Early Spring News from The Lab :: Writing Classes with Matthew Clark Davison

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 2:37pm


Dear Labbers and Friends of The Lab, 

10 Years :: 20+ Cycles :: 120+ Sessions :: 140+ Writers & Artists :: 200+ Labbers :: 4 Locations ::
1,000s of Pages of Your Stories 

Time flies! It's hard to believe that tomorrow marks the final week of the current 10-year-anniversary cycle of The Lab. So far this Cycle, we've examined the artistic processes of painter Amy Sherald and writers Joan Didion, Lucia Berlin, Jamaica Kincaid, and Mary Gaitskill. Thanks for your continued support and I hope to see/read/hear from you soon. 


First-Time Labber
Chandler James
Week 1 of The Lab

"Before signing up, I'd been recycling the same material since I began writing, and hoped The Lab would inspire new entry points to my creative nonfiction. 

Upon arrival at the Swedenborgian Church— the meeting place on Tuesday nights for The Lab— I was greeted by a lush, plateau-like garden floating near the top of Lyon street. The building is tucked away between The Presidio and Pacific Heights, just a few blocks down from the Lyon Street Steps, where slices of the San Francisco skyline peek through Lebanon Cedars in the courtyard. It’s a quiet corner of the city submerged in nature. The only church property in San Francisco to be designated a National Historic Landmark--and if that's not enough--there's even a giant conch shell where, in 1877, Robert Frost is said to have been baptized. If you appreciate design, you'll see how the carpenters created the church chairs without nails. 

How could I not be inspired? 

"We're going to start by writing," Matthew said, promptly at seven, as we settled into a circle of seats in the reception space: a room with an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking on to the church's garden. We readied our pens (and laptops), and Matthew said, "Make a list of things that you (or your character) find(s) personally appalling." 

Already, my imagination started humming. Appalling? "If you’re working on an existing story," he said, choose specific moments that might lead to wider-reaching implications." 

Introductions would come later. 

After five minutes of brainstorming our lists, we quickly went around the circle saying our names and one thing our character finds appalling. My character, on a swim team as a kid, couldn't do a flip-turn. 

Then a projector goes on, and there's a segment of the new Joan Didion documentary beaming on the wall. Didion describes meeting a five-year-old whose mother dosed her on acid--not as appalling (like most of us would think)--but as “gold.” 

Writer's gold.  

We discussed the possible benefits of refraining from judging our characters and their actions. 

During the discussion, Matthew treats everyone as equals, and somehow even got the introverts talking. He reminded us, “No one needs to sound like an English Lit major. Here we talk like people. People who love reading. People who love words.” 

Initially, I couldn't see how to connect step one— what did my character’s inability to flip-turn underwater have to do with my book? The answer is in step two: naming a technique. 

Rebecca Mead said about Didion: “Without empathy, it would be impossible to persuade…But without detachment, how would you ever have the stomach to write anything at all?” 

Matthew directed us: "Go back to your scene. This time, consciously attempt to balance and weave both an empathetic/partial version of the "appalling" scene with moments/passages of detachment." 

Suspending my own (and my character's) judgment and asking how it might serve the scene became the jumping-off point for my character. Soon I was synthesizing everything I’d already known about my story with what I've discovered in the warm-up and during the Didion discussion.  I had an opportunity to see my character as multi-faceted, more like a living individual with flaws and contradicting behaviors. 

I changed my scene's setting to the pool and shared what I wrote with the group. My surprise for what I discovered in my piece won out against my usual apprehension to speak up. 

Reading my writing at The Lab was a learning experience in itself. Everyone in the room jotted down lines which grabbed their attention, and then they chose one of my lines to repeat back to me. 

Sometimes when a Labber shares, the rest of us share back the same line, producing a chant, signaling that line as a possible pathway to another moment of gold. 

Labbers can only share for up-to two minutes. And there's a timer. This time squeeze made me carefully select the most compelling moments in what I'd just written. 

It also served as a relief when getting ready to hear others read. It's enthralling listening to other Labbers’ interpretation of the same prompts, discovering tiny windows into the existence of characters (and the minds of their writers) that until that night, I’d never met.   
After, we said goodnight and took a final prompt with us for optional-posting within the online Lab group. The format? Post your piece, and others active in the forum can respond by quoting a few lines that pique their curiosity, make them want to continue reading. There’s no pressure to share or post. It’s proposed as an opportunity to deepen your piece, get feedback from Matthew and your fellow Labbers, and practice craft elements and techniques. It’s great not to have the pressures of must-deliver-deadlines like at work or school, but what I got down on paper during The Lab session made me want to go home and write. It's hard to resist digging once you've found gold." 

