Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels including, most recently, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, and Summer Reading; and a book on the craft of fiction titled The Company of Writers. She has taught writing workshops at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, New York University, Columbia University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and right here at the Key West Literary Seminar. She will return to Key West and the Seminar for a third time this January, as a moderator for our 27th annual Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth, and as a faculty member in our writers’ workshop program. In a telephone conversation yesterday, we learned what to expect from Wolitzer’s workshop, and gathered some tips about how to assess the quality of a manuscript.
Littoral: How would you explain your approach to teaching a writers’ workshop?
Hilma Wolitzer: I was in my 30s when I took my first workshop, at the New School with Anatole Broyard. The very first thing I ever heard about my work, the first comment in the class, was “That’s the most boring thing I ever heard.” Broyard stepped in and said “I don’t see how your comments are useful to the writer. You have to say why you were bored, and what you would do to make it less boring.” In that moment, I learned how to teach.
Honesty and charity have to prevail. You have to ask questions of the manuscript: Do I believe this? Do I care? Am I compelled to keep reading? I encourage everybody to comment on everybody’s work; and I ask the person who wrote the manuscript to not defend his or her work against criticism until everyone has spoken. It’s not exactly a courtroom, but certain evidence comes out– if 10 people say they don’t believe in a character, this is evidence against the manuscript. On the other hand, writers are not always aware of what they do well. If you can point out one good sentence in an otherwise not-so-good manuscript, that’s very helpful to a writer.
L: Are there good books about how to write?
HW: More helpful than reading how-to-write books is reading well-written books. Right now, I’m reading a book that I’m crazy about– a contemporary novel called Old Filth by a British writer named Jane Gardam. I almost want to force this book on writers. David Nasaw is another writer I greatly admire. He’s compelled to be truthful– it’s part of his ethic– and he’s a wonderfully lively and engaging writer. William Kennedy is a splendid writer; his novel Ironweed is a book that can teach anybody about writing and about invention and about language. Good writing conveys certain essential truths about how we live with one another; and that’s what we’re trying to achieve in this workshop- to make writing of quality not just better, but, as Grace Paley said, “truer.”
L: What does a Key West Literary Seminar writers’ workshop feel like?
HW: It begins as a group of strangers, like a pickup basketball game in a schoolyard, and people learn how to play as a team. Now it’s not a contest– we’re not trying to find the best writer; no one’s going to win. If your manuscript becomes better, then everyone wins. These people come together and they talk about something quite intimate– their work– and they get to know each other very well in a very short period of time. I find that people generally are really supportive of one another and not competitive. After all, the aim of the workshop is revision, not suicide.
L: Are you ever too old to start writing?
HW: No! I was in my mid-40s when my first book was published. I encourage people to start writing at any age– you don’t have to have great legs like an athlete or a dancer. You just sit at your typewriter or your computer in your pajamas and you’re invisible. Only the work becomes visible.