Tag Archives | MFA workshops

The Filtering Consciousness

I was reminded of the filtering consciousness as I wrote a critique this week.  I owe everything I know about it to my mentor and friend Julie Brickman.  She was the first person to point it out to me in my novel.  Up until then, I'd always felt that something just didn't "sound" quite right in my work.  It was a little off and I could never identify why.  I had good dialogue, understood how to write scenes, knew how to write great descriptions.  But something separated my work from sounding publishable.

In the course of my MFA studies, I had the great good fortune to take part in an experimental novel workshop, the first of its kind.  The standard cornerstone of a brief residency MFA program is the workshop.  10 or so students gather for 2 hours a day to discuss the work of the members of the workshop.  The work is sent in ahead of time, and everyone reads it and critiques it and then discusses it in class.

Since each person only gets one hour of time devoted to their writing, the only thing that you can get critiqued is a short story or essay of 25 pages or less.  You submit a chapter of a novel at your own peril, because it is so difficult to critique it apart from the rest of the piece.  So, if you submit chapter five, someone might say, "I was really curious about Frank's backstory" but you've already written that backstory in chapter three.  Or if you submit chapter one, someone might say, "I think this and this is going to happen" and you are sitting there thinking that the story goes in a completely different direction.

For these reasons, people writing novels have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to workshopping.  Thus was the novel workshop born.  It quickly became renamed the Novel Goddess Workshop, because, well, the six of us in it were goddesses, that's all there is to it.  The idea was that instead of 10 participants, there would be only 5, and everyone in the workshop had to commit to reading 5 whole novel manuscripts.  It was a pretty labor intensive couple of months, especially since most of us had been madly finishing our novels up until the very last minute.

But to say the workshop was a huge success was to indulge in understatement.  Led by the afore- mentioned Julie Brickman, it was far and away the best workshop I had in my 2 years of studying for my MFA and some of the best critiquing I've had ever.  Not only that, but all of us in the group bonded for life.  We call ourselves the Novel Goddesses and have managed to have one full goddess reunion a couple years ago on Dauphin Island in Alabama.  Several of us met last January at AWP, and that same group will be presenting a panel at next year's AWP conference in Chicago.  Three of the goddesses live on the west coast, and since I come to LA, I get to see Deidre and Julie fairly often.  Linda teaches in my program in Nashville, so I'll get to see her in just a few weeks, and I'll see Katy and Maryann next February in Chicago (and Maryann's book, Base Ten, will just have been published, the same book we critiqued in the workshop).

So all that is a very long digression about how I learned to identify the filtering consciousness.  It was in the Novel Goddess Workshop that Julie pointed it out to me.  The proverbial lightbulb moment ensued.  Oh, that's what makes my work sound clunky and amateurish!

Perhaps you are wondering what this wondrous thing is, and I will tell you.   It is when everything that you write is preceded with I saw or I heard or I smelled.  Or, if writing in third person, she saw, she listened, she smelled.  For instance, you might write something like "She smelled the jasmine abloom all around in a blaze of white and green."  (Do not pay attention to the dreadfulness of the writing, its off the top of my head.)  Once you remove the filtering consciousness it is less laden:  The jasmine bloomed all around her in a blaze of white and green."

Or, "I saw the ragtag army marching toward me, with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."  How much better it reads when you remove the F.C.:  The ragtag armed marched with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."

The filtering consciousness puts a screen between you and the reader.  Its one more barricade the reader must negotiate to enter the page with your prose on it.  You want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to do this, by removing as many obstacles as possible.

So if your work somehow just doesn't quite sound right to you, look at your manuscript for the filtering consciousness and if you find it, edit it out.  Your work will be stronger and leaner and read better for it.

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