Monday, March 19, 2012

Jumping In: A Reflection on the Eula Biss Workshop by Kim Pekala

Initially, I had decided not to take the Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop. Eula Biss, after all, writes creative nonfiction. The Balloonists is categorized as poetry. Neither are genres in which I often write. Besides that, I’m busy. We’re all busy. 
What changed my mind was how moved I was hearing Eula read her essay “Time and Distance Overcome” from Notes from No Man’s Land on the MFA@FAU Facebook page. I was also chided by that overly-encouraging-camp-counselor-on-a-megaphone voice in my head that tells me to take every opportunity I can, usually besting that tiny chirping voice that tells me I need take it easy every once in a while. That voice never wins. She’s also super lazy and kind of anti-social.
As I suspected, it was a busy week, but a productive one. Eula asked that we write a short piece to workshop for the class by practicing a suggested research method. I chose her first suggested method, immersion research, because I had already done the work, having recently attended AWP (an immersion to say the least, I assure you). Something was happening in that time that was scrambling in the back of my mind, something that I needed to capture, so I sat down and attempted to do so. The result was utterly displacing – first-person POV nonfiction from a fiction writer. No invention to hide behind and no frills to color the ugliness of reality. I had written the narrative equivalent of showing up to class naked – at least, from my perspective.
We were not limited to writing nonfiction, but if you’re going to practice immersion, you need to go in headfirst. To my pleasure, there was much to be learned. New ideas sparked throughout the week as we discussed the reading assignments, each other’s work, and the suggested readings Eula offered to us individually when considering our writing. Despite the fact that the class incorporated writers of all genres, the contributions and feedback were often universally helpful. As my own essay was scrutinized by my peers, they began to pull out the more emotionally-centered threads, the threads that they could empathize with… the threads I was always seeking in my fiction. Eula pointed out the places where I had moved away from myself in the story, where I had shielded what readers most wanted to see – hidden depths that sought exploration. I never realized how much I held back until I made myself the narrator.
The experience was anxiety-inducing, but revelatory, and left me with tools to make my writing better. To think I almost passed up the chance to have a bonus workshop with fresh perspectives and a chance to make a new friend in the writing world. Opportunities like these are limited, especially in this unique time we spend as writers in an MFA. When the next arises, you can be sure I’ll be the first to take the leap.

Kim Pekala is an MFA student in fiction at Florida Atlantic University.

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