|I got the gig as The Lab Intern through a class during my last semester at SFSU. I knew Matthew. At least I thought I did. I’d taken three of his courses at SFSU and then assisted him as an aide in two others. At State, Matthew has a reputation for being a bit tough. His classes are highly structured. He plans every minute, and he makes it impossible for undergrads to pass his courses without putting in the work. There are quizzes, zeros for homework not appropriately formatted, and the most controversial: even if you show up bodily, you will be marked absent if you are not adequately prepared for class. Once you’re absent three times (classes are three hours, so it’s the equivalent of missing nine one-hour math classes), you flunk. Those who love his classes are those who want to learn the most about fiction and memoir. They are people who appreciate deep-dive discussions of others' stories; folks who want to be encouraged to write beyond their current skill-set; artistic types who're curious to explore topics or thematic concerns that can reach others.
The lovers stay to the end and get to see that he’s just a big softie, a nonstop cheerleader for our work. That side of him usually takes until at least Week 4 to start to emerge at SFSU! What a joy and surprise it was for me to walk right into The Lab and see Matthew offering people tea! He’s so relaxed: no talk of attendance or quizzes or homework. He had a kind-of syllabus that reiterated the warm welcome to the Swedenborgian’s gorgeous glass room. 7 pm on the dot, we got started. Writing. No intros. No rules. No reading of the handout (that would come later). He asked us to write down what’s most at stake for our characters. Once we had something down on paper, we investigated the artist Lyle Ashton Harris. Matthew chose a selection from Harris's "Ektachrome Archives," as curated for the book “Today I Shall Judge Nothing That Occurs.” In it, the artist uses his archive as subject matter: Ektachrome slides, journal entries, and postcards, along with many other means of documentation, to explore what’s most at stake in his life.
According to his gallery, Harris’s work “explores intersections between the personal and the political, examining the impact of ethnicity, gender, and desire on the contemporary social and cultural dynamic...Harris teases the viewers' perceptions and expectations, resignifying cultural cursors, and recalibrating the familiar with the extraordinary.” Iké Udé says of Harris’s Ektachrome project: it illuminates everything “from the profound to the blah-blah-blah.”
Matthew, with his projector set up and essay copied, introduced us to Harris’s work, a bit about his process (as described in Uké’s piece), then had us create Harris-inspired word-snapshots of our characters’ personal histories. This experiment helped us flesh out our characters’ pasts, motivations, and priorities. After, Matthew encouraged us to read something to the group and introduce ourselves. We quickly read The Lab’s rules (there are very few and are mostly to remind participants that it’s not a traditional workshop and that we don’t give proscriptive feedback). From there, we got granular. Inspired by Harris’ photos and collages, we began creating our snapshots. We aimed to capture seemingly small, intimate moments that may, when juxtaposed with others, have the power, like Harris’s images, to take on more profound meaning. After that, we wrote full scenes based on these moments from different times in our characters' lives. We wanted to follow in Harris' footsteps, making each moment, as described by Udé, “examples of perfectly inspired mischief, curious voyeurism, anxious sympathy, and charming cruelty.” It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I realized no one seemed nervous, not even those who’d mentioned that The Lab was their first writing class. Everyone wrote. I guess Matthew’s reasons for structuring his classes at SFSU have to do with the fact that not everyone who shows up on Day 1 curious about writing. Some students hear that Creative Writing is an easy major. Everyone who takes The Lab has come to Pacific Heights on a Tuesday night, many of after a full day’s work, and so, in that way, we’ve already proven we’re serious.
Week 2 of The Lab’s warm-up was to “name a place you, the writer, have left, but ‘keep coming back to’ in your imagination, or writing or both.” Matthew asked us to “Describe the physical place. Which specific city or town or neighborhood or block or building or room or park or car and year. What are the sights and sounds? Create a word map describing the landscape. Don’t focus on why it’s important to you. Instead, let the reader glean its importance through your physical description.”
Little did we know this was a set-up for us to explore (Lab-favorite) John Cameron Mitchell’s crazy-hybrid narrative-podcast-musical called Anthem: Homunculus. Mitchell describes it: “This is the autobiography of me that never was, the alternate me. If I stayed there, I would probably still be creative but not share it. I’d be working at a library or as a teacher, slipping some liberal things into lessons, then getting fired.” That quote, the first episode of the podcast, and a review written about Mitchell’s project all served as the ingredients for the remainder of steps Matthew took us through (writing alternate-biographies for our characters) to deepen our work.
