On the first day of class Nick Flynn told us a story about his daughter. She had said something funny that morning about the hotel pool. It was poetry, he claimed, from a four year-old. Initially, this annoyed me. Doesn’t every father think what his kid says is poetry? However, it was soon clear that he had the same kind of wide-eyed love for everyone’s work. After we read our poetry aloud he always seemed to find something uniquely satisfying in it. He always seemed to be able to pinpoint the “energy” of the piece. What I found surprising in this was that I actually believed him. His comments were genuine. His appreciation was sincere.
As a result of this, I felt a distinct freedom to write whatever came to mind. In the Nick Flynn workshop, I had the liberty to write carelessly. “Write faster than you can think,” Flynn told us during an in-class writing assignment. He claimed that the images that appeared from this type of quick writing were the images that would become novels, memoirs, and poetry collections. Our hurried scribbles were given power. So it seems that when students are given the freedom to write “badly,” it might also give them the freedom to write well.
This observation offers an invigorating paradox. No doubt, writers are often told to write recklessly, but when are they given the chance? And even after writing something that pushes the envelope of clarity or good taste, how often are they admonished for these attempts? In this way, perhaps the fiction and poetry that enters the graduate and undergraduate workshops is subconsciously edited for literary palatability. Like it or not, there is a certain sense of intimidation when a writer sits down to write knowing that twelve of his peers will be reviewing his work with itchy trigger fingers. In order to avoid this, as critics of our peers’ work, we should strive to make the workshop less of a place in which “literary rules” are enforced—a practice that might result in safe, quiet, ‘oh so precious’ literary output—and more of a space in which artists are given the leeway to fail. We might not see as many adequate workshop stories, but we might be able to witness art in its most natural, triumphant form.
All week long, Flynn was ingratiated with his daughter’s love of jelly packets. In our free writing sessions, he wrote about them often. “Jelly packets, little jelly packets,” he would say. “Haven’t seen them in years, those little jelly packets.” In his writing that week the jelly packets turned into coffins. From their peel-able tops sprung angels. He never worried about us thinking him trite. He wasn’t worried about the red pen of the workshop. And we took his word for it. By the end of the week, I thought jelly packets absolutely profound.
Donovan Ortega is a first year MFA student at FAU. He lives in Boca Raton with a cat named Og Mandino. He's pretty sure everything's going to work out.