Venn and the Art of Workshop

by Gail Jeidy

The rain plip plops into the deep puddle and I’m counting ripples. Concentric circles. Venn diagrams. Twin panes of institutional glass separate me from the sinkhole in the parking strip. I have a clear vantage point from my corner spot at the table.

This New England university conference room is a Venn diagram. We are six writers plus a mentor, seven circles of ideas/experience/sensibility in an MFA writing workshop. The mentor’s circle rests on a slightly elevated plane. This is a low-residency program; we come together twice a year to discuss one another’s work while the writer stays silent. Each residency our group is different. Each residency, like lily pads on a pond, some of our circles overlap while others don’t touch.

The past two writing workshops I sat beside the honey blonde with the red cap (I’ll call her Bobby) and faced the vanilla-colored wall. Both days, Bobby slung her canvas bag over her chair, settled in, raised her chin and commenced chatting to whomever would listen. Today, when she claimed her chair, the one with its back to the window, I was settled in the chair opposite. Today, when I tire of her seamless shower of words, I will look beyond the empty seat beside her and watch the outdoors.

Outside, a red car pulls up, dims the puddle reflection and erases my ripples.

Inside, Bobby talks. The past two afternoons, she’s talked. My rough guess is ninety percent of the time she talks. This could be exaggeration. Maybe it’s eighty-five. But today, one hour in, there’s no sign of her letting up. She’s attractive/smart/knows literature. She has a keen eye/clear speech/high energy. The others respect her. Or they’re hiding. Maybe they didn’t read the manuscript. Bobby’s lips keep moving and her shirt is too low. All eyes on Bobby. The mentor doesn’t intervene. My eyes want to bust loose and roll.

The clock is left of the window. I divert my eyes to check the time because I can: I picked a good seat. Simultaneously, I can look outside and clock Bobby between crescendos of syllables. If I was a talker, I’d say, “Okay students, on today’s docket: the science of lulls. How big a lull is big enough to jump in? Two syllables, three? It’s clear some of us need a larger pause than others. Introverts and polite folk for example. And maybe hand-raisers for whom the downbeat on an accent is not sufficient. Let’s consider regional differences too. How long of a lull do people from LA/Chicago/New York need? Topeka? How much more if you drawl?”

Am I the only one struggling here? Perhaps a coughing fit could incite a caesura.

Bobby’s thin lips pause, giving room for someone to jump in. My wager’s on the Boston girl with the baseball cap. Too late. Whoosh, bang, Bobby’s words ricochet again, verbally diagramming and dissecting the rat-a-tat-tat of a 30-page manuscript in front of her, pinpointing each passage by memory.

“The wife who works in the ad agency — I’d like to know if she does magazine ads, websites, brochures, video or some form of new media. I have a friend who worked in an agency and I know she only got to do certain kinds of work and certain levels of clients. Plus she was the kind of person who cried watching commercials because she was so struck by their beauty.” Bobby chuckles. “Is that this character?”

I cry watching commercials. I could be this character. Actually, she’s talking about my character.

It’s a rhetorical question. Bobby doesn’t wait for an answer.

Ten, twenty minutes of analysis pass and we move on to the next piece. It’s a loose, mosaic form, which trips Bobby and triggers a storm. “The characters in general confuse me. I mean who are all these men? I count seven. Mark, Mike, Phillip, Sam, Daniel, Devin, and Ramon. I don’t really understand why they’re here since they never come back in the story.”

The mentor expands on Bobby’s observations, affirming how “it’s clear the writer needs to make some choices.” The others sit in a spectral cluster, nodding in what appears to be a somnambulatory trance. I’m not counting sheep or male characters. I didn’t think we needed to remember names.

Bobby continues. “This guy, Daniel, in the shower, now he’s really confusing. I mean it is a compelling moment with the large penis and all, but I don’t really get it. Is this simply there for arousal? And I mean why is Mark even mentioned if the only thing he does is throw the orange against the wall. Is he vandalizing, showing off or making art? And what does art mean to him? And then Shane, I guess that makes eight men, who is he and why does he wake up and find Phillip where his pillow should be? Exactly what happened in the space break? It’s not clear. What does the writer want us to think?”

