Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tom Sleigh and Writing without Rules

Because I am in my final semester of grad school, Tom Sleigh is the second and last Sander’s Writer-in-Residence whom I will have the pleasure of taking an additional workshop with as part of the MFA program. After I graduate in May, I will enter a whole new realm of writing — the realm of writing outside the workshop. And Sleigh’s workshop, while still nestled under the umbrella of the workshop and still safely away from the storm of real world writing, provided a good starting point for considering what writing can be outside the workshop setting.

Workshops create their own guidelines for how to achieve that level of writing that members of the literati would consider “good.” In a way, this is a necessary part of teaching writing. How can you help students improve their writing if you can’t point to what is “good” and what is — in the euphemism of the workshop — “weak,” then give those students strategies for taking the “weak” and making it “good”? However, in trying to guide students toward “good” writing, the workshop gives advice that is picked up and parroted by students until by virtue of repetition it becomes a rule, an impermeable boundary.

In Nonfiction workshop, one of the most common rules is that personal essays and memoirs should be written from a place of emotional distance. In theory, this principle allows writers to analyze their lives with clarity and logic. And it gives them the time and context to understand the importance of a life event and clarify that importance for the reader. However, it also leads to a lot of writing about half-remembered events, and a lot of writing that avoids the messiest aspects of human emotion. There are times when writing from that place of immediate emotional turmoil could produce stronger and more engaging work. But because emotional turmoil doesn’t usually produce stronger writing, “emotional distance” has become one of those repeated rules of nonfiction writing, and it is a rule that nearly everyone adheres to.

During Tom Sleigh’s workshop, we were asked to break all of our rules. Sleigh asked us to look at our writing and consider our process — the rules we’ve set for ourselves or heard touted in workshop and adopted — and to do the opposite of what we would normally do. For people who normally write from a place of logic, try writing from a place of emotion. For people who normally write minimalist prose, try writing as a maximalist. If there is a subject you avoid, why? If there is a subject you always return to, find something else. Sleigh’s workshop was a process of undoing what we have done to our writing in previous workshops and remembering that with each piece we write, we must sit down and decide for ourselves what form it will take and what rules will help or hinder the piece — Is this a piece that will benefit from emotional turmoil or emotional distance? Only the writer can decide. Because in writing, there are no rules, only decisions. Every writer has the privilege of deciding what form will benefit her piece, with or without the consensus of the workshop.  

Shari Lefler is an MFA student, focused on Literary Non-Fiction at Florida Atlantic University.  She was born and raised in Boca Raton, FL, where she spends her spare time trying to cuddle with her dog, which spends its spare time trying to escape her grasp.