Liz Kingsley interviewed the author of The Best Place to Be, published by Simon and Schuster. Lesley Dormen is a student in the Master Class and teaches Level IV in New York.
Liz Kingsley: How have the workshops at The Writers Studio helped you understand your writing process?
Lesley Dormen: I started in Level I and immediately felt both safe and excited. That was because of the specific way the class was structured–around short, doable assignments. I couldn’t wait to do each week’s exercise. I wasn’t trying to “find my own voice” or “tell the truth.” I was just writing. It felt more like playing. The Writers Studio’s specific teaching method–keep your eye on technique–allowed me to circumvent my harsh inner critic. I always knew I was a good writer, a stylish writer, a fluent writer. I’d been a successful journalist for 20 years. I’d taken a bunch of fiction workshops over the years. But I also knew that writing stirred up a lot of anxiety in me. The Writers Studio helped me understand my fears and my desires as a storyteller, then gave me the tools to deal with those emotions. I have tremendous regard now for what I ask of myself every time I sit down at the computer. When I fall short–which I do more often than not–I’m equipped to realize that this too is part of my process. I learned the habit of artfulness, the day-in, day-out practice that gives emotion and idea a chance to express themselves artfully. I learned how to fail and then keep going.
LK: What do you see as the value of doing exercises?
LD: They’re like practicing basic yoga poses, or musical scales or brushstrokes. Exercises allow you to rummage around in the workshops of great writers. You’re learning how to recognize–as a writer, not a reader– how a piece of wonderful, emotionally affecting writing is made. You start fresh every week. You take it apart and put it back together. By the end of each term, by the way, you’ve accumulated a lot of pages of work. I’m always scavenging my old exercises for worthwhile scraps.
LK: In your experience, how has emulating another writer’s voice helped you develop your own unique storytelling voice?
LD: Some writers’ voices that you “try on” through exercises feel like natural fits. Other voices feel alien. Some writers you so love and identify with you can’t believe your attempts to emulate them fail so badly. What’s weird is, there’s no predicting how worthwhile an exercise will be for you by using any of those standards. Those standards don’t even apply. First, every art involves copying your betters in order to learn from them and then trying to do it your own way and better. Second, you can never “sound like” another writer no matter how hard you try. You can only, for better or worse, sound like yourself. Meanwhile, the exercises give you something to hold on to while you’re in the process of discovering yourself as a writer. They both humble you and sharpen your competitive instincts. Finally, even exercises you stink at open windows onto material you might never have seen otherwise. Even one good line or phrase in an exercise can be gold down the road.
LK: Now that you’ve found a narrator that’s successfully told a collection of short stories, will you continue to experiment with different narrative voices? Can a fiction writer have more than one voice?
LD: I’m writing a novel now, using a version of the narrator that I used in several of the linked stories. I have to refind that narrator every time I sit down to write, but I’m not finished with her, and apparently she’s not finished with me. I’m excited about trying out new techniques as well. Yes, a fiction writer can have many voices. I think it’s important for a writer to recognize and appreciate what she does well, but you have to replenish your own excitement as an artist. I think that requires scaring yourself now and then, or at least failing in a different arena.
LK: What do you see as the most important elements of a moving, entertaining story or poem?
LD: How a story is told is by far the most essential element. We start out as writers thinking deep down (or maybe not so deep down) that our specific story or stories are so unique they’re going to rock the world, but eventually we discover that no one really cares about our specific stories. What matters, first and last, is how a writer tells a story. It’s the singer, not the song.
LK: What was the purpose of going through all those different levels?
LD: When I started, I had a pretty good idea of how much I didn’t know about writing fiction even though I’d written a bunch of unpublished short stories. Maybe I even underestimated that body of ignorance. I wanted time and room to fail. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t also think, Hey I’m a real writer, why do I have to take baby steps? I want my story published in The New Yorker right now. In Level I, I told my instructor that I was working on a novel. He just said, well, do both. Write the novel on your own and use the classroom to augment that work with exercises. The point is, no one ever stood in my way of finishing a novel or publishing in The New Yorker. In reality, my so-called novel fizzled out. It was the classroom exercises that sparked the writing that led to the work I wanted to be doing. By going through all the levels, I learned to read as a writer, to discover my material as a writer, to work through my anxiety and fear, to progress in what felt like a natural way. I learned that I was the one responsible for fulfilling my ambitions as a writer–no single instructor or class on earth was going to wave a wand and make that happen. I took everything I was given and used what I needed. It was my great good luck to have picked a program that could give me so much I could use. Along the way, I became a part of The Writers Studio community, made wonderful friends, and began to recognize what a blessing it is to have such strong critical support and so much good will around you no matter what stage you’re at.
LK: Do you find the format of the workshops helpful? How does it feel, not being able to respond to classmates’ or teachers’ critiques of your writing?
LD: Rules are good! I think the particular etiquette of the workshops, in terms of holding your tongue when your work is being read, is crucial. It’s natural to want to speak up and defend yourself when something so close to you is being criticized. Especially if you think someone has misunderstood your piece. But when you just sit there and try to absorb what’s being said, you’re forced to let the helpful and the unhelpful move through you freely. What you can use at any given moment sticks, the rest doesn’t. The moment you’re allowed to speak, you’re no longer listening, you’re waiting to have your say. My own breakthrough moment occurred during a master class critique. I lost my head and interrupted Philip Schultz as he criticized my piece, and he stopped me. Later, he made the point that it was exactly that defensive need to protect myself that belonged in the writing. Suddenly I understood the work I was trying to do on a completely different level.
LK: Do you find it difficult to critique other people’s writing in a workshop?
LD: No! I love looking at work through the lens of what The Writers Studio has taught me. So often what’s obvious to a reader is invisible to the writer. Giving good criticism, criticism that is helpful to the writer, is a huge responsibility and a lot of work. When you enter into another writer’s work in that complete a way, you can’t help but sharpen your antennae for your own work as well. The Writers Studio taught me a lot about the importance of generosity when you’re giving criticism–not just to praise or to offer your opinion, but to give another writer feedback she can actually use.
LK: How has the craft class helped your writing?
LD: The craft class is the wellspring of The Writers Studio. Everything flows from it. Writers are readers first. But learning how to read as a writer is a completely different animal. Listening to the craft class discussion, whether it’s fiction or poetry, is like immersing yourself in magical waters. It’s exhilarating and rejuvenating, more like a spa than a class. What that discussion allows you to see in every work, whether or not you like that work as a reader, winds up informing some aspect of your work, how you think and feel about your work, your process as a writer, your material, your story or poem ideas. In the craft class, there’s no liking or not liking, there’s only how does this artist pull this off? What does this artist have that I can use?
LK: When you feel discouraged or frustrated about your writing, what do you do to stop feeling that way?
LD: I find the best way back is through my reading. I keep certain books on my desk depending on what I’m writing. They’re like talismans. I’ll pick up something that excites me, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do. It’s crucial to reconnect to the pleasure of the writing when the demons have you by the throat.
LK: Did you ever feel like dropping out and just writing on your own?
LD: I dropped out for a couple terms when my mother died, but I came back. I think every writer thinks, at some stuck point along whatever road she happens to be on, there must be a different, speedier way. Eventually, of course, you realize there’s no shortcut, no one way. My own attitude is, it’s so so hard to be a writer that, if you’re compelled to write, how can you do it without help? I mean, you’re going to suffer. You might as well do it with like-minded souls.
LK: Thank you, Lesley.