The free-ranging discussions of writing workshop sessions, while helpful in so many ways, sometimes frustrated me. If the conversation circled back on itself, or went all over the place, I’d leave with pages of disorganized notes on my piece and no clear idea of where or how to begin processing the criticism.
Not so in Helen Schulman’s workshop. She ran a tight discursive ship, requiring readers to separate their comments on language, story, and the overall feel of the piece. She encouraged people to slow down and respond to one another, prompting conversations rather than a flurry of unrelated critiques. One piece of story advice she gave still sticks with me – asking yourself, how is this day different for the character, why does the story pick up at this particular time and place?
I was thrilled recently to have the opportunity to talk with her about her new novel, This Beautiful Life, in a former haunt from my graduate school days. To prepare I entered into what essentially became a master class in Helen Schulman.
Reading her novels, you find the interior lives of the characters richly developed and textured in voice. More impressively, and refreshing, I think, Schulman doesn’t shy away from honing in close during their worst moments, not just behavior wise, but physically as well. They sweat and smell bad, they’re concerned about aging, they’re vain in utterly relatable ways. (At least for this reader, who, as I’ve written about over at The Good Men Project, has a thing for hair.)
In her most recent books – A Day at the Beach, This Beautiful Life – she doesn’t follow just one character, but explores entire relationships from multiple points-of-view. In This Beautiful Life, about a teenage Internet sex scandal, not just the family at the heart of the controversy, but also Daisy, the girl who sparks it, have a voice. Daisy’s sections bookend the novel, and make for a surprising and smart way to end the story.
I asked Schulman about whether this kind of decision, which breaks the consistency of the novel’s POV, actually makes the work stronger, even though in workshop readers pounce whenever story elements (like tense, the type of narration, or the POV) don’t align. Schulman responded:
That may be true. Writing should never be by committee, and sometimes you feel that pressure in a workshop setting.
I think that workshops are great for saving time. All the things you might learn on your own are illustrated to you early. You can get saved from going off on the wrong track. Also, you learn to dissect literature and discuss it, including live, growing literature in class, which is very useful. But at a certain point you should outgrow it.
It takes me years to show anything to anybody because it’s too nascent and fragile. If they tell me it sucks I’ll be so afraid to continue that maybe I won’t. And I want them to be able to hit me with everything they’ve got.
You can find more of Schulman’s insightful discussion on The Paris Review Daily.