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Eat Your Okra

January 2, 2012

At most writing programs and conferences, there is this thing called workshop. Today, I am “up.”

Here at Vermont College  at this winter’s novel workshop, fourteen people sit in a bland, overheated room on sagging couches and give feedback on each student’s twenty-page submission. First the writer who is up must sink into silence. Each of eleven students says something positive about the pages. The faculty then provide their likes and appreciations.

Usually at this point there is a moment, a collective turning of the mind toward the critical. Yesterday I noticed in that moment it started to snow. With no particular order or organization, we discuss the things that don’t work. The writer remains silent, receptive, seething, hurting, laughing–it’s impossible to say. Most know how to keep their faces set in neutral. (I’ve only once been in a workshop, not here in Vermont, where the writer simply didn’t show on her day.)

My son goes to a high school that has workshops, spaces with high ceilings and very little heating and large old machines that do cool things like bend metal. In class certain techniques are demonstrated and then each student gets a turn at the machine.  My son likes workshop; he enjoys throwing his full weight onto a pedal or lever to get the machine to start moving. Recently, he came home with a shiny piece of something he’d twisted into a widening spiral and it remained on the kitchen table for days.

I tried to like workshop. I thought there were good workshops and not so good workshops, better writing, worse writing, better teachers, worse teachers. I wanted to be in a good workshop, with good students and good teachers. I wanted the people in my workshop to like my work, and give me feedback that would unlock the tight places, show me a way out. That’s what I hoped for this time around. But at the end of my first workshop day, during dinner, when everyone was asking everyone how they liked their workshops and everyone was smiling and saying yes, good, great, and the noise rose and fought the smell of cafeteria food, I found myself realizing, by saying it out loud, that I did not like workshop. The difference was that I meant it generally. Nothing to do with my particular winter workshop, which is filled with talented, hard working writers and talented, hard working instructors. I just don’t like workshop.

I don’t like getting feedback on the first twenty pages of the novel I’ve been working on for exactly two years now from people I don’t know who have nothing invested in me or my project, and I don’t like giving feedback to other students without knowing what drives them, what they are seeking to create, where their passions and pains lie, what they’ve struggled with. I don’t like giving or getting feedback when where the work is, what part of the process, has not been articulated, the destination unclear.  I don’t feel comfortable getting feedback from people I don’t trust, not because they are untrustworthy but because we have no history or larger context, no sustained connection. My responses cannot do justice to the work of others. It’s almost like I’m writing an anonymous comment on a blog post or noticing fresh graffiti on the house across the street.

Maybe if I could bring my novel pages to a room like one of the rooms in my son’s high school, put on large protective gloves and goggles, fire up a torch that emits sparks, I would like workshop better. I would be excited about it being my turn. I would listen and watch and lean on the lever. I would make something cool and bring it home and put it on the kitchen table. Is that possible?

This summer every Saturday I started going to the farmers market next to the freeway, an uninviting strip of pavement made lovely by stalls piled high with produce. At the time it was tomatoes, peaches, corn, greens, some I recognized, some I didn’t. I was trying to shop and cook more seasonally, so I bought what looked good and figured out meals when I got home. And one Saturday, the okra appeared, pointed corrugated pods of it, appealing in its raw, visual form. I’d eaten it a number of times in Indian restaurants and liked it well enough.

So I filled a bag with okra and when I got home, figured I would build an Indian meal around it. I cooked it two ways, one with onions and cumin, the other, tomato-based. My children, after the obligatory one bite, ate the naan instead of the okra. My husband, who eats and seems to like everything, said he liked the okra, but ate more sparingly than usual, with a lot of chutney on the side. I tried to like it, analyzing and criticizing the way I’d prepared it, the recipes, maybe it just needed more salt? A few weeks later, charmed once again by those dark green cones, I bought okra, tried cooking it southern-style. There was a lot leftover and because I hate to throw food away, I heated it for lunch and forked it into my mouth, choked it down, slimy, chunky, chewy okra.

My name is Karen and I do not like okra. My name is Karen and I do not like workshop.

You can cook it in a number of ways, you can cook it well, you can serve it to me in the friendliest of fashions. I do not like okra. Ditto for any traditional writing workshop I’ve ever participated in.

At residency, we have to attend eight lectures but can pick and choose; we can go to faculty and student readings when we want; informal conversations are optional. Everyone decides for different reasons. I try to balance poetry and fiction, see the lecturers I’ve loved in the past, attend readings when I am not so exhausted that I have to fall into bed. But we must attend every workshop, six in total, spread out over the ten days.

What would I be missing if I didn’t eat okra? Is okra, especially good for me–vitamins I couldn’t get in any other way? Will the okra feel hurt if I don’t eat it? Is it because okra is part of my culture, and that as a member of an okra-eating community, I have to eat it in order to retain my status? I can in fact answer these questions about okra (no, no, no) but I cannot answer them about workshop.

This afternoon, though, as I am walking along the snowy path toward that stuffy room, I imagine this. I am a dinner guest at a friend’s house, a friend who is a good friend, a friend whose invitation to dinner I was happy to accept, a friend who has cooked for years, who cares about food and prepares it well. If, when I am seated at the table and have served myself rice, chicken maybe, a sauce, I am passed another steaming dish, and it is okra, what would I do? Easy. Politely, I would eat the okra.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    January 9, 2012 11:13 am

    Love this Karen! Wonderfully said. Now comes “workshop recovery,” or trying to forget the okra experience.

    • January 9, 2012 3:26 pm

      Thanks, Mary! So great to have you to debrief with…

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