I wanted the Grotto to look like a grotto: old, womb-like, a bit dank, prehistoric even. I expected it to be mildly tubercular. I pictured the San Francisco Grotto Writers' Collective in a dilapidated old Victorian sitting in a downtown alleyway in dire need of a paint job — but no, none of that. The Collective encompassed the entire 2nd floor of a steel and glass building at the corner of 2nd and Bryant, with an attempt at a row of plants in the entryway downstairs just inside the black iron gate out front. There were buzzers to get buzzed in, and once inside, a large cheerful 'Grotto' sign in script.
The second floor did seem to have a bit of the 'cave' feel. Inside, the writers' offices were, for the most part, as far from the downtown office mentality as possible. My favorites were the two closets that are rented out as writers' offices — caves indeed — and only $20/month. Picture a closet. A small closet. With a shelf as a desk, and a chair, and nothing else but yellow stickies all over the walls. Stickies so close, given the closet dimensions, that all you have to do is turn your head from side to side, and your whole storyboard is right there surrounding you. Now that's a writer's grotto!
What was I doing there? Took an all day Short Story Writing Workshop. My first (and likely last) writing workshop ever. We talked about all the normal things — writing prompts, narrators, characters, dialogue, exposition, plot, story, arc, setting, and even writer's block and marketing. There seemed to be a lot of rules to writing stories.
What did I learn? I learned that there was too much glass and steel for me and downtown vibe. I learned that I don't understand the rules of story writing. I learned that taking a workshop feels like a cooking class (or how I imagine one, anyway). It feels like cheating. Or (like everything else) like a good start for little anthropological study of writing groups.
I learned that I don't care whether dialogue subtly conveys the exposition, and that I don't care if a story arc follows the trajectory of a satisfying sexual encounter (even if that makes a story 'natural' or downright 'biological'), and I learned that I think it's sad to be motivated by the expectation of acceptance letters and the acceptance of rejection letters.
When it comes to writing, I think it's a lot more fun just to write a tale because it wants to be written. And to tell it the way it wants to be told.
I want a 'narrator' to be thoroughly untrustworthy if she feels like it, or out for himself, for his own pleasure if that's what he wants. My model here is Jean Genet in say, Our Lady of the Flowers. Where you know that he's writing in his prison cell and that they did let him write. And we're caught up in his story — and then suddenly he stops — and tells us that the piece he's just written and that we've just read has gotten him off. And because of his pleasure, he'll tell that bit again. He gets off again. And what do we get? As we read, we cannot escape our narrator's pleasure, our narrator's prison cell, our narrator's incarceration, confinement, and his ability to write himself an escape right out of his cell. We're not just in his story, we're escaping his cell with him.
I want 'characters' to go ahead and live their own lives without hope of 'redemption,' let alone resolution. I don't think they should have to try to satisfy a 'reader.' Again, Genet is a good model. His characters don't want to stay who they are. They dress up. They are impersonators of other characters trapped in the same story. There's The Maids, for example, which when performed, the maids are played by men playing women playing maids, playing their own mistress. And they're not going to get a nice, neat resolution. Genet doesn't give a shit if this troubles his reader. The reader who gets it, who gets off on it, is really the only reader he needs. And that reader is Genet himself. It was Sartre, after all, who got Genet his audience.
I don't think a story should have to care too much about clarity of 'setting.' Think Kafka or Durrenmatt. Or even Genet again (but I don't want to overdo it here with Genet). They're writing from inside some pretty terrible expressionist landscapes. We don't really need to see them; we can feel them. That's enough. And is there anything at all wrong with sticking in an extra alleyway between say, Bryant and Harrison streets? Must it be either fictional or geographical accuracy? Surely there's room for a little alleyway between? Somebody quick go tell JK Rowling that she can't squeeze Diagon Alley into the heart of London.
Then there's the 'arc,' that nice satisfying arc. I think of North African folk tales. No happily ever after or perfect little story arc there. No, our protagonist learns that life is tough, and just gets tougher and that she can or can't endure it. Or that the prince is the real villain. Or that the villain is really your uncle. Or that your uncle is about to be your father-in-law. Or that your father-in-law is really a sorcerer ... who takes the form of a prince... Or that there is no transformation, no reward, no escape, you're just trapped — get used to it. It's probably a good thing to know.
I learned that I can't just make stuff up. My own 'characters' all exist already, and at least somebody knows them. They've been walking through our consciousnesses for millennia. Avram and Sarai and Hager and the whole dysfunctional mischpaha, for example. And when I write them, they are already fully alive, fully formed, simply going where I send them on the page, getting themselves into trouble, just as they always have.
What I've learned is that I'll never be able to write fiction. I'll only ever be able to just tell a tale. Exactly as it happened.