The Workshop as Phenomenon

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Marilynne Robinson’s heartening commentary on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, its cultural heritage, and its contribution to the flowering of American literary history. As I prepare to enter the Workshop myself (and as informal celebration of its 76th anniversary), I thought I’d share that memorable speech here. It ought to give everyone something to smile about.

(If you’re running short on time, things really get cooking around the 12-minute mark.)

Marilynne Robinson’s latest collectionWhen I Was a Child I Read Books, is available here.

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YOUR WEEKLY highlight reel

Regina Spektor has a new album out, and in some ways, it’s her best yet. It won’t be available for purchase until tomorrow, but you can preview the entire thing here.

As promised, the second installment of AD Jameson’s provocative commentary on Viktor Shklovsky and the devices operating in contemporary fiction.

Strange fruit for thought: A podcast that examines the spookier aspects of our ability to make truth.

What I’m reading next: David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. Recommended to me repeatedly this year, it should make the perfect foil to this film, which we’d all do well to watch ASAP.

Helpful, hopefully: Poets & Writers‘ most recently updated list of literary agents.

Dish of the week: Buddha’s delight. Here’s one of many takes on it.

This is inscrutable: Yet so, so compelling.


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Film Studies: Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods

Last night, over dinner at a friend’s apartment, I found myself locked in an hour-long conversation about Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. It’s easily the fifth such chat I’ve had since I went to see the movie two weeks ago, and I get the feeling it won’t be the last. Every writer I know loves to talk about it.

It’s difficult to write cogently about The Cabin in the Woods without revealing the narrative secret that makes it such a pleasure to watch. In the interest of no spoilers, I’ll say this: the movie takes a self-conscious approach to the art of story-making, one whose thoughtful admixture of frankness and irony casts a refreshing light on the horror film genre. It is, without the nasty horde of pretension that this term sometimes ushers in, meta-textual. And on top of that, it’s funny as hell.

But what I think engages writers in particular about The Cabin in the Woods is its take on the creative process. Sometimes, we all feel like conduits: we’re the stressed-out, pajama-clad heathens who serve as intermediaries between the scintillating projects we drum up in our minds and their lackadaisical kissing cousins, the words that actually make it to the page. We work hard. But if all goes well, our travails are invisible. The writer’s day-to-day finger-pecking becomes the silent choreography of a hand that molds (and occasionally destroys) another person’s dreams. It’s a fundamental tenet of authorship—at our best, we’re lost.

The Cabin in the Woods explodes the motive of the conventional horror movie—complete immersion in a spookified world—to examine the idea of where that impetus to fall into a narrative comes from. What void in our lives demands to be filled with story, with characters that fit into certain archetypes, with suspense?

To Drew Goddard’s mind, the answer to this question lies in the hands of an angry god. As the college-aged protagonists of The Cabin in the Woods struggle to survive a series of expertly choreographed onslaughts, a team of ravenous, man-eating deities (a nice chunk of mythology, themselves) waits underground to drink their blood in sacrifice. If the horror narrative doesn’t play out correctly, the gods surge forth from their subterranean lair to end the world. It’s a tall order, but the unappeasable deities aren’t working alone. They’ve recruited help in fulfilling the commandments of their story. They’ve managed to find intermediaries like us.

It could well be said that authors are the greatest escape artists of all time. From a young age, most of us have made a habit of immersing ourselves in stories not our own, of hopping from personality to personality and place to place on a rushing torrent of narrative. To some, this may seem like a potentially lucrative way to avoid actually living. But as The Cabin in the Woods exemplifies, what we do is less an act of self-avoidance than one of self-preservation.

Most good writers of fiction I’ve met describe some sort of compelling force behind their work, a sense of obligation that transcends petty consciousness and usually demands that they speak of their process in imperatives: “I have to write tonight.” (This is typically said with the unencumbered urgency of, “I have to go to the bathroom.” A recurring bodily fact.)

But this “have to” is, at its purest, less the product of an oncoming deadline or a bolt of sudden ecstasy (we’re not “Eureka!” people) than it is the response to a constant thrumming, the knock of the gods on our rusted office door, reminding us that we’d best put down that beverage and get back to work. It’s occasionally threatening. But the consistency of this presence—the raging, story-thirsty divinities kicking around in our brain’s basement—keeps us doing what we do. And just as Goddard’s intermediaries work ceaselessly to keep every detail of their immaculate horror story intact, so we compose and revise and rewrite, hoping never to witness the outstretched hand of that vengeful narrative god, ripping through the flesh of the worlds we’ve created.

(For more reviews of The Cabin in the Woods, check here, here, and here.)

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YOUR WEEKLY highlight reel

Album you shouldn’t go another minute without downloading: Fear Fun, by Father John Misty. Equal parts contemplative and reckless, a perfect way to measure out the waning days of spring. Exemplary tracks can be found here, here, and here.

Thoughts on craft that whir and sing: Best writing-related article I’ve read in a while. If you like it, look out for the second installment on htmlgiant next week!

To read over the long weekend: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, by Etgar Keret. You can find my thoughts on this collection in the upcoming issue of the Indiana Review

A podcast to soothe the soul: Pop legend Phil Collins gives writer Starlee Kine advice on composing the perfect break-up ballad.  A testament to the palliative effects of art.

An intimate moment with David Lynch: I want to follow him down this road, but I don’t know if I’m ready.

Homework: Writing contests with upcoming deadlines, courtesy of Poets & Writers.

What’s for dinner: This.

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When One Life Just Isn’t Enough

One thing I have in common with almost every other writer I know is the greed to live, that gnawing hunger to soak in as much of the spectrum of human experience as possible before we shed this mortal coil and are reduced to a smattering of witty headstones. It’s a must for the profession, I think–to take such fascination with the breadth of what life can offer us that we spend our entire time on this earth attempting to hunt it down with language.

Sarah Kay is a breathtaking spoken-word poet and the founder of Project V.O.I.C.E. In this short performance/lecture, she revitalized my interest in living–again and again and again and again.

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