Something that Matthew didn’t focus on during the session, but was surprising and delightful to me, was humor. Mitchell explores what it’s like living with a disease, the realities of growing up gay in a conservative family, and how loss affects a family that refuses to display vulnerability. Despite these difficult subjects, one of the things I noticed we discussed is that Anthem is hilarious. I, too, am working on something with serious situations and thematic concerns that are, in some way, related to my autobiography. Week 2 provided me with lots of choices of how I might move forward.
Week 3 started with Matthew’s question, “What’s urgent to you (or your character), and what are the barriers in others seeing this as urgent?” I wrote from the perspective of a character who struggles with showing vulnerability and connecting with those around him. This exercise guided me to a different viewpoint than I would’ve found on my own. It opened new opportunities to effectively show how my character connects or fails to communicate with those around him.
After our warm-up, he introduced us to the Creative Growth Art Center. Creative Growth is a nonprofit “that serves artists with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities by providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition, and representation.” Over the past 45 years, they’ve helped over 150 artists create beautiful, honest art that’s made its way to some of the world’s most famous museums.
For our discussion, we looked at the art of William Scott. Scott, a painter at Creative Growth, who makes images of a utopian Bay Area. He sees an imaginative world as a place without violence, death, and bigotry. He paints landscapes, buildings, maps of the city, and portraits that reflect that. Scott sees his art less as “Art,” and more as "plans to enact," or blueprints. In an interview with Michael Bullock, Scott says, “I want to be a peacemaker. I want it to be a better world.”
Although Scott served as our main inspiration for Week 3’s discussion, I was moved by another artist from Creative Growth, Judith Scott, who Matthew also showed in the documentary clip. Judith Scott was born with Down’s Syndrome. After losing her hearing at a young age, she was deemed uneducable. After 35 years of institutionalized living, Scott’s sister enrolled her in Creative Growth, where she began creating beautiful fiber sculptures. Each piece is meticulous and immaculately realized. It’s hard to look at a Judith Scott piece and not feel something. What truly struck me was her use of recycled objects. One of her pieces we saw took the shape of what looked like a human heart. Right in the center, obscured mostly by fibers, sat a lock. It’s evocative, mysterious, and profoundly moving. By thinking about the objects she used, I began to think about what sacred objects I can put in my art. Studying these amazing artists gave me different perspectives for strengthening my story.
I got my hands on a copy of The 2019 Pushcart before Matthew, and as soon as I read “A Suburban Weekend” by Lisa Taddeo, first published by Granta Magazine, I told Matthew he needed to read it ASAP. What a thrill when I showed up for Week 4 of The Lab. We read the prologue to Taddeo’s new book Three Women alongside the short story I’d discovered and recommended. At The Lab, we began by considering our characters’ deepest desires. I wanted to show my character’s memory of a perfect day. That way, I can show more concretely what he desires (or at least thinks he desires) in the present. Writing this scene helped me to understand my character’s motivations better. Our discussion centered on Taddeo’s Pushcart Prize-winning short story that follows two friends, Liv and Fern, now Manhattanites, throughout a weekend spent back in their suburban hometown in New Jersey. Liv has recently lost both her parents to cancer. She’s searching for meaning and is often reckless in her pursuit of sex and sexual adventure. As Matthew put it, “It’s a love story between the two friends that explores the link between grief and desire.” Taddeo’s story, despite its serious subject matter, is hilarious. She playfully bounces back and forth between the absurdity of the girls’ friendship and the severity of Liv’s emotional state.
One thing that struck me about Taddeo’s writing is her fearlessness in allowing her characters to do questionable things. Her characters often make selfish choices that directly impact those around them. Taddeo doubles down, showing us her characters’ justifications and reasonings. Too often in my writing, I find myself trapped in the binaries of good and bad characters. Studying Taddeo, I will be able to round out my characters, allowing them to behave in contradictory ways, exploring the unlikely connections (like Taddeo’s use of grief and depression) to desire.
Week 5 of The Lab focused on Tina Louise Blevins’ magnificent story “God of Ducks” through the lens of the incredible playwright (and Matthew’s favorite teacher) Michelle Carter. Carter wrote a brilliant essay called The Four Necessary Tools, which encourages writers to aim for concreteness, precision, expansiveness, and generosity.
