+The 6-Week Fall 2018 Cycle of The Lab starts 9/11/18 and is Open for Registration. Sign up now.
+Try a Lab-style writing warm-up prompt inspired by Marina Abramović.
+The Lab’s intern Chandler James interviews first-time-Labber/short story writer Mary Taugher.
+Lab Favorite Tony Kushner revives Angels in America.
+Tell us about your current projects for The Lab’s next Newsletter &
+Stay tuned for a call for a Fall reading.
Dear Labbers and Friends of The Lab,
Lab Intern Chandler James asked me how, when starting The Lab, I'd hoped it would be other writing classes. Here's my answer:
I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of traveling far and wide this summer to round up so much inspiration for the Fall 2018 Cycle of The Lab, which starts 9/11/18. Six consecutive Tuesday evenings from 7-9:30 in Pacific Heights. $450. There are only seven seats left! Sign up now.
Above is a picture of my mother-in-law wearing crystal shoes realized by artist Marina Abramović. Behind her, a film plays showing Abramović eating a raw onion as one might an apple. As she eats, the viewer hears a recording of her voice on repeat. She says,
...I’m so tired of my migraine attacks, lonely hotel rooms, dirty bed sheets, room services, long distance telephone calls, bad TV movies.
I’m tired of always falling in love with the wrong man; tired of being ashamed of my nose being too big, of my ass being too large; ashamed about the war in Yugoslavia.
I want to go away, somewhere so far, that I’m unreachable by telephone or fax.
I want to get old, really old, so that nothing matters anymore.
I want to understand and see clearly what is behind all of this.
I want not to want anymore…
Prompt: In the voice of your character, write a long list starting each line with “I’m so tired of;” then follow it with a series of lines that being with “I want…” Try setting the timer and keep the pen moving for five minutes for each list, even if you have to draw circles. See where it takes you.
In the Spring newsletter, Lab intern Chandler James recounted her experience after Week 1 of The Lab. In this issue, short story writer (and Matthew’s former-student-turned-friend) Mary Taugher, answers Chandler’s questions of what it was like for her to enroll in The Lab after having been Matthew’s student years ago at SFSU.
Mary Taugher’s fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, Potomac Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. Her work is also online at Qwerty and The Writing Disorder, and is forthcoming in Redivider. A graduate of San Francisco State University’s M.F.A. Creative Writing Program, she lives in San Francisco where she is working on a collection of stories.
What were you hoping to gain from the Spring Lab session?
Matthew was my first creative writing teacher, and he is hands-down the best instructor I’ve ever worked with, the mentor who helped me get into an MFA program ten years ago. I hadn’t worked with him in years, was feeling in a rut, and decided I needed a dose of Matthew. I was hoping to generate new story ideas and shake up my writing, get outside my comfort zone. Matthew helped me do just that. We did close readings of, as well as writing exercises based on, the works of writers like Lucia Berlin, Jamaica Kincaid, and Mary Gaitskill, writers who take risks and bare the ugly. After my six sessions with Matthew, I came away with the realization that I need to work harder on character development and that my characters need to take more risks too.
How have you applied your knowledge from The Lab to your works in progress?
One of my favorite exercises from The Lab was called “Willing to Go Anywhere.” In side-by-side boxes, we listed our character’s horrible thoughts next to completely unrelated actions that revealed our character’s humanity. I loved the juxtaposition of these negative thoughts and positive actions. I’m working on a story now about a woman who is insanely jealous of her sister and often hates her mother. When I’m stuck, I go back to this exercise, and it always generates surprising material.
How is the Lab different from you MFA program and other writing classes you’ve taken?
I have an MFA from San Francisco State University, and I’ve taken a few classes through Stanford’s Extension program, and I’d have to say that it’s not that different! The level of instruction, the quality of the exercises, and the nurturing environment are on par with these institutions. (Not surprising since Matthew teaches at SFSU.) What is distinctive is Matthew’s enthusiasm, his entertaining approach, and the sheer joy of writing he brings to each session. It’s contagious. Writing can be lonely, and we all have doubts about our ability, those negative voices in our heads. I left The Lab with a renewed sense of dedication and confidence in my fiction writing.
What’s it like to share your work at The Lab/interact with other Labbers?
