Ben White
Ben White graduated with a BA in neurobiology from Harvard College and enjoyed his creative writing workshops immensely. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dirty Napkin, Dogzplot, SUB-LIT, and others. He now studies medicine in Texas and thinks out-loud at

A Harvard Workshop (June 20, 2009. Issue 6.)

“I don’t know if I’m reading too much into this,” the Canadian girl says, “but I got the sense that the father was abusive.” In a Harvard “advanced fiction” workshop, every male character is potentially abusive—especially fathers. The classroom is burgundy, filled wall to wall by a huge oak table and the dozen students around it. This week’s author sits at the end of the table, looking dejected, taking notes in a leather notebook with a shiny pen.

The professor—who sits near the door, posturing as just another member of the workshop—remains silent. Quiet hangs over the class, bits of silence falling like unwelcome rain drops. Awkwardness comes like a wave, ready to crash down, wash them, drown them. They wait long enough to move on without being unnecessarily dismissive. In a Harvard course taught by a published author, hers is the only commentary that matters; other students are consequently ignored unless confirmed by her slight nod of the head, a quiet smile, or the words “I agree.”

“The city is almost like character itself,” the professor says (the students nod vigorously), “It reminds me a bit of Bruno Schulz’s writing—the confluence of all aspects of reality into a realistic yet fantastical whole.” She has read everything ever written. She references stories and authors that the student don’t recognize, and then, after a choral response of blank faces, the minutes pass as the basic plot is explained, the climax ruined, the ending given away to
explain that Salter’s descriptions are like dreams or that Marquez doesn’t actually like it when people call his work magical realism. Every parallel is explored, every analogy given with relentless energy, topped by bright green and magenta flecked reading glasses, black mock-turtlenecks, busy necklaces, and long off-topic personal stories.

A boy responds, attempting to please. “Yes, and going off that, I almost felt as though the story was really about the city, because, to me, it was the most compelling character in the piece.” Wearing a tie, again. He brings the conflict between the young writer’s inner doubts and the desire to maintain an acceptable level of elitism to a head: what does that guy who wears ties every week know about literature? My story may have flat characters and a contrived plot, but the class workshopped his story last week and it didn’t even make sense.

And that’s the trend, because there are no genre fiction writers here. Only Harvard students, only makers of art, who want to write the stories that demand to be written, stories that practically write themselves, complete with trendy drive-the-grammatician-nuts style and plot points so subtle even a basic understanding of the story is completely out of reach. And yet, even through the haze of ego and the judgment, the workshop members know that if that same story were published in a magazine, they might try a little harder to figure it out: it wouldn’t be needlessly vague; it would be oblique. But week after week, everything is shown, nothing is told, and the reader/writers come in just waiting for their turn to have the class put them down in the politest ways possible as they sit there silently, taking notes and hoping that maybe someone in the room gets it. Or at least that the grade scribbled at the bottom will be at least an A minus.