The Brown Space: Taking a Class with Lydia Davis
Everyone has an opinion on getting an MFA in creative writing. From the wide-net, it gives you three years to just write to a whole slew of negative cuts concerning programs that produce oatmeal writers who are thousands in debt paying contest fees to Glimmer Train. The closest I came to receiving an MFA was printing out an application to Iowa, partially filling it out in my parent’s basement, and then throwing it out when I realized I needed recommendations. Having to ask someone else to pimp me just seemed too much. I was scared. My own personal hang-ups are my own personal hang-ups and really not worth detailing here, but I don’t regret not getting an MFA.
Still, most days typing symbols onto a computer screen is all I want to do, so I understand the desire to hide out in an MFA before teaching college comp or copyediting for Groupon. And though I never gave into that twinge of MFA desire, I did attend one writing workshop taught by Lydia Davis.
For more than twenty years Lydia Davis has been producing at an alien level and it wasn’t until years after attending her class that my worship began. She is a destroyer. Typically my favorite books I can’t describe, and Davis fits this non-description perfectly. Before signing up for her class in my hometown of Albany I knew nothing about her other than some vague name recognition. If I wasn’t going to get an MFA or attend grad school I could at least sit in a room with a dozen other freaks, one professional writer, and pretend to be something. And of us freaks, here is what I remember:
1) The class met once a week, I think Wednesday (this was seven years ago) from 6-9:00pm at the University of Albany, where I had recently received a rejection letter for grad school. I parked incredibly far away because I was scared to get a ticket and walked what felt like three miles to a museum-like building. It was very stuffy in the building, and I remember not taking the elevator because other people were taking the elevator and instead walking several floors up to where the classroom was – a large room that seemed to hold only the color brown and the texture of wood. There was a comically massive table, the kind that screams 1982 boardroom meeting, and everyone, including Lydia at “the head,” sat around that absurd amount of center brown space. I showed up early for the first class and so did everyone else. We kind of stared into the nothing and waited for Lydia to smile and say “Welcome” and fill the space.
2) I sat next to a black man in wheelchair who had a severe speech impediment and appeared to have suffered numerous gunshots and physical beatings. I remember tubes attached to him and he had a personal assistant in baggy, bright colored clothes who sat against the wall and never talked, never did anything really but occasionally whisper in Wheelchair Guy’s ear after Wheelchair Guy curled his fingers at his left ear, no look, at the assistant. Wheelchair Guy wrote hardcore fuck-you-street-realism, which directly opposed my writing. Everyone got a full class dissection of their story, assigned and read the previous week. When my story came up there was a long pause, Lydia looking around the room patiently and motherly, until a girl directly across the giant wood table said she thought the story was really beautiful. Wheelchair Guy did this thing. He filled the space above the table in a certain way. His reaction was verbal, but really it felt more like an instinctive physical reaction, something his body couldn’t hold back, similar to slapping a bug bite. What he did, directly attached to the last sound of “I think it’s really beautiful” was spat, “Beautiful? What’s beautiful about it!”
This was my first workshop experience and what I realized, much later on, was that most people who read your work will have this reaction and you have to be comfortable with it. You have to be willing to throw your shit onto their faces and be okay with their screams.
3) Lydia was very humble and quiet and smart and really just someone you want to hear talk for hours. There was one class in which someone mentioned dynamic people and referenced Anthony Hopkins (I think it was Lydia, but I’m not sure) and how you could just watch Anthony Hopkins empty the dishwasher and it would be exciting. In this way, I could probably listen to Lydia filibuster car mechanics or prepare chicken tacos — it wouldn’t matter; I just wanted her words inside me. I loved hearing her talk, though good public speaking isn’t a skill I necessarily enjoy in people. She was incredibly patient and let everyone else speak no matter how insane their words might have been, never interrupting or overriding the conversation with her experience and intellect. She made the job of running a workshop somehow seem effortless and not totally hellish, as I imagine it easily could be. When a program director, Don Faulkner, who is still there today, came into the all wood and brown room and told us how lucky we were to have Lydia Davis as a teacher, she looked up at Don Faulker as if he had just punched her in the stomach. She smiled awkwardly and said, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
4) A guy wrote a story about a spaceship. This is the same guy who criticized the formatting of my story (I didn’t put my name, address, title, in the appropriate, submission-ready structure) and I said it didn’t matter and he said that if I want to get published it definitely mattered. I remember his finger touching the title of my story. He used his finger to press the title and via an imaginary line, he moved, with his finger, my title to the appropriate place. I don’t remember the details of his spaceship story but one moment is clear. As the guy discussed the metaphor for the spaceship, really delving deep into it (I think people in the suburbs were being abducted or something of the like), Lydia made eye contact with me across the room. She had this weird smirk as the guy talked about the spaceship. She took a drink of water. I smirked back. It was profound. I wonder if, perhaps, the look was not meant for me, or if I imagined the whole thing.
Yet the eye contact from Lydia during the spaceship story probably taught me more about writing than anything else in the class. It taught me that being able to recognize bullshit or absurdity and then laughing at it was an important editing weapon. That if you could recognize these things (like a clichéd spaceship with clichéd metaphors and tropes) you immediately leapfrogged over other writers who couldn’t and would forever wallow in their clichés and limitations.
