My name is Susann Cokal and I led VCU’s novel workshop from
2010 to 2011.
A workshop leader lives not so much through his or her students or for them, but through and for their characters, who are progressing through worlds and plans and dreams that he or she could never have envisioned… despite the roles of facilitator and feedback giver, sometimes gentle guide, that s/he has played for–in the case of VCU’s workshop–an entire year. And, now, it’s been much more than a year, as we’re deep into 2012 already and the novels just won’t stop growing.
It’s a fascinating trajectory. We first met in May 2010, before the school year ended, to toss about ideas for the novels-to-be, give initial character descriptions, generally exchange enthusiasms and, yes, anxieties. It is always anxious-making to embark on a
novel, particularly if it’s your first … and whether you’ve been dreaming of it for over a decade, as one of the participants had, or came upon your Big Idea recently, the fear and trembling are no less. Neither is the giddiness: You’re going to be a novelist at last! No more
short stories or poems or flash fictions for you, this is the real thing! And by the end of the summer, you’ll have at least
Well, sort of. I find it’s useful to set goals that are within reach but just barely, like that tempting plum on the highest low-hanging branch. That’s how I get myself to work, and it’s how I manage not to be too angry with myself if I don’t snag the plum. After all, once you’ve crushed that fruit’s pulp against your palate fine, what will you do? Give up for the rest of the summer? Nah, keep … going … going …
Many participants did turn up in August with thirty to fifty pages, which was great. Everyone had at least twenty and a detailed outline. And the excitement in the room was as palpable as that plum. We had a lively time the first semester, wrestling with those potential outlines, knowing they were going to change, submitting pages that either established character and setting or didn’t,
discussing what the Story should be … There were a dozen of us in that room all at once (one was, shhhh, a silent observer working on a dissertation about writing workshops), often with the window-mounted air conditioner going full blast, discussing the most impressively varied array of novels-in-progress I’ve ever seen. There was the story of the young man from New York State, disillusioned with a budding career in politics, falling in love with a girl from the South. A high schooler sent to take care of his uncle Stephen, who suffered from a serious brain injury. A brassy nine-fingered guitarist who tangled into the most inappropriate relationships with her parents’ friends and random acquaintances. The lonely Arkansas teen who had to find the strength to uncover
the truth about her mother’s death, and to choose between falling into the arms of the town bad boy or her best guy friend. The girl surviving in a post-apocalyptic USA and just discovering her own paranormal abilities. And did I mention the tale of a girl born
with hair of spun gold, trying to make friends at a small-town high school with newly minted goths and a bad boy who cried tears of real blood when he was moved by the power of art?
High-concept or not, these novels showed an array of daring and invention it’s uncommon to find in one room. We were all moved by the girl who struggles to get free of a smothering mother whose own addictions to seducing men and hoarding beautiful but broken things function both as metaphor and as crushing obstacle to the daughter’s happiness. And we laughed over flights of prose from a young boy who was convinced he was “Talented and Gifted,” sighed over the lyricism in a novel about a young half-Lebanese woman whose chance encounter with a native boy leads to world travels and exchanges of letters ever more fantastic and imaginative.
So that was the first semester. What happened over winter break was truly magical: Everyone had some kind of breakthrough. When we met again in January, a lot of people had rethought their projects, and always for the better. I can’t say how they were better, except that they were more deft, more confident, better. And the submissions each week were stronger, used dialogue and the long view toward plot with more assurance … These writers were finding the voices and pacing of their first books.
I got personally invested in every one of those projects. Some of the students were graduating that spring, and I served on their thesis committees, happy to help them polish what they’d done into submission-ready shape. The girl from Arkansas finished a complete
and terrific novel in that short space of time (okay, I admit: most writers need more than a year to finish a novel, but some can get a good draft in that time–and this woman got a great one). I was happy to sign off on their dotted lines.
And now, in 2012, the last MFA participants are finishing their time at VCU. Most of them are including at least part of their novels in their theses. I just received 342 pages from a woman who finished her long-dreamt-of masterwork, a tale that weaves together family
history of abuse, artistic inspiration, and celebrity culture with a hint of a ghost story. I can’t wait to read it.
I know I’ve gone far over my 500-word limit here. But I’m so honored to have been part of seeing these novels come to fruition, and to report that novel writing is alive and well and thriving at VCU. Next year’s crop of novelists will be with Professor Tom De Haven, who started the year-long workshop decades ago, and I can’t wait to see what they put out.
So, all of you from last year’s 666, thank you for showing me the world–many worlds, many styles, crazy places, sad ones and funny
ones. You’ve all touched me and made me proud to say
My name is Susann Cokal and I led VCU’s novel workshop from 2010 to 2011.