Matthew keeps the class size small, and we met in a beautiful, cozy space, always grouped in a circle. After reading an excerpt, our peers were asked to pick out the most significant lines in our pieces, the sentences that moved them. Getting that feedback was incredibly helpful because that’s what you’re going to hone in on if you decide to develop the piece into something longer. Also, I’d add that San Francisco has a lot of gifted writers, and it was inspiring to spend time with a diverse, talented group of people I’d never have met otherwise.
How has your time spent living in San Francisco impacted your writing?
I’ve lived here thirty-five years, so that’s a tough question. I often use San Francisco as the setting for my stories. Also, I’m not sure that in another city I would have the opportunity to take writing classes like The Lab or to meet so many other fantastic writers. Online writing classes aren’t the same as attending classes weekly, and I feel lucky to have access to world-class educational institutions and writing seminars like The Lab here in the Bay Area.
At The Lab, we discussed character representation and analyzed their actions as symbolism. In your story, Where Are We Going, how did you utilize these tools to develop such well-rounded characters?
Learning the craft of fiction is a slow process of accumulation. I’m not sure I consciously used these “tools.” This question makes me think of the use of autobiography in fiction; we all use pieces of ourselves and our environment in writing fiction, even if it’s just the coffee we drink or a neighborhood we know well. I tore a front-page story out of the New York Times nearly ten years about people taking in and nursing their long-divorced, dying spouses. It fascinated me, and when I saw this situation happening among people I knew, I jumped at the chance to fictionalize it. I wrote the story in an attempt to try to make sense of what was happening. It’s a story about love, forgiveness, and how we choose to die.
Do any thematic concerns arise consistently in your work?
Many of my short stories explore the themes of love and family, guilt and responsibility, what do we owe the people we love? I just a wrote a speculative fiction story I’m pretty excited about that deals with gun violence in American society, and come to think of it, I started it when I was in The Lab. It’s written in a diary format, and I think I pulled it off without getting didactic. The theme is pretty obvious. I’ve also written two stories where fantastical appearances — one a dead saint, the other a miniaturized man who seemingly walked away from an art installation — force my main characters to comes to terms with what’s disturbing them, preventing them from moving on to a new phase of life.
The arrangement of time your story, Crow on the Cradle, is not entirely linear. When you were writing it, did you consider how the arrangement of time provides opportunities to show the character “grappling and failing to make sense over unlikely” connections as we did in Session 5 of The Lab?
Many of my stories take years to write; I’ll often file them away then revisit them months later, and, of course, it can take just long before they’re accepted and published. This story was written a while back, but it certainly illustrates what we reviewed in The Lab in terms of characters making strange connections between past memories and whatever is happening in the forward movement of the story. And I think when you play with time — in this case, we learn at the beginning of the story that my character did something terrible and she’s lying in a hospital bed reliving it and other moments of her life ¬— you have more opportunity to make random connections between memory and the current action.
Do you have any literary projects on the horizon?
I’ve put together a collection of short stories I’ve published in literary journals, and I’m starting to send it out to contests. I’m thinking about looking for an agent, but I’ve heard that most agents want to know that you’re working on a novel before they’ll work with your collection. I consider myself a short story writer so I’m not sure I’ll ever write a novel. But, I have started one or two — you never know. Stay tuned. You might see me again at The Lab.
Tony Kushner became one of the most notable playwrights of his time with “Angels in America,” which debuted in 1991 at San Francisco’s own Eureka Theater. Matthew saw this performance on what he remembers as “a bad date. The guy was a jerk, but who cared? After, I knew I’d witnessed something incredible.” Part one, “Millennium Approaches,” hit the stage again in May, followed by the second part, “Perestroika,” released in November the following year. The play pivoted the country’s taboo associations with the gay community-- positioning the ugliness of Reaganism and the AIDS epidemic alongside the beauty of unlikely and imperfect human connections.
In a New York Times article Kushner is quoted: “I think it’s a really good play, but I think it benefited enormously from its timing.” He says in an interview with The Guardian, “The more you are aware how much you need other people, the more you realize you are composed of connections to others – what they give you and you them – and you become aware their loss is going to be calamitous. There’s also the possibility of their losing you. It’s terrifying to contemplate. There’s an understandable impulse to run.” Yet, Kushner’s play explores the many ways our connections are complicated by that “impulse to run.”
