Critical Mass

Hilma Wolitzer on Key West, Funky T-Shirts and Writer’s Block


I was down in Key West last week, among all the street chickens and the funky t-shirts (on which profanities prevail) to lead a fiction workshop at the town’s annual Literary Seminar.  This year’s theme was “New Voices: Where Have We Been?  Where Are We Going?”  They’d invited several gifted newcomers, including Uzodinma Iweala and Bich Minh Nyguyen, to read from and talk about their work, and there was high interest in multicultural experience. 

Although quite a few established writers, like Edmund White, Billy Collins, Ann Beattie, Judy Blume, and Lee Smith, were also on the program, at 77 I was probably the oldest voice around.  But because of a killer writing block, I’d let more than a decade go by between my sixth and seventh novels, so I felt oddly new again among all those aspiring younger people. 

When you haven’t written for a long time, you worry about having lost your voice in a kind of creative laryngitis.  I also found myself more than usually empathetic about the problems most beginning writers face, especially that uneasy mix of fear and ambition when your work is about to be read and judged by others. 

The dozen people in my workshop were almost all strangers to one another, which made it sort of like a pickup basketball game.  I began with my standard pronouncement that our mutual purpose was revision, not suicide, and quoted Grace Paley’s great line about trying to make one’s story “truer” rather than just better.

There was a fairly broad spectrum of talent and experience in our group.  Everyone had submitted a manuscript to be scrutinized and discussed and I was happy to note the usual blend of honesty and charity that makes for constructive criticism (which, unlike “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly” is not an oxymoron). 

After all the public talk on the subject, that elusive quality of fictional voice (Whose voice is it, anyway?  the writer’s?  the narrator’s?  Is it in the diction? Is there a distinctly gay voice, for instance? ) came up in the workshop, too. Everyone even read a couple of paragraphs aloud, so we could listen collectively to the writer’s spoken voice. 

And in a brief switch from craft to commerce, we acknowledged that publishing has changed.  The so-called midlist novel is certainly endangered, if not already dead, and it’s hardest to get attention paid to a familiar though perhaps unexciting voice.  In the end, though, the same old concerns, besides voice, still mattered, and the same old questions were asked. What’s at stake here? Do we care about the characters? Where is the ache in this story? Would we have continued reading the manuscript if we didn’t have to? 

We all agreed that even the newest, freshest voices have to satisfy the reader’s age-old desire for a narrative that’s universal and idiosyncratic at once, and that provides that famous shock of recognition. 

Though I’ve been home now for four days, a lot of the voices I heard all week in Key West, even those of the chickens and the t-shirts, are still playing in my head.—Hilma Wolitzer

photo:Deborah Copaken Kogan