Monday, June 16, 2014

My First Time: Susan Jane Gilman

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street.  She is also the author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which was named one of the 100 Best Books of 2009 by Amazon.  Gilman is also a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered.  She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., The Daily Beast, Real Simple, Washington City Paper, and The Village Voice, among others.  Her short fiction has appeared in Story, Ploughshares, Beloit Fiction Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Greensboro Review.  Gilman received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.  She currently divides her time between Geneva, Switzerland and New York City.  Click here to visit her website; you can also read more about her adventures as a world traveler and ex-pat at her blog A View From a Broad.

My First Writing Workshop Critique

I was twenty-six when I walked into my first Master of Fine Arts workshop to have my fiction critiqued.  For years, I’d been working on a novel, whose prose I’d honed and polished as meticulously as a diamond cutter.  It was my secret hope that the opening chapter would impress my class so much, they’d leap to their feet and ask me why I was bothering to get an MFA at all.

Instead, the professor leading the seminar—the sublime novelist Rosellen Brown—picked up the first chapter I’d submitted, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I think you should put this in a drawer.”

By “drawer,” it was clear she meant something circular, emptied regularly by the janitor.

“Obviously, you know how to use language,” she said.  “But your novel has no plot.  There’s nothing at stake for the characters.  It’s lacking an authorial voice.  And frankly, a white, twenty-something, middle class girl from Manhattan, writing about a white, twenty-something, middle class girl from Manhattan who also happens to be a writer?  I’m sorry,” she said, not unkindly, “but that simply isn’t very interesting.”

The entire workshop fell silent.

“You’ve sacrificed a lot to come to this program,” Rosellen said gently.  “I don’t want you wasting two years in graduate school writing something that fundamentally doesn’t work.”

Like a doctor offering me a prescription, she handed me her home phone number.  “Call me if you want to discuss this further,” she said.  When the workshop concluded, my classmates escorted me out of the building like a casualty of war.

After the weekly workshops, writing students at the University of Michigan usually convened at The Old Town Tavern.  When I arrived, red-nosed and puffy-eyed, I saw that the entire MFA program had already learned of my humiliation.  I assumed they would immediately cast me out as a Literary Untouchable.

Instead, the second-year students poured me a beer.

“In class last year,” one of them laughed, “my professor picked up an entire section of my novel by the staple—the staple!—and said, ‘I don’t think this augurs well for the rest of the book, do you?’”

Another recounted how a National Book Award Winner had come to the program to give a guest workshop: “I was so excited, I baked chocolate chip cookies for him.  But he hated the short story I submitted.  He just sat there, eating cookie after cookie, oblivious to the fact that I’d baked them, while he tore my writing to shreds.”  The students telling these tales were among the most successful in the graduate program.  They’d been winning short-story prizes and publishing in literary journals.  Yet every single one of them had, at one time, been severely critiqued by an esteemed author.

“Look, it’s a compliment,” one of them shrugged.  “Teachers aren’t hard on you if they don’t think you have talent.  If you’re going to be a great writer, you’ve got to be able to accept when something isn’t working.”

Until that evening, no one had ever criticized my writing wholesale; I had been living, in fact, under the impression that I was some sort of prodigy.  Ever since I was eight, teachers had been encouraging me with gold stars and writing awards.  I’d published my first piece in The Village Voice when I was just sixteen.  Surely, I assumed, I was exempt from any normal tribulations of being a writer: I imagined I’d simply pen gorgeous sentences, and everybody would love them.

Yet now, someone had finally dared to enlighten me to the fact that I had a lot to learn; good writing, it seemed, required far more than poetic descriptions.  There was a whole skill-set out there I had not even known existed: Plot structuring.  Pacing.  Point-of-View.  Voice.  Character development.  Showing, not telling.

Walking home, I felt gutted.  Putting my novel in a drawer felt like an amputation: How could I possibly relinquish something I’d invested in for so long?  Back in my apartment, I began rereading the chapter I’d submitted.  For the first time, I saw beyond all my bejeweled words.  What remained was exactly what Rosellen Brown saw: A flaccid plot.  An uninteresting character.  A passive voice.  My novel had a lot of verbal filigree, but not much else.

The next morning, I called her at home.  “Are you okay?” she asked.  “I know I was harsh with you last night, but I had to be.”

“Please,” I said, exhaling into the receiver.  “Tell me.  Where should I start?”

*     *     *

Twenty years later, I am the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books.  Only now am I finally publishing a novel.  My disastrous first attempt still sits in a drawer—and in my new book, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, Rosellen Brown is enshrined in the acknowledgments.


  1. Love Rosellen Brown's work. So glad you continued. This essay has made me want to read your work. Best, Rochelle Shapiro

  2. Rosellen was also my first teacher, and in my acknowledgments, and also in a chapter of a book I wrote, so helpful was she. A beautiful and honest and necessary piece, this.

  3. A great example of how constructive criticism can be used to spur someone to great things. From what I've read so far in "Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street", I'd say Ms. brown would be very impressed.