5) The workshop consisted of a dozen or so people of all ages, backgrounds, and writing styles. Along with Wheelchair Guy and Spaceship Story there was Mystery Thriller Lady, Stay-At-Home Dad Novelist, Fantasy Poet, Lawyer-Turned-Fiction Writer, and Old Man. Thinking about it now, it’s all very hazy, but years after the class, when I truly got into the work of hers, I realized there was no way she had picked us to attend (though the application said it was an “Advanced Fiction Workshop” with participants chosen by the instructor). After I realized this, I just kind of felt sorry for her. I was Really Lyrical Fiction Writer Age 25. I felt sorry that someone like Lydia Davis had to spend hours and hours each week in either the presence of our sad bodies or worse, at home with our words when she could have been working on her own writing. Maybe Don Faulkner made her do the workshop.
6) Lydia Davis doesn’t drive. Someone drove her each week, a student, or group of students. I think a woman named Nancy helped. If you’ve read anything by Lydia, you’ve probably noticed a repeating theme of supermarket dread and daily I-have-to-live anxiety and even in her most simple sentences there are wormholes to human fear. And if you’ve seen Lydia, in person, or just gather some images online, and you combine this with her writing, you too probably can’t imagine her merging onto a thruway.
7) Sitting on the opposite side of Wheelchair Guy was a woman with short curly red hair that looked like it had been burned on, who wore small glasses with a multi-colored beaded string to keep them from falling. This woman talked more than anyone else. She kind of shouted. She was very confident in her writing and who she was as a person, which is a trait I admire in people even though I don’t understand it because I live inside myself. I remember her words exiting her mouth, moving across the giant wooden table, through all the empty space above the wooden table, all that brown air, and then, finally, her words being absorbed by the body of Lydia. This happened relentlessly and made Lydia grow smaller each class.
8) The only writing exercise I remember Lydia assigning to us was that we each had to photocopy the first page of a short story or novel and bring enough copies to class. The authors name and title couldn’t be on the paper because we, through reading and interpreting style, had to guess who wrote it. This is how each class began before we critiqued that week’s story. Rarely did anyone in the class guess a correct story other than Lydia herself who got a few. She got mine. She bit into an apple and said, “Sounds like George Saunders.” Someone did, I think, bring in the first graph to The Metamorphosis, which a few people guessed. Lydia said very quietly that it’s one of the few great short stories that begins with its climax.
9) Editing and precision and obsession: one of my favorite classes was when Lydia brought in her paper about T.C. Boyle. Before passing it out to the class she prefaced it by saying she couldn’t sleep the night before and was thinking about commas. T.C. Boyle and his machine-gun use of them drove her completely nuts and she wrote this paper (I remember it being four pages, single spaced, more of a blog entry than an essay) the night before our class. It was all about commas. How Boyle used them in each line of a specific story. How he repeated them, how he sometimes didn’t use a comma when T.C. Boyle, the comma enthusiast, should have used a comma. I wish I had kept this. I didn’t understand how special something like this was, a gift of sorts, and I imagine most of the students reacted the same way and they, too, have no idea where their copy is. Her writing this paper (I imagine her staying up until 3am working on it, patiently, surgically) directly connects to seeing Lydia years later at a book signing at a library. When she wasn’t signing books, she was pulling books off the library shelf and looking through them. Her husband was grabbing books for her too. During a short break, Lydia walked into areas of the library asking “Can I even go in there?” And I think what I gleaned from observing this is that you have to be obsessed not only with putting words down, but you have to be obsessed with being curious about everything. Even T.C. Boyle and comma usage.
10) I think I was the only person who didn’t request a one-on-one. I was too ashamed and embarrassed by my story, which was some lame boy-finds-girl college story with lots of sugary imagery and tons and tons of commas.
11) My favorite class was the last class. Several of us brought in bottles of wine and a few people, including Lydia, got loose. A Q&A naturally opened with Lydia discussing being published in The New Yorker that ended with her advising all of us not to worry about getting published in The New Yorker. She talked about the extreme editing to her story. She talked about how once the issue was out in the world, how quickly it just disappeared into a new issue, with another writer.
12) I learned that roughly 9 out of 10 people won’t understand your writing so the workshop setting doesn’t seem beneficial besides spotting, through comments, that one person who understands what you are doing. This person is gold. Most of the critiques seemed superficial and vague with lots of piling on of, “Yeah, you should explain more why the drug dealer reflects on his life in the pharmacy” followed by lots of nodding and more verbal yeahs. I don’t remember people arguing in heated debate at all. If anything, everyone seemed very tired and careful not to rub stink onto someone else’s work. I was lucky enough to find my gold person in the class that got what I was doing and her edits on my story were more helpful than anyone else. If you don’t want to get an MFA or attend workshops, I’d recommend searching for this gold person, the strongest “gold person” out there to help with your work.
Attending the workshop with Lydia Davis shaped the way I think about MFA programs, largely, that I would never get one. But I would never fault someone for attending one. For all the hate thrown on MFA programs and stomach-sickening debate (perhaps this essay doesn’t help), I can understand why an aspiring writer would want to enter a safe space of creative thought for a few years. And although I don’t feel Lydia Davis mentored me in any direct constructive way like some students talk about attending class with Gordon Lish or David Foster Wallace, her presence, the simple fact I was able to enter the brown space of that room and eat the same air from her is abstractly important and still inside me.