I had experienced it, from a distance. This was not, I sensed, the most dramatic perspective to take, but it was the only way I knew how to tell the story.

The famous writer read my piece to the end—it was not long—and when he was done, he looked around at the group and made the following pronouncement: “This,” he said, “is an example of how not to write.”

Is it possible from my present vantage point as a mature woman who knows that taste and judgment can differ from individual to individual to explain the drop I felt—the pain of having my story singled out from among countless others at this illustrious program as the best negative example? I cannot. I leave it to you to dig back into your own life for a profound personal humiliation to approximate my own.

What followed was a blur. I knew that I had to leave the place at once. A sympathetic “older” woman (older, that is, than I was), who worked for the program and knew the famous writer made some effort to talk me out of going. She seemed to have a dim understanding that what had been done was unconscionable, but, then, this was the sort of thoughtless behavior that one expected from a genius. “Stay on,” she pleaded.  “He really meant no harm. He was responding to certain aspects of your story—the detached point of view, in particular—that violated his notion of dramatic storytelling. He’s a child really when it comes to thinking about how his actions might affect other people.”

Had I been more resilient or confident, I might have stayed. But I was profoundly hurt and embarrassed, and I couldn’t imagine that any amount of discussion was going to rescue my story or my sense of writerly potential from the horrible dunking it had suffered. I found a ride home and waved goodbye to my prepayment for the summer course.

I have tried over the years to find some positive value in the experience—some sense in which it bolstered my character or gave me a more realistic understanding of the way people might react not only to my writing but to me. But I’ve given up. It seems to me a purely negative example—a lesson in what a teacher should not do. The proof: it took me 20 years to write another piece of fiction.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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