At The Lab, Matthew asked Labbers to meditate on this quote by Kushner: “As far as I'm concerned it's an ethical obligation to look for hope. It's an ethical obligation not to despair if you can possibly not despair. If you look, there's always a possibility to find a place where action can change the course of things.” We noted ways in which our own characters identify with hope and despair, considering how the two may play into and feed off of each other. Like Kushner’s plays, we found entry points offering up some kind of tenderness or vulnerability within our characters. We asked ourselves what these high stakes mean for our characters. What will they do about it? Drawing inspiration from Kushner’s “AIDS prayer”-- a poetic, emotionally charged request and call to action written in 1994 for The National Day of Prayer for AIDS. We searched our stories for expressions of belief (in thought or action) and then had our characters write their own prayers.
In our current political state, the play's themes cue new associations. From the Times article: “If anything...the Roy Cohn character, who, though it’s not mentioned in the play, was once a mentor to Mr. Trump, had become even more menacing and relevant: ‘You can’t hear the things Roy is saying in the play about loyalty and not think about the Babylonian mud devil in the White House, who has no loyalty to anyone, not even to Roy.’”
Artists and writers often worry that current events/circumstances are too specific to a subset of people and will not find an audience. They use this anxiety as a reason to avoid or abandon a project. Tony Kushner’s entire body of work shows us that we can, in fact, push into what’s most troubling and relevant to us. The play also inspires writers to let their projects evolve away from the original “idea.”
Charles McGrath wrote: “In some ways, ‘Angels in America’ was almost an accident. It began as a commission…It was supposed to be a comedy about gays, Jews, and Mormons… and [Kushner] imagined it would last maybe 90 minutes. Instead, it evolved into a two-part, seven-hour piece with 24 characters, eight acts and an epilogue. It has its funny moments, but much of it is harrowing, inspired in part by the AIDS epidemic and by Mr. Kushner’s own difficult and somewhat belated coming out as a gay man.”
Kushner started the play with one idea, which motivated him to sit down and write. His willingness to write away from the original idea, and instead follow his "unreasonable impulses" is the reason why we have Angels.
Conceiving ways to ignite “unreasonable impulses” and encouraging writers to follow them is at the very core of Davison’s (and The Lab’s) methodology. He says, “Think about being asked to write a ‘two-part, seven-hour piece with 24 characters, eight acts, and an epilogue.’ Now think about (what very well could be a warm-up to a session at The Lab) writing a scene starring a gay, a Jew, and a Mormon. See the difference? At The Lab, we tap the sources that show us how the latter can, over time, become the former.”
Matthew and longtime-Labber, Michael Mullen, the singer/songwriter of Pocket Shelly and member of the notorious band The Size Queens, went together to see all seven hours of the restaging of Angels in one day at Berkeley Rep. Michael, too, had seen the premier at Eureka Theater (though he and Matthew wouldn't meet until 2004). Actor Stephen Spinella, who’d originated the role of Prior, brilliantly played Roy Cohn. Testimony to the power of art and the fact of human endurance! Just being in the same room with others (including Mullen and Spinella) who'd been there 27 years ago made Matthew see, "Yes! Progress has been made!," but as The Times reviewer points out, the abuses of power that once kept people closeted may have shifted a bit, but they're still there. The fight is not over.
Caldwell Tidicue (also known as Bob The Drag Queen) played the role of Belize. He wasn't yet alive during the Reagan/early AIDS years, but he reminds us that Angels is ultimately about human relationships. (Matthew has watched every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race since Season 1, and Tidicue is one of his all-time favorite performers, imagine his surprise and delight in finding out he'd be playing Belize). Tidicue's is a great reminder.
Labbers are encouraged to dig into the political (as personal) and the individual (as political). One without the other can slip into feeling either didactic or navel-gazing. However, one entwined with the other can inspire several generations of people.
If you didn’t get to catch the play in Berkeley or in New York on this last run, check out the documentary Wrestling With Angels. Kushner talks more about his life, his work, his process.
Speaking of flashes from the past: one of my first published stories is now part of this online anthology. Check it out and see what you think. It's a pre-Grindr pre-Tinder story of dating, friendship, and triangulation. When the character answers the phone--get this--it's a landline!
Also: congratulations to Lauren O'Neal and Chris Stroop co-editors of By the Rivers of Babylon: Apostates Remember Believing, an anthology of personal essays by people who have left the church. They just signed a contract with Epiphany Publishing. This essay, also published in Guernica, will be included.
Are you a Labber with news to be included in The Lab’s next Newsletter? If so, please send. Also: stay tuned for a call for an what could be an exciting Fall reading. Meetings are in the works, and I'm hoping it'll be like The Lab's 10th Anniversary Reunion/Reading, with alumni reading with current participants.