I felt trepidatious about our first workshopping session with Prof Margaret Atwood yesterday, as her session with the other group had taken the wind out of their sails a bit. Perhaps she was in a bad mood that time, or perhaps they were taken aback by her quite direct questions about their pieces. I do suspect that we are all quite complacent nowadays. The terror that accompanied the beginning of this course has more or less evaporated as we’ve got to know one another and hit our creative stride. Perhaps we are all too much of a gang, too comfortable, and this is why being questioned so bluntly by an outsider might feel jarring. I think it is probably good to experience this doubt and terror about one’s work every once in a while. Better than stagnating. But this is all very well for me to say, I haven’t been workshopped by her yet.
Anyway, the workshop – to my mind, anyway – was lots of fun. Naomi Alderman was there too, basically the whole novel-writing world seems to be a coterie of literary aunts. Alderman and Atwood, being great mates, treated their whistlestop assessment of each piece as a jumping-off point for a good chortle or a semi-relevant anecdote: ‘OK, do you want to hear about the weirdest funeral I ever went to?’
It was fun. It wasn’t the sort of workshop session we’ve been trained up in so far, in that we weren’t really expected to contribute much criticism ourselves (there just wasn’t time), but I feel that they were generous with their thoughts, recommendations and even questions. It was a constructive questioning, I thought: it was about getting a measure of how rigorously you’d planned and imagined your piece, and whether you could stand by the choices you’d made. It’s unpleasant to have your ignorance/uncertainty exposed, but it’s something to build on and I don’t think she was ever unkind in this session. In fact I was struck by how unquestioningly she took everybody seriously as an author/creator. It would be very easy for authors like Atwood, Ishiguro, and Susan Hill to be dismissive of people who want to be writers – they must meet thousands of us – and therefore it’s very very classy when they don’t.