Lab Favorite :: Profile of Artist Nick Cave

Nick Cave is a performance artist, sculptor, designer, and educator. He appeared on Matthew's radar soon after he created the first of his "Soundsuits," which Cave's bio describes as: "surreally majestic objects blending fashion and sculpture—that originated as metaphorical suits of armor in response to the Rodney King beatings and have evolved into vehicles for empowerment. Fully concealing the body, the “Soundsuits” serve as an alien second skin that obscures race, gender, and class, allowing viewers to look without bias towards the wearer’s identity."

At some point, while creating his first sculpture, made of twigs, Cave discovered that the suit emitted sounds reminiscent of voice in protest. As the project developed, so did his inspiration. Each piece is unique in composition: vibrant colors and an abundance of texture contribute to a multi-layered, visceral experience for the viewer. In an interview with Jessica Ford, Cave said, “There’s always one object that becomes the instigator that dictates how the piece may…be built out.” 

At The Lab, we studied Nick Cave's process of honing in, as he does, on a single object-as-instigator. Through a series of steps, Labbers searched for, listed, chose, and then attempted the precise placement of these objects in their work. We purposely avoided going for any A+B=C symbolism and instead located objects organic to our settings and allowed meaning to develop. As Cave says, “It’s about dreaming for the audience, but I’ve got to be able to set up parameters. What do I…need to put in place to allow you to dream?” 

Matthew paired video interviews with Cave and documentary of his work with Brandon Hobson’s (very) short story “Past the Econolodge.” Matthew asked Labbers to form parallels between the sculptures and the story. Hobson's story contains an instigating object (Matthew won't say what he thinks it is because each Labber is free to choose her or his own). Hobson's portrayal of the physical world in the story invites writers-as-readers to examine the precise placing and naming of objects as one way to establish and heighten meaning. 

Nick Cave’s work is on permanent display at The Smithsonian and Museum of Modern Art. Right now it's also part of a group show called "The Sunshine Eaters" at OCAD University’s OnSite Gallery in Toronto until April 15th. All the artists take inspiration from nature to portray their social and political outrage. Quoted in the exhibition brochure, Cave says: “The intensity of what I was reading about and experiencing with the L.A. riots was so difficult for me, particularly as a Black male, and it made me start to think about ideas of feeling devalued, less than, dismissed and so I started to think about materials in that same sort of way.” Many of the artists on display adapt this frame of mind: tactile, provocative objects that may shift something in the spirit of the viewer. 

The Lab Recommends
Labber Peggy Knickerbocker talking about Armistead Maupin. See Peggy tell another story at Porchlight.

Porchlight, A Storytelling Series based in San Francisco, is at it again later this month. Co-founders Beth Lisick and Labber Arline Klatte curate six performers for each show to tell ten-minute true stories without prior memorization or the use of notes on stage. This month, on March 19th, they’re hosting the 2018 Neighborhood Project featuring North Beach Stories at Bimbo’s 365 Club. Peggy Knickerbocker, also a writer/Labber, has been chosen as one of the storytellers in this series.

Known for its’ innovative mode of storytelling, the series has been entertaining San Francisco crowds for sixteen years. The events consist of sometimes shocking, always original content which ultimately inspires us, as writers, to identify the stories in our own life which have never been told. There are still a few tickets available here.

Oh. And I love what David Sedaris said about Peggy: 
 "Peggy could take a dirty diaper, a bath mat, and a handful of rubber bands and wear it all in such a way that you’d swear it came from some store in Japan and cost a fortune. I have always admired her sense of style. And her sense of humor."


Have you seen WEIGHTLESS at Z Space? Labber Wendy vanden Heuvel co-produced this fantastic rock opera written by The Kilbanes co-starring the Lila Blue, who just performed at the 10th Anniversary Lab Reunion Reading. I've seen it once and am going again on Thursday. It's playing through March 18th. Get tickets here

Contests :: Share Your Work 

If we're inspired by others' work, it follows that our work may also inspire. Therefore, we submit.

The Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize is open until March 14th. Since 2004 the journal has accepted submissions of ten to fifty page short stories in honor of Liza Nelligan, a friend of Colorado State University’s English Department. The story selected for first prize will be awarded $2,000 and publication in the Fall/Winter issue; however, all submissions will be considered for publication. It’s run by CSU’s Center for Literary Publishing with an opportunity for graduate students to gain publishing experience. As they are dedicated to choosing contemporary literature by unpublished authors, this contest could potentially kickstart a new writer’s career.
March 15th is the deadline for The Pinch Literary Journal's contests. They're accepting submissions of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Pinch features fine art in each issue as well as the work of both new and established writers. Winners in each category receive $1,000 and publication in the magazine. Run by the University of Memphis MFA program, they've published Mary Oliver, Robert Penn Warren, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few. Judges in each genre will choose a first prize winner as well as second and third runner-ups whose work may also be published in the journal.