The Writing Room: Why Go Back?

Rejection and the accompanying crushing disappointment is something writers likely face daily and shrug off without much reflection. It’s just part of the whole writing experience, yes? But all that rejection, disappointment, and the accompanying emotions must go somewhere. For me, they end up in dreams.

In a recent dream, I am reading a manuscript in one of my old high school teacher’s classrooms, to a room full of classmates made up of students from my days as both a teacher and student. I cannot get through a few words without the teacher interrupting and diagramming the errors. This goes on for a few days. He accuses me of plagiarizing from The Boxcar Series, of not having enough heart, of faking my way through it. The class, in general, revels in this takedown. After maybe the fourth day, the teacher (my high school chemistry teacher who used to paddle us while blasting Led Zeppelin), says he can’t take it anymore and tells me he needs to move on. He uses words like amateurish. He says he is no longer impressed. He doubts if he ever was.

As the next student begin his project—a song-and-dance number—I leave the classroom, but halfway down the hall, I turn back and go back inside. A student whispers to me that the teacher put my critique online and it’s a real “scrub-a-dub.” That, I assume, is a bad thing. Some students are giving me the finger, and I return it. Others are disinterested; a couple seem to want to say something to me, something supportive. I applaud the song-and-dance number. I wake up soon after.

Such a dream might bring many questions, including many about my psychological state, but the main question for me in the aftermath is this: Why did I go back into that classroom?

A bit of history: I’ve always had really rough workshops. Freshman year of Tufts, a paper of mine the professor handed out of got ripped apart, so much so that he sat with me after class to comfort me, saying he had no idea that such a thing would happen, that it was supposed to be an example of a good paper. Jay Cantor in a creative writing workshop at Tufts similarly took me aside after a workshop, asking’ “What did you do to these people?”

After college, I didn’t write much, but began teaching. From 2000-2004, I began having undiagnosed panic attacks all day, all night. I emerged from that experience writing again, and when I applied to a low-residency MFA, I was rejected. That led me “back to the room,” to some online workshops, including one with Terri-Brown Davidson, during which my first story got brutally workshopped. She emailed me privately to discuss it. She ended up writing a recommendation for the same MFA program that rejected me, and I got in. But, you guessed it, that first workshop ended with workshop leader Douglas Glover talking to me afterward, asking if I were all right, and saying that usually people’s first workshops don’t go that way. Mine did. Again.

After the MFA, before sending a collection out to a contest, I gave it to an editor friend who had this to say, “You asked me to tell you what order I think the stories should appear in the book. Well, I can’t really do that, in good conscience, because many of the stories, in their current state, do not belong in a book at all.” So it goes. Not easy on the ego—this writing thang; that’s for sure.

That question returns: Why go back to that room?

I always pooh-poohed the idea that writing is inherently brave; the writing itself—especially with any truths hidden under the guise of “fiction”—felt fairly easy compared to the real world. But sitting at the computer is only part of what writing entails; to be a writer is to go back to that room, to open oneself up to what anyone wishes to say about the writing. Of course, the writer can choose to ignore it, but it’s always there, isn’t it?  In that dream-state, that writer stopped being me and became any writer—and I did think him, daresay, brave. I’d never felt that way before about writing, about myself writing, but it came to me post-dream as a truth about the writing journey.

For days, I pondered the why of that return to the room and came up with some reasons why I couldn’t walk away. My favorite epiphany was this, “It isn’t you who might not be good enough, you know. It’s (only) your manuscript they are talking about.” What about you? What brings you back, again and again?

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Randall Brown

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches at the MFA in Creative Program at Rosemont College.