Quote: Lee K. Abbott is the author of six previous collections of short stories, many of which have been featured in The Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry Awards. A multiple winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Abbott ….
— back cover of “All Things, All At Once”
My friends May and Julie told me they were ‘groupies’ of Lee K. Abbott. I wasn’t sure what that meant. My mind conjured black-and-white cinema of screaming girls fainting at the sight of The Beatles. The evening before workshops were to begin I understood a little better. The conference was like summer camp. We were divided into units (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) and the majority of campers (writers) returned each year. Greeted their fellow writers with hugs and quick questions about the intervening time. Amenities were primitive in some aspects, but conducive to introspection. Last thing we all said was ‘keep in touch.’
Lee K. Abbott, the metaphorical camp counselor, is the huge draw for fiction writers. And after a few days of workshopping stories under his guidance, I was feeling it. There was the obvious criticism: questions raised within a story that weren’t answered, beginning the actual story on page 8, skipping over the scenes that should be present. But then, on the first day, Lee changed one word in a story from ‘slut’ to ‘fool’ and, no kidding, we all went, “Yessss.” I’m not comfortable getting all gooey, but we trust Lee. To be right. To understand what we’re trying to say. And how to say it better.
My own story. Due to being a ‘W’ in alphabetical order, mine was the last story on the last day. The author has to sit quietly while each of the other writers offers comments around the table in ‘a circle of love.’ I didn’t name it; that name was already in place. Lee directs the conversation through questions or statements to make sure that the critique is productive. My first ‘love’ was a question. Is Sherri’s story a story? All heads swivel toward Lee.
OMG. I didn’t even write a story? I’m a freelance editor with a Master’s in English and I didn’t write a friggin’ story?
Yes, he said. It’s a story.
I slumped with relief. Then piped up. “Are you going to ask me whose story it is?”
He shook his head ‘no.’
And then someone guessed that the ending was wrong. Which I’ve heard before.
He shook his head ‘no’ again, but this time he explained.
And I completely relaxed. In the hands of a master. I don’t know what else to say except that it was a moment of complete confidence. And anyone reading this knows how I worry the details. So you can imagine the freedom in letting someone else drive. And by the end of his explanation we all understood. And Lee was right. My ending was right.
Of course, there were errors on my part and revisions to do including cleaning up the point of view. After the ‘circle of love’ we hand over copies of each story with our own comments to the author. I had more than one person say to disregard their remarks because their suggestions were pre-Lee. Which is a little scary. Because Lee is off to…wherever he is off to…and we are on our own to exchange work and question each other without our fearless leader to moderate.
I’m reminded of Jesus and his twelve disciples. They were a close-knit group with shared experiences. And then, suddenly, the disciples realized their vision of what was to happen was all wrong. Jesus died, came back, ascended, and they were left to spread his teachings. I’m not being so blasphemous as to suggest that Lee is Jesus. I’m just saying that I’d never really understood this aspect of the gospels before. Men intimately familiar with Jesus, a group vocabulary, but individual understanding, different details in the recollection. Interesting.
Jesus appeared a couple of times and then sent the Holy Spirit back down to help out. From Lee we have a copy of twenty rules that ends with: “Bigger than all the rules is the story.” We have T.T. and stuff and a group vow to never use the word ‘pause’ in our writing. We have the promise of next year in the Majestic.