Blevins’ story follows Chuck, a cook who lives in a trailer park with his beloved wife. When a new coworker, Luke, is hired at the restaurant, an unlikely friendship develops and changes the way Chuck sees his own life. The story digs into how seemingly-opposite emotions—like hope and dread—can coincide with each other. Chuck and his wife lost their baby to SIDS, robbing them of their chance at parenthood, so a now-sick cat sets the emotional stakes of the story into motion. Our Week 5 conversation started by focusing on Blevins’ use of precise details, then went in-depth into Carter’s tools of expansiveness and generosity. After reading the story out loud around the circle, Matthew first asked Labbers to describe a concrete, precise detail without looking back at their copy of the piece. We quickly made our way around the circle. There are many—none arbitrary—all of them are pushing on the story’s essential themes. Blevins shows us how Chuck sees the world, often through food, through cooking. In the description of Chuck’s boss, Blevins writes, “He is trying to grow a beard, and stubble covers his face like a spice rub.” This little detail not only gives us a crystal-clear picture of the boss, but it shows us how much time Chuck spends in the world of his kitchen. Matthew pointed out how Blevins used food to portray Chuck’s inner-life and possible spiritual bend. Here's an example: “He is paying attention to the barbeque in his mouth, tracing its history all the way back to the pig as it lies in the sun, to tomatoes bulging on some faraway vine, to vinegar and even mother vinegar, bacteria grabbing hold inside wine and cider.”
Parenthood, loss, expectations, spirituality, friendship, romance, sexuality—all of it—gets mixed up and portrayed through the author’s use of expansiveness and generosity. We experimented with nudging our scenes in this direction by following Carter’s definition of generosity: “It’s the means by which we push ourselves to see each character’s personality and every dramatic situation in the most complex terms possible. It’s a habit of vigilance, of pushing ourselves past the first impression, the routine assumption.
Week 6, I returned to the scene of my meeting Matthew: SFSU. The Lab went on a field trip to San Francisco State University for a reading and conversation with Lab-fave Tommy Orange, author of the 2018 national bestseller, There There. Orange’s novel is a polyphonic exploration of different Native American characters living in Oakland, California. Novelist Omar El Akkad wrote, “[There There] is a novel about what it means to inhabit a land both yours and stolen from you, to simultaneously contend with the weight of belonging and not belonging. There is an organic power to this book—a revelatory, controlled chaos.”
Orange began by reading the prologue of There There, an essay written from his point of view. It works as a voice-driven overview of some of the novel’s most prominent themes, lyrically evoking the lasting effects of the violence and genocide that Native American peoples have faced. From there, Orange spoke about the importance of revision, an often overlooked (never does Matthew ignore the topic of revision, but others do) area of writing. For Orange, “more than 50% of writing is revision.” He detailed a practice he uses that he called “writing cannibalism.” Orange will look over old abandoned drafts of writing projects for gems that he may be able to re-appropriate for new stories. He compared himself to a musician sampling their music for a new project.
After, Labbers discussed the unpublished story Orange read for us. The story centered around a DJ living in Oakland. DJ Ron, an SFSU alum in the story, recalls his life, thinking about how his experience differs from the way he dreamed his life as a student. Using this as a prompt, Labber’s brainstormed our characters’ abandoned or forgotten or unrealized dreams.
One thing that struck me about Orange’s story was how he played with expectations. Early in the piece, Orange describes how DJ Ron views his job. People see it as a performance and musical expression, but in reality, it’s much more networking, marketing, and a way of guaranteeing free drinks. What’s surprising is that DJ Ron, while not a success by the measure of a capitalist society (the reader imagines a big break that never comes), he still gleans a deeper, more spiritual connection to his job and the hustle. Once again, Orange created nuanced views of each thing in DJ Ron’s life, how it looks one way on the outside versus the experience of the inside. Of course, Matthew had us writing into these contrasts.
Bonus! Not every cycle of The Lab ends this way, but our group organized a reading and potluck. Each Labber in attendance brought a writing piece generated during our time together. Each of us invited friends and family to cheer us on. The whole night felt like a victory lap as we showcased what we learned over the weeks. I wrote a piece that I generated after feeling inspired by Tina Louise Blevins’ “God of Ducks.” While it felt wonderful to read my work for the group, it was even more satisfying to see how each Labber’s pieces had evolved throughout the cycle with each new artist we studied. And I was lucky enough to get some beautiful pictures of each writer sharing their pieces.
After the reading, Labbers and guests sipped wine, chatted about literature, and snacked on a potluck. I was able to connect our Labbers, getting emails to keep in touch, and hopefully, we’ll continue to share our writing. With the cycle of “The Lab” coming to an end close, I felt inspired by the works we studied, and the people who had made The Lab such a magnificent experience. See my photos below. --Andrew Harrington