Profile: Eileen Pollack
M.F.A., Iowa 1983
Eileen Pollack on the Workshop
If my workshops have an overriding theme, it's that I want the authors of the stories or novels we consider to be told everything they need to be told, in ways they can hear and use. Since I am unable to listen to criticisms of my own work unless my critics first acknowledge what I've done well - even if I've done hardly anything well - I assume other writers are the same way. I also think that writers who are just starting out aren't always sure of what they're doing right, or why it's working. Someone takes a risk, and no one comments on how well that risk succeeded, so the person never tries that again. If writers figure out what works, they will do that thing more regularly. So, even though it sometimes seems Polyanna-ish, we always start by talking about what's working in a piece.
Then we move on to a descriptive phase in which we discuss the story or novel as a piece of literature. What do we know about the characters and their struggles? What is the writer trying to get us to feel or think as we read? Which scenes or meditative passages are particularly moving or provocative or original or funny or vivid? What is satisfying about the story? What are the strengths of the voice and style?
Finally, we discuss ways in which the writer might make the story or novel stronger, more effective, deeper…. I tend to be more prescriptive than a lot of teachers; I hate to think that a writer will go home knowing that his/her story is too X, as we've pointed out, but not have a clue as to how to solve that problem and make it less X and more Y. No one has to follow the workshop's advice, but I do urge people to get specific in providing possible solutions to the problems we've discussed. I try to give a lot of examples as to how a writer goes home and approaches a specific kind of revision. No matter what anyone says or does, most writers who've just had a story workshopped feel as if they've been punched in the gut. My goal is that by evening's end, all the students in the class go home feeling as if they've learned something about writing, and the authors of the pieces we've discussed feel able to struggle to their feet and go home, increasingly excited about the prospect of making their stories and novels better.
Each student is required to put up a completely new story or novel excerpt for workshop once a term, and a second story/excerpt that can either be new work or a revision. A third story is required, with the understanding that the writer will use this as an opportunity to take a risk so audacious that merely to contemplate it makes him or her queasy. This story will be seen only by me. Even if it bombs, the student's grade won't be affected, so long as he/she tried something new and important and scary. I ask each student to bring in a question of craft or content that is truly perplexing him/her at that moment, and we discuss that issue as a group; most times we meet, we also discuss a published story or two.
A Writing Excerpt from Eileen Pollack
This excerpt is from "Past, Future, Elsewhere," the first story in The Rabbi in the Attic. The narrator is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives a few miles from Bethel, New York, and is hiding in her basement to avoid the mobs of kids who have descended on her town for the music festival called Woodstock.
"All week the newspaper had been lurid with photos of the naked barbarians who had overrun our town - sunbathing on car hoods, dancing to music at this 'festival' of theirs - but an inky strip covered each interesting part, like a gag on a mouth. I scraped at those boxes, even turned the page over to see from the other side what was masked on the front. I felt the reporters had found out my future and printed it here, but blotted out the facts I most wanted to know. At the same time I wished that every inch of those bodies had been blacked with ink…."
Later, she allows herself to be lured outside by three kids who want her to show them a place to swim away from the crowds. She goes with them, and is particularly fascinated by a shaggy, overweight young physicist who is wearing a jumpsuit. In the excerpt below, he begins to take it off so he can go skinnydipping with his friends."'I won't look,' I promised, though I found when he started to pull down his zipper I couldn't turn away. As he stepped from the jump suit I expected to see a heavy black rectangle blocking his crotch. Instead, what I saw was my first naked man, layered in fur so he seemed like an animal, a burly brown bear. Poking from the pouch that hung between his legs was a separate little animal - a baby, a pet, like a baby kangaroo peeking out shyly and waving its arm. And what I felt then wasn't love at first sight, but my first sight of love, of what it could mean to love someone else, a stranger, not family, and how risky this was, loving a pitifully weak, naked man."
Fiction, creative nonfiction.
Contemporary American literature; science and literature; women and science; religion and literature; multicultural U.S. literature; Jewish American literature; the theory and practice of teaching creative writing.