Hmmmmm.

I’m hypnotized by the continuous stream from Bobby. How can she do that without a drink of water? Don’t her lips get dry? I’ve lost track of time. I forgot to watch the clock — and the puddle. I’d like to comment, but whatever I’m thinking and feeling seems random. I like horseradish Havarti cheese although the fresh mozzarella was good at lunch and the presentation with the alfalfa was special. I’m failing to contribute in a meaningful way here. The Boston woman on Bobby’s left breaks through.

“I can smell the orange,” she says.

So can I.

There’s a beat where the room takes in the sense of smell and everyone breathes in unison like a herd of cows nestled in straw on a frosty winter’s night.

Then the quiet man on Bobby’s right seizes his chance and reads a few lines of well-crafted dialogue between the main character and the homeless guy, Harry, on page fifteen. His reading is halting but the lines sing.

The southern musician chic next to me with the pierced nose and cropped hair follows. “The language throughout this is so lovely.” Her voice lilts. “I want to hear these words again and again,” she swoons.

The red car is gone now and my ripples are back. It’s a sign.

Bobby’s coursing down another channel but I’m not defeated. I jump and go for it, clipping her train of thought. “In terms of the big picture, the Green Knight comes up five times in this story. I’m not sure what it means but it seems significant,” I say. I look to the pale woman who hasn’t said anything but she doesn’t look back.

A nanosecond pause, then Bobby’s back. “We all understand the Green Knight is meant to symbolize nature and rebirth. That’s clear. Incidentally, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are distinctly different kinds of characters. The writer uses them interchangeably. You can see this on page twelve and twenty-three and again on page twenty-five, second to last graph, last line. ”

A second red car — I’m not imagining this — pulls up alongside my puddle and suddenly my ripples are gone again. Apparently I’m the only one who hasn’t read Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. And I might as well come clean: “The Sound and The Fury” annoyed the hell out of me. I’m analyzing what this says about ‘the literary me’ as the din of Bobby’s words drone on like a tuning fork too close to my ear. The group turns the page.

The second red car is gone and a dark sedan takes its place. A door opens on the passenger side. A woman gets out. She takes a long time to exit. She’ll step over my puddle. Characters always do. But this one doesn’t. She steps into the puddle with her white suede boot. The boot has a thick orthopedic sole. I watch her forward momentum. Her other boot has a thin crepe sole. She limps to the sidewalk. She looks up and I see a flash of humanity – pure struggle — on her face before she drags her leg out of my picture. She looked right at me. There’s definitely a metaphor here. I see a swollen dirty white speck floating in my puddle. It’s a cigarette butt, I think.

The pause in the room opens wide and I claim it. “My favorite part is the elephant in the park. I don’t know why. I just really, really like the elephant in the park,” I say in the three seconds before the lull floats away.


 

Venn_Jeidy_Photo_lg-300x300Gail Jeidy of Portland, Oregon has made her living as a writer for over two decades, crafting ads and scripts to promote selfless corporations, amazing products, and incredible services. Six years ago, her work became less about fulfilling client needs and more about fulfilling her own.

Gail started school in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Wisconsin. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Art and Speech at the University of Wisconsin where she also did graduate work in Television and Film. She earned her MFA from the creative writing program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2010. Gail’s work experiences have taught her how to pick string beans, frame pictures, build department store displays, teach kids’ art, produce TV promotions, and write for film producer Stanley Kramer. She currently teaches scriptwriting at Portland Community College. Gail painted a mural on her dad’s barn when she was 21. Her son taught her to appreciate Hip Hop last year and she plans to do yoga, someday. Gail’s writing credits include features, commentaries, essays and fiction for magazines, newspapers, and web media. She writes essays, screenplays, poems, short stories, and short plays. Her novel, The Truth About Rocks, is currently seeking a home.

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