My workshop with Tim O’Brien was on Halloween. Leading up to it, I was excited like a kid. Then on the day of, thirty minutes before I was supposed to leave for San Marcos, I went into full-neurosis mode.
I had a dress picked out, one that I love and feel comfortable and confident in. I knew I was going to wear it. I have a pair of black tights that I wear with it. Two weeks earlier, I had pulled all of my tights out of a drawer and hand washed them in the bathroom sink. Pink ones, white ones, cream, brown and black. Clean tights.
When I put my tights on under my black dress and looked in the mirror, the tights looked navy blue. I had on a pair of mustard yellow shoes. Are my tights blue? Do I own blue tights? I went to my drawer and dug around trying to find the BLACK tights. No sign of them. I walked back to the mirror. Am I hallucinating? I must be. My shoes must be making the tights look blue. I walked into the living room prepared to leave. I made a comment about how my black tights must have faded when I washed them, and my classmate who was waiting patiently said, “Oh. I thought they were blue.” Then c. agreed, “I thought they were blue too.”
YOU DID? Does it look BAD?
k.: No, I thought you did it on purpose. Your bag is blue.
c.: It looks fine.
The thing is, I sort of agreed that in an odd way, the blue tights with the black dress and mustard shoes actually looked allright. Notice, I said, "in an odd way."
But. Panic ensued. I tore them off. I put them back on. I tore them off. Put them back on. Who knows how long this went on (we were late leaving town). Finally, the tights were on, and we were in the car. My stomach was rolling around inside of me. I announced: “I’m really nervous. I didn’t realize I was nervous until I had a meltdown over my tights.” We parked the car, and I stepped out. Just before I closed the door, I said, “I can’t were these tights.” They came off for a final time.
k.: I so knew those things were coming off again.
Tim O’Brien arrived. I tried to guess his age. 67? 72? I'm sure you can look it up on line. He wore a baseball cap. He seemed smallish and approachable. He sat at the table and kept a pack of cigarettes in front of him like they were a timer set to go off.
He began with the other guy’s story. Tim O’Brien knows what he’s doing. That is the first thing I thought. I guess he should. I mean, Pulitzer nomination and all. But you never know. A lot of writers lead crappy workshops. Not him. It’s actually really focused, really precise. He pays attention to the details in your story. A few times I was looking at the guy whose work was up for crit, and he seemed shaken.
On the back of my story I’d written 3 headings: Point of View – Location/Geography – Past/Present Tense. I knew that these would be my biggest issues, and I was preparing to take notes in these areas. I was dead on. Tim O’Brien honed in on these problems right away. Somehow, me knowing these things are not working, and me trying to figure out the solutions on my own is easier. But this is my 12th draft of the story, and when Tim O’Brien began pointing out these problems, I had an internal crisis: How can I not have figured out how to make these things in the story WORK? Tim O’Brien thinks I am a complete IDIOT.
I felt like I was going to cry for the first five to seven minutes. That’s a bit uncharacteristic for me in a workshop. I am usually really good about dissociating from the story right away so that I can listen objectively. So. Yeah. I was really nervous, and it all hit me at once with the stupid blue/black tights.
Then I had this silent moment: Herpreet. Pull it together and listen to what the man is saying. He obviously knows what he’s talking about. Just like that, I set my ego aside and started to listen.
When we went for drinks afterward, I felt a little shell-shocked. I asked the other writer if it had been hard for him. Standing with his too-perfect posture, he lied: "No. It wasn't bad." I wanted to scream: "I SAW your FACE. It looked like you were going to cry a few times. I SAW you." I didn't. I just silently stared at his shoulders until I could picture them slouching.
Someone said, "Well he liked the story." I said, "He did? When your work is up for critique, and you’re sitting there silent, nothing seems obvious except how terrible a writer you are. I asked the guy to repeat what good things Tim O’Brien had said about my story.
I’ll only share with you the one compliment that I actually remember. There is a scene in which the main character is in a bar talking to some random dude. She gets drunk and they have sex in a phone booth in the bar. It would be really easy to write that scene like it was in a soap opera or a romance novel, really easy to write it badly. And I have revised it a million times to remove the melodrama and the cheesy-ness. I do remember That Tim O’Brien said, “The author did a nice job with that bar scene when they slept together.” Then he paused. “Or whatever. I guess they didn’t sleep together, but had sex in a phone booth.” When he said it, I did exhale inside of myself, release the concern that this one scene would come off really cliché. It didn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t other cliché moments in the story. There are – but they’ll be easy to fix.
So. There you have it. My first workshop with Tim O’Brien. Next time, I think I’ll wear tights. Blue ones.