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Zachariah Wells. Workshop Lessons, [published in Quill & Quire, January 2005]

Workshop Lessons

I doubt that any writer in his or her right mind would deny that they can and have derived benefit from criticism of their work and from the positive examples of other writing. And who better to provide such constructive criticism and exemplary craft than other writers? This must be the pedagogical cornerstone of the Creative Writing industry, this must be why aspiring scribes line up for admission to programmes taught by experienced ones. I can't deny that I myself have derived benefit from both the example and instruction of other writers, both within a collegial setting and outside of it. But surrounding oneself with writers can be damaging, too. It is altogether too easy, in the company of wordsmiths, to lose sight of things that matter to people other than writers and thereby produce texts that might appeal to writers but not much to other people. And while writers might have the best tools for criticism of writers, they also know best how much strong criticism, however well intended, can hurt one's feelings, how those tools can feel like weapons, and therefore might withhold their strongest critiques, with the apologetic aside that "maybe it's not their writing that's off; maybe I'm just not into what they're doing." And there is always the danger that, by too much intermingling and mutual critique, writers will come to resemble each other far more closely than is good for the evolutionary survival of the species called literature.

In my development as a writer, I've found it useful to surround myself with people who haven't the least interest in my vocation. For the better part of seven years, during the composition and compilation of my first book of poems, I worked as an airline cargo handler in the chunk of ice and rock now known as Nunavut. It would be a gross mischaracterization of my cargo colleagues to call them illiterate goons (though this seemed to be a fundamental assumption of the people who ran the company). Many of them read, if not the great works of Western Civ. (though I caught one guy reading Plato's Republic on a break), at least novels and non-fiction and newspapers. One of my supervisors had an unfinished novel in his desk drawer, about which we spoke very little. And many of those who read less than others were possessed of intelligence and sense regrettably uncommon in graduate school seminars.

Very few of my fellow cargonians read very few of my poems. Many of them were unaware that I spent my spare time with iambs and dactyls and trochees. Some would no doubt have thought my interest in poetry a particularly feminine one, far inferior to hunting moose and other big game. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal about writing from these guys; the warehouse and cargo holds of aircraft were my CW workshop. From Wilfred Hughes, who told me one badly hungover morning that I looked like I'd just chased a fart through a bag of nails, and from Dan Rintoul, who told me about moonshine that tasted like old cunts and boxing gloves, I learned the vitality of vernacular speech and the illuminating power of a well-built metaphor. From Clifford Collins I learned the concussive power of spondaic stress clumping and assonance each time he called me a stunned cunt—lessons I would learn often and would only relearn from G.M. Hopkins and Dylan Thomas later. From Scott Deacon, I learned the value of revision each time he started tearing apart what looked like a perfectly serviceable stack-job in order to rebuild it very slightly better. From Paul Kuhn, who referred to his bed as the fartsac and to his aftershave as whore-allure I learned the joy of Anglo-Saxon kennings, long before I read Beowulf. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned from the stories these guys would tell, usually well in their cups, true-life stories of inner conflict, physical pain, abuse, wrong turns, family schisms, to eschew triviality in my own narratives. Unless, of course, I could be trivial and funny at the same time. In no other place have I encountered such a range of jokes, both verbal and physical.

And so it was a source of no small satisfaction to me when "Biker" Bob Richer, after reading my poems in a self-published chapbook, told me that I was telling the truth and no matter how ugly it was, it beat the hell out of a dozen pretty lies. Neither Alden Nowlan nor Irving Layton could have put it better. There were many technical aspects of craft I had yet to acquire and could only hope to learn from reading the masters, but I knew then that there are some failings for which no amount of well-honed technique can compensate.

Even now, when I'm in the thick of revision, I can hear the voices of the toughest critics to never read my work telling me where I've gone wrong. Where I get prolix and bogged down in awkward syntax, I hear Joe Power goading "T-t-t-t-t'day, junior!" Where I say something obvious in an unoriginal manner, I feel Clifford cuffing the back of my head, telling me not be so damn mentally lazy. Where I've found myself indulging in purple poeticism, I imagine Brett or Brad Gunsinger, twin brothers and both masters of dry sarcasm, arching their eyebrows and saying, "Oh, you think so, do you?" Whenever I catch myself thinking that a poem's finished, I think of Scotty's perfectionism and pride in a job more than well done (which pride, I discovered once, extended to penmanship that would put most of us chronic typists to shame), and go in hunt of stray syllables and superfluous punctuation. And if I find myself straying from what I know to be true in the direction of something more palatable or politically correct, I have only to look up from the draft and see Biker Bob shaking his mullet and I know that I have to fail better. For as long as I worked for the airline—which paid my way through an English degree while it paved the way out of an academic career—someone or other was always bugging me to write a book about the place. They instinctively knew a good story when they lived it. I rarely told them that I was doing just that, I suppose fearing that it might create a barrier between me and my friends. Now that I've finished that book, now that I'm no longer slugging boxes and beers with some of the toughest, funniest, smartest people I've known, I just hope that if any of them happen to read it, that they can forgive its flaws and the small lies told in the interest of a greater truth—and I hope that they're not disappointed.

Zachariah Wells' works copyright © to the author.

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