The Thole Life

The first thing you should know is that I am now the proud owner of a t-shirt with the following quote printed on the back:  “You must thole” ~ Colm Tóibín

What is “thole” you ask? (Don’t worry, I had to ask the same question!)

First appearing in Beowulf, migrating to Scottish, then Gaelic, and most surprisingly, leaping to the American South, “thole” roughly translates to “You must suffer and endure to make meaning out of life.” However great a word “thole” is, I don’t think that “tholing” is an activity that we must seek out. It comes naturally to all of us. When we are born, an invisible “thole” stamp is embedded into our foreheads. It is in our destiny to thole. Everyone’s tholing experience will be unique, but thole we shall do. This is a great reminder for writers. If we are to craft stories of the “real” human experience (even if our stories are populated with fictional characters), then we must let our characters thole.

This is just one of the great lessons I learned during my week at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, which was indeed a challenging week, but oh so rewarding. I produced four (rough) first drafts of short stories, and one piece of journalism, in which I interviewed a sweet local Gambier, OH resident name Deb, who works part-time in the local clothing boutique. I met the poet Carl Phillips, who coincidentally was the high school Latin teacher of one of my current VCFA professors. Most of all, my workshop group was the best class I could have asked for. Our group of ten writers, all ages and experience levels, was immediately comforted and encouraged by our instructor, Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine. Whenever I attend a class/workshop/conference, I make note of the structures, discussion questions, etc—anything that could inform my own teaching styles in the future. I was very impressed with Ghassan’s workshop structure:

  1. The writer whose piece is to be workshopped stands up and reads the piece out loud to the class. After this, the writer will remain quiet during the discussion (unless asked directly to speak).
  2. Ghassan asks, “What is this piece about?” While this question may sound trivial, it is one of the most important questions for the writer to hear answered. If there are disagreements in the interpretations of major plot points by the reader and writer, then the writer needs to work on clarification of those points before anything else. In addition to plot points and narrative events, the workshop group can also point out themes or deeper issues the story is pointing toward.
  3. “Let’s check in with the writer. How are you feeling about what the workshop group said this piece is about.” It’s important for the group to know if they were close or way off in regards to the writer’s intentions.
  4. “What is working in this piece?” This is where the writer’s morale is boosted. The workshop members can freely speak about what they admire in the story and in the writer’s unique way of crafting the narrative.
  5. “Any suggestions for this writer?” At this point, workshop members may point to places in the text where they were confused, may offer suggestions for places where the writer could linger and expand on certain details, or ask questions to spark further ideas.
  6. “Does the writer have any questions for the group?” The writer gets the last word of the discussion and can either comment on the suggestions given to them, or ask questions to the group that may have come up during the workshop.
  7. Workshop members with any written notes may choose to give them to the writer.

I feel very grateful for the experience I had, spending a week geeking out over words and books with so many wonderful writers. And now it’s back to the everyday summer grind.

I am working on the thesis—slowly. I’m finding I am in a deep research mode, wanting to read anything that could be relevant. Yesterday, I read the entirety of John Hersey’s Hiroshima and am now in the deep throes of learning about the mysterious johatsu. Each time that I read something, I understand my characters that much more clearly. Of course, with the World Cup on all day, I am currently at my most distracted state.

Can you believe it is already July?! Here are some flowers that have tholed through the elements and are all the more beautiful because of their strength: 

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