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Thomas Wolfe Wasn’t Kidding: In Praise of Writing Workshops

diveby Stacey Donovan

“You can’t go home again.”

The words linger: “You can’t go home again.” . . . Not if you write, and not if you have a family.

Somewhere between the fourth and fifth drafts of my first novel, Dive, I began attending a writing workshop. I had just sold the book, a coming-of-age story that my editor and I saw as a crossover title—one that would reach both teen and adult readers. Not being very clever, I agreed to read aloud my first night in class. That was the format: three or four people read up to fifteen pages; everyone listened; a discussion followed. Until then, my only audience had been my editor, hence the latest rewrite.

I read from a chapter in which Virginia, or V, my fifteen-year-old heroine, is looking back at an episode in her childhood. It’s summer, and her family is driving to the beach. Occurring late in the book, it’s a pivotal scene from which the book’s title comes, in which V learns, at the hand of her father, a memorable lesson about life.

There’s nothing quite like the silence of a room full of writers. They are much less like a hushed and anticipatory audience than a legion of hawks circling an unsuspecting songbird nest, and when they finally speak, you long for that silence again.

“My daughter is fifteen and she doesn’t sound like that. V’s voice is too old,” John said.

“The writing is good, but I want details: How hot was it that day? Was the water rough or calm? What else was happening?” Betty said.

“When they’re in the car, you bring up hard-boiled eggs. Then they just disappear. What happened to the eggs?” Harriet asked.

Did I hear someone say the writing was good? They dismantled the chapter—each scene, the sentences, the details. What happened to the eggs? I was hooked.

I made my way through the fifth draft, feeling alternately elated and suicidal. I’d get stuck and question everything, wonder how I’d ever find my way to the end. What had made me think I could write a book?

Fortunately, I had encouragement and guidance from my editor. And I was able to weigh her comments against those of the workshop participants. I also made a few discoveries. Among them was finding how hard it is not to believe that a patch of dialogue is dull or that a chapter is too long when someone says as much and twenty heads nod in unison. I found that no matter how many times the correct usages of lay/lie and I/me are patiently explained, I can’t grasp them. “Me don’t know what else to tell you,” they said.

So in this room full of writers I learned how to laugh at my limitations as a writer, and later, more essentially, as myself. I didn’t know it then, but learning to laugh would have everything to do with Dive.

In the book, one of several recurring images—initially brought to my attention by my editor—is of V’s throat, in which words and feelings are constantly stuck. She is often swallowing truths, wherein new and painful realizations reside. She becomes aware that feelings, as they arise in her throat, find expression there. As V’s creator, I had to ask myself everything the image meant and then use that meaning to its best effect.

Personally, the image began to embody the question of whether I, as a writer, was going to tell the truth. I would. Then, how much of the truth would I tell? How, too, would I answer other people’s questions: “How much of it is true?” “What made you write the book?” “How is a book for adolescents different from a book for adults?”

How much truth would I tell? That answer was easy. All of it, because I was writing fiction and could thereby remain in the shadow of what was really real. All of it, because I really had experienced the loss of a father to a fatal disease, the loss of a mother as she progressively left a sober reality for an alcoholic one, the experience of losing one friend and then finding another—astoundingly, to fall in love with.

What compelled me to write the book? That question was also simple to answer. The books that had gripped me as an early adolescent were The Red Badge of Courage, Johnny Get Your Gun, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment—stories of battles, blood, despair. They say to write what you know. What did I know of crime? I’d never been to war, never committed a crime. I knew only the crimes of my family, the war of becoming myself. Card catalogs antedated computers, before which I’d stood in my pubescent angst, searching under A for alcoholism, under H for homosexual, under L for lesbian. I didn’t find the catalog references; there were no books.

At fifteen, I knew that my parents drank more than other people’s parents, were dangerous and unpredictable when they did. And I fell in love with the new girl in town. I wrote Dive in part because I remembered myself at fifteen, losing a battle against my mother’s drunken despair and being alone, with no words to guide me, in that dark reality. I also remembered the exquisite loneliness of falling in love with another girl, knowing by the thick silence surrounding that love that something about it was supposedly wrong.

So I wanted someone else—especially a teen who might be having a similar experience—to be able to find a book in the card catalog (now we call it Google) under those subjects. By now, of course, there are many. Still more are needed.

