It’s a truism that the writer you read on the page is not the writer you meet in the flesh. It’s for exactly this reason that meeting our cultural heroes is so often a profound disappointment. The transcendent singer on the stage is a bawdy lech in the bar. The poet who expresses beauty in words is a drunken misanthrope in person. So we commonly separate the artist from the human being, the icon from the reality. But when the actions of our cultural heroes go beyond bad behaviour, into to moral outrage, illegality and immorality, that separation becomes far harder. And in some cases, impossible.
The accusations of child abuse levelled at science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley, who died in 1999 age 69, are of the most serious kind. Published last week on the blog of Deirdre Saoirse Moen, these accusations come from Bradley’s own daughter, Moira Greyland. They include accounts of physical and sexual abuse, and were later joined by a brutally affecting poem written by Greyland in “honour” of Bradley, Mother’s Hands. Bradley’s reputation when alive had already been considerably damaged by the conviction of her husband on charges of child molestation in 1990.
It’s really impossible for any of us who haven’t experienced it to really comprehend abuse from a parent. But that experience becomes even more complicated when the abuser is famous. The Guardian today reports the abuse allegations against Marion Zimmer Bradley by her daughter Moira Greyland. In doing so it spoke directly to Greyland. This line in particular hit my emotions very hard, “I thought that my mothers fans would be angry with me”. The relationship between writers and fans has never felt more complex. Moira Greyland’s words in full are below.
Greyland, writing to the Guardian via email, said that she had not spoken out before “because I thought that my mothers fans would be angry with me for saying anything against someone who had championed womens rights and made so many of them feel differently about themselves and their lives. I didnt want to hurt anyone she had helped, so I just kept my mouth shut”.
Greyland, a harpist, singer and opera director, said it was now clear to her that “one reason I never said anything is that I regarded her life as being more important than mine: her fame more important, and assuredly the comfort of her fans as more important. Those who knew me, knew the truth about her, but beyond that, it did not matter what she had done to me, as long as her work and her reputation continued.”
She hailed the “outpouring of love and support” which has followed her revelations. “What has happened in the past 20 years, apparently, is that rape, child abuse and incest have been enough in the public eye for them to be accepted, and victims and survivors to routinely be believed now, and there are so many survivors among my mothers fans, as well as supporters of survivors and decent people who care about the truth that my mother is now being held to the very standards she wrote about,” her email continued.
“I am so glad I spoke out, because on the blog, so many people have shared their OWN stories of abuse and incest and heartbreak. I am going to keep talking about it, if only so that those people who need to share their own stories will do so now.”
Imagine a group of mechanics, faces grimed with sweat and dirt, hands grazed by friction burns, overalls grubby with grease. Imagine them standing around the carcass of a motor car, stripped down to its component parts, sucking their teeth about why it won’t run.
“It needs more oomph.” Says one. “Oomph?” Says another. “Yeah, oomph. You know. More go. More VROOOM!”
“To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria.”
“Naaaw. It’s the seats. I can’t stand faux leather seating. I’d never put those seats in any car of mine.”
“I’ll tell you the problem,” Says the garage’s hotshot young mechanic. “It hasn’t got four wheel drive, that’s the problem.” “But…it’s a tiny little commuter car, what’s it need four wheel drive for?” “Every car needs four wheel drive!” Bellows the hotshot.
The old gaffer steps forward, he’s figured his way to the root of the malfunction. “What we’ve got here is the wrong driver. This car works just fine, the driver just doesn’t understand it.”
Everyone nods, because when the gaffer speaks, you nod. Even when he speaks nonsense.
Now. Would you trust these guys to fix your car? I certainly hope the answer is NO, for your car’s sake.
But these are exactly the kind of comments you will encounter in most writing workshops. I teach creative writing and have led literally hundreds of workshop sessions. I’ve been a member of numerous writing groups since my teens. I’ve heard all these comments and many more equally useless and unhelpful ones. “It needs more pace.” “I don’t like the characters.” “There’s no plot / there’s too much plot.” “I don’t get what it means.”
The basic problem in most writing workshops is that the members do not know how to write. They’re like a gang of amateur, untrained mechanics. So in place of actual expertise these writers employ opinion and, most corrosive of all, emotion. The sad truth is that the majority of the criticism dished out in workshops is actually the critic puffing up their own ego or pre-empting criticism of their own work. This is why workshops can, at their worst, become festering feud pits.
To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria. First, every member must be at least competent in their technical knowledge of writing. Second, all the members must have a shared language to express their technical knowledge. If you can’t recognise and name a carburettor you have no place in a garage. If you can’t recognise and name a three act structure you have no place in a writing workshop.
A good writing workshop can be invaluable. The Clarion writers workshop I joined in the summer of 2008 helped my writing immensely. It wasn’t perfect. But all 18 workshop members had sufficient knowledge of writing to effectively critique and help each other. That also helped stop the workshop collapsing in to personal feuding, even when very negative and contentious critiques were delivered. Is a workshop essential for good writing? No. But critical reflection on your own creative work is, and unless you have a supreme level of ego control, you won’t be able to achieve that without help from other people.