The Workshop

Tonight, I am in the Slough of Despond. That’s a reference to Pilgrim’s Progress, although Christian’s slough has to do with his sins and guilt for them, and my particular slough has to do more with my complete exhaustion. This is how the slough is described in the book:

“This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Well, the fears and doubts and discouraging apprehensions are right on, anyway. I think I’m feeling them because I’ve been going and going and going, as though I’m some sort of automaton, and of course I’m not. Eventually, I wear myself out.

Last week, I revised the first five chapters of the novel, and this weekend I took the bus to New York so I could workshop them with my group, The Injustice League. Some of us could not make it, but Catherynne Valente, Delia Sherman, and Ellen Kushner were all there. When we workshop, we do it a little differently from most groups. Here’s what happened this time: over lunch at a Thai place, we workshopped Cat’s story, then over dessert at a coffee shop (where I had a wonderful tiramisu) we workshopped my chapters, and then finally, over dinner at a Japanese place, we workshopped Delia’s story. Each manuscript was discussed for more than an hour, and each was discussed more intensely than I’ve ever seen a manuscript discussed in any other workshop. That’s what makes this workshop so special, I think. I’ve never talked to other writers about writing at such a high level.

And the critiques were intensely useful. I now know why I’m writing this novel and what I need to do next and after that and after that.  Before, I didn’t have a clear path; I have one now.  I know where to go, and how to get to the next place when I don’t–when what I do know runs out. Thank you, Cat and Delia and Ellen! You are all brilliant, and I don’t think I could do this without you.

But by the time I was sitting on the bus back to Boston, I was completely exhausted–to the level where I always become an emotional mess. It’s a combination of exhaustion, sensory overload, mental distress–a sort of stew of different things that all add up to a feeling as though I’m about to break. And that’s how I felt, sitting on that bus on the way back.

So I did the logical thing, which was to text my friend Nathan Ballingrud, who had the perfect solution. He said, let’s both write a story, under 5000 words. And I said, I’m going to start now. Actually, I had already started while standing in line, waiting to get on the bus. The first few lines had come to me then. But now, I sat there with my Moleskine notebook and my pen, scribbling. By the time I arrived in Boston, I had a very rough first draft. But I knew what the story was about, and I knew that I could type it up and give it the right shape, the narrative arc it needed.

I’m going to try to type it in the next two weeks, which is the deadline Nathan and I agreed on. Then, we will exchange stories for critiquing. But the immediate lesson for me was this:

If you’re a writer, whatever your problem, the solution is always writing.

Writing a story distracted me, calmed me, made me feel as though life was worth living again. I’m still not recovered, and I suspect recovery will take another week or so. I’ve just been working too hard. But at least I feel a little better.

I wanted to find an image of a woman writing to go with this post, and you know what? There are quite a lot of them. So here is your image: Woman Writing a Letter by Gerard Ter Borch II.

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6 Responses to The Workshop

  1. I have a slight eye problem, perhaps related to dyslexia, which alters some words.
    This time it was ‘workshopped.’ I read ‘worshipped.’ I thought what a great way to
    critique. I think we should sometimes just worship the gift our fellow writers give us.
    Then I reread it, saw my error, and felt a little let down. But the thought remains.

  2. helen says:

    Hello Theodora, I have been reading and enjoying your blog for a little while now, it really is marvellous and inspiring. On the strength of it I bought The Thorn and the Blossom, which was lovely, and In the Forest of Forgetting, which I’m waiting impatiently for. I’m so sorry that you are feeling so tired and worn out. I hope you find, or write, your way out of the Slough of Despond very soon. It’s a horrible place to be.

    I love the idea of worshipping chapters, Phyllis! There’s a story there…

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