The Library of Congress catalogs Dive as being about family life; brothers and sisters; friendship; death; lesbians; alcoholism; and dogs. Seeing “dogs” in that list has always made me smile. Dive is about a small black shadow of a dog. And about the shadows separating truth from fiction.

How much of the book is true? When I was a kid, we had a dog named Lucky. He was a little black mutt. In Dive, there’s a little black mutt named Lucky. In the book, I created an explanation for his name by way of a memory in which V and her parents choose a dog at the local pound. Her father asks, “Which one?” and V points to the little black shadow in the corner. When they see the dog V has chosen, her mother announces that German shepherds are good watchdogs and that maybe they should get one of those. Accepting V’s choice, her father laughs and says, “I’d say he was a pretty lucky dog.” That’s when V says, “Lucky, let’s go, boy.” Not only does the dog get named, but the conflict between mother and daughter is set in place. V recalls that moment, which occurred eight years prior to the time the story takes place, just after Lucky has been injured by a hit-and-run driver, which is how the book begins.

How much of that conflict between mother and daughter is real, and how much of fiction is really wish fulfillment? At first, I worried that the workshop would find the scene lacking in suspense, unbelievable, even melodramatic. They didn’t. It was only me, worrying over the idea that what happens in life does not necessarily translate into lifelike fiction.

For it was just as true that there’d been a real dog named Lucky in my life and that he’d been run over one dewy morning in the suburbs when I was about eleven. It was just as true that I held the bleeding, shivering little bundle in my arms in the car seat next to a stranger who’d witnessed the accident and was kind enough to drive us to the vet, because nobody else in my family was home. It was just as true that the vet and this stranger had waited while I spoke to my mother at work from the vet’s phone, and that I began to choke back tears and my feet froze, and that the vet lifted the phone from my hand. But then fact and fiction diverge.

In the book, the vet said “around five hundred dollars,” but in life he’d said three hundred. In the book, the vet tried to smile when he said Lucky was going to sleep. In life, he’d grimaced and wouldn’t even look at me. I didn’t really understand what was happening. The stranger tried to hug me, and I pushed him away. I was cold, hard as frozen ground. The vet’s voice was sharp when he’d said, “Hold the dog.” My hands were already rubbing Lucky’s ears when the vet slid a large needle under Lucky’s fur. I was numb. Three hundred dollars.

In Dive, V says, “She won’t pay? Fine. I can pay, if you’ll let me work for you.” In life, I never said that. I was mute, numb, trauma personified, all of eleven. All I could do was stand there and watch my dog die.

Sometimes fiction is wish fulfillment. In Dive, Lucky lived. Yet without the incident in life, Dive would have been a different book. In the story, Lucky’s convalescence is the means by which V steps away from her immediate experience and begins to observe and ultimately discover the sources of her mother’s trauma. It’s the moment that she begins to separate from the innocence of her own childhood and turn a maturing eye to her experience.

So can we hope that fiction sometimes acts as a salve for the truth? At that moment, when fiction fulfilled a wish that reality had denied, I certainly did. Perhaps that’s one reason so many of us are willing to climb the stairs to the workshop each week and bare some part of ourselves to each other with our words.

There’s one question more: How is a book for teens different from one for adults? The adult in me muses over an answer, while my adolescent voice shouts, There is no difference! The adult is silent. I’m satisfied.

What happened when Dive was published was that my family stopped speaking to me. Each person had a different reason, but I felt it coming like a storm rising. They were scared. They had thought I might tell. And I did.

As hard as a chain is to break, it begs to be broken. There exists a genetic chain of alcoholism in my family. One of its rules is that nobody speaks about it, dares to tell the truth. In Dive, I told that truth, breaking the rule, breaking the chain of silence.

Having done so, I’ve discovered that there’s a silence louder and sharper than the one death carries—the silence of the living. Years have passed since I’ve communicated with my family, been included in the connections, the information passed between relatives. Each week I leave that silence and climb the stairs to the workshop, where I hear other voices, other truths, being written and discussed. Sometimes I just close my eyes and listen. Friends in the workshop have no idea what they mean to me; sometimes there are no words.

The first draft of Dive was written long ago, but it was then that my father’s only brother, John Donovan, himself a pioneer for having written the first novel for teenagers in which two boys fall in love, said to me, “You’ll have to decide, when this book is published, how much it’ll bother you when your family stops speaking to you.”

I really didn’t understand what he meant then. I do now. You can go home again, but only if you’re willing to leave forever.

Stacey Donovan

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