I spent a lot of money one year, flying out to San Francisco to take a four day writing workshop with a famous editor.  My first hope was that I would be discovered, though I'd never admit that to anyone.  My second hope was that I'd learn what was wrong with my fiction.  

Here’s what I learned about Jenks.  He was a small man with a penchant for drinking, a fancy San Francisco house, a famous writer wife and a profound and consuming love of reading.  After applying to the workshop, he called and talked with me, in a detailed and thoughtful way about the two writings I had submitted.  I felt special but it turns out he does that with everyone who applies, a number I’ve now forgotten, though big enough, I remember, to stun.

Jenks had edited an anthology of American short stories with Raymond Carver.  We were assigned to read a number of stories from it for class discussion.  It was an impressive collection.  

After discussing published work, we discussed each other's.  Everyone wanted to make a good impression.  Jenks wanted a fiery conversation.  But of course, everyone was being very polite.  Jenks stirred it up, attacking the story I liked best, a period piece about a colonial girl.  Jenks said it was trite, that he'd seen a thousand such stories come across his desk, and that a writer's time is worth more than that.  A few fell in line with Jenks, irritating him even more.  "Isn't anyone going to defend it?"  

One older man said that he thought the sex scene was well done, infuriating Jenks, who declared it cliché. (Interesting to note: In an earlier discussion, I had said another classmate’s story of a girl and a boy falling in love while on horseback read like a Harlequin Romance.  Everyone, especially Jenks, thought my comment out of line and too harsh.)  

casually turned my comments on the colonial girl story face down.  I had read it twice, noting how I thought her word choice so beautiful.  (At the time, nothing mattered more than word choice.)  And such a powerful sex scene! But here in class, I couldn't bring myself to say anything.  Could I have come this far and still have such bad taste that I couldn’t see the obvious? As Jenks searched the class for someone to speak, I dipped my eyes.

Am I remembering it wrong, or wasn’t this the woman who had made a feminist critique of one of the stories, triggering in Jenks an anti-politically correct rant?  Was this really a bad story, or did he have some deep-set beef against women? Weren’t all the stories he liked best by the older men in the class? What was his relationship with his mother?

Regardless, the writer was upset.  These were the first several chapters of a novel she was very serious about, having dedicated much time, researching, outlining, writing.  I wanted to defend her, but I feared that Jenks would think me a fool.

Fortunately, it was lunch break.  I scrawled, “I’m sorry I couldn’t say it in class, but I still love your writing,” and I hurried over to slip it into her hands before she bolted.  Her face was hard, her eyes red.  She did not come back after lunch.

Even so, by my private conference time, I was feeling optimistic.  The class discussion of my other story had gone surprisingly well.  Jenks had said it was unusual and publishable.  Not great, he added, but fine.

So I must have been visibly crushed when Jenks said my other story wasn’t worth pursuing unless I completely changed the focus, maybe turning it into a trickster story.  The main character was too much of a bitch, he said, so we don’t care about her.  

“Is this based on a real incident?” 

Of course I said it wasn’t, even though it was.  Jenks said that I looked disappointed. I denied that too, saying thank you, it’s very helpful.  Mostly though, I was frustrated that he didn’t say this about the piece during our discussion on the phone before the workshop began.  If he had, I would have reworked it or submitted something else.  Of course, I had no idea how hard it is to know the most helpful thing to say and when it needs to be said.  

A long time before, I had heard a piece of advice about becoming a writer that was puzzling: It's most important to be empathetic.  It took me a long time to admit that the story I submitted to Jenks was a revenge story, that I had once worked for a woman I had no empathy for, and the result was a bad piece of fiction. 

Before we all said goodbye, Jenks suggested that the most valuable things to come out of his workshops are the relationships that we form with other writers.  He encouraged us to stay connected and read each other’s writings.  I made a quarter-hearted attempt to stay in touch, but I knew it wouldn’t last.  Rather than bonding with the other writers, I'd spent my lunch breaks walking around San Francisco and my evenings out with my brother and friends.  I don’t remember the names of anyone in the class.  I hope that woman whose story I really did like found a way to use Jenk’s advice as a launching point, whether she defied his critique or embraced it. 

When I came home, I was too overwhelmed with everything I’d learned to immediately return to working on short stories.  Instead I spend the summer cutting and pasting paper.  In the fall, I put everything I had into a short story I had started before the workshop.  It’s my favorite.  But I was never able to write another. 


  1. The n in Jenks was a typo. Should have been an r.

    When I was about 21, I was sexually assaulted by a man who was interviewing people for what I considered my dream job at the time. You and the women in your workshop were literarily (hey, it IS a word) assaulted. Jerks probably spoiled the flower of more than one writer there. A writing teacher's motto should be taken from Thumper, who said: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all."

    As an editor, I can say this: Never take a writing workshop from an editor. They're frustrated writers whose occupation is to make you feel stupid.

    1. Dear Barbara,

      I'm sorry to hear about your unfortunate experience, but I am NOT accusing Jenks of assault. The best thing we can do for our endeavors is to remove ourselves from people's reaction to our work. Some people are going to like we we make and some people aren't. There's no use in getting upset or excited about it either way if we always remain pure in our intentions to be creative. That said, facing criticism with equanimity is not easy, I know. But it is worth practicing.

      Jenks brought many years of reading and writing experience to the workshop. I value everything he said, whether or not I agree with him.

      And if I never write another short story, it has nothing to do with Jenks and everything to do with me.

      Thanks for writing!

  2. And by the way, I loved reading your essay. Now try another short story.

  3. joanna, these are my favorite posts of yours: honest, lively, interesting tales of the writing life. your voice is clear and beautiful. thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading, Joy! I hope you're having a beautiful summer. Hope to see you soon!