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Residency, Day 9: Workshop of Doom

The view from my room is still pretty. Green parrots alight on the last tree I can see beside the path that runs beside my room. This morning, there was the tiniest little brown robin on the eucalyptus outside my window. It was such a wee thing -- smaller than the leaves. I haven't sat outside in four days. Too many deadlines sort themselves in. I should go outside later today.

There was my unpatented workshop of doom this afternoon. Fictitious Facts: Religion in Genre Fiction, it was called. Which means approximately one person knew what genres we were dealing with at all, out of 8 (y'know, being distributed on the flyers and everything). And that was Chris the Treasurer, which was really nice, because Chris is a nice vocal fellow, and he loves the Dune. Except it'd have been nice, see, if the others were into genres at the workshop about genres.

We had an eclectic mix of people. Is that still the polite word for mismatched? Interesting mix. I had an icebreaking exercise where the attendees had to write down the concept of their piece in 2 lines, and find out the name, genre, title and concept of their neighbour. Two women came in late -- Church folk, who were sulky from the start.

The icebreaking excercise told me lots of things, starting with the fact that religious fiction, rather than religious genre (SF/F/H) fiction was the order of the day. We can work with that. Most 'genre' fiction has to slip in between mainstream-ish genres anyway.

The attendees were mostly old. Santa warned me about this. He warned that I would get this demographic of elderly people with their nice piece about angels in their lives. I wasn't surprised. There was all of one young person in the entire room, who wasn't me. Thing is, I kind of like this demographic if only because their views of religion are always generally more interesting than youngish, over-literate, smartypants-types. Thing I don't like about this demographic: I have to work that much harder to work within our genre fiction theme to make it relevant to them.

I explained the first exercise as a summarizing exercise -- helpful for cover letters and making a pitch. I'd wanted to connect this with a closing exercise at the end of the workshop about the difficulties in selling religious genre fiction. (Never made it that far. Ran out of time.)

The second exercise was naming the first 5 traits of angels and demons that came to mind. Half the class took Angels, and the other half took Demons. I was hoping for more consistent hits on traits between the attendees. Interestingly, the Angel folk consistently agreed on the same traits, and the Demon folk came up with a varied and bombastic list of stuff. However, the discussion that ensued, mostly self-propagated at that, about how the traits were relevant to the individuals present, was worth it. The summary I gave everyone was that people on both sides of the table seemed to be agreeing on the same traits for the same creatures, and that this was because they all came from the same cultural base. People from the same cultural base find it easy to understand the same religious concepts. This allowed for religion to be a very accessible tool in writing, with a vast array of easily obtained resources. One would not have to really explain what an angel looked like -- the people on the other side of the table would know the basic traits at some level. You didn't have to explain demons as being evil, because that's what other people immediately assume from sharing that cultural basis.

Also, when your workshop consists of two pessimistic ex-Catholics, one hippie, one moderate Christian, one possible agnostic, one clear freethinker who couldn't care less and two very happy Churchgoers, one of whom makes a lot of noise, you have to step on the Churchgoers hard. Don't worry about hurting their small feelings, because they'll dominate the bloody conversation anyway, and it's not fair to other people.

Additionally, when the moderator of the workshop is atheist, you have to do everything in your power to not tell people you're atheist till after the workshop. People do ask.

We then had a roundtable discussion on where members of the group last saw a religious image or concept being used in the media. Two things immediately became clear from the reports filtering in, that the focus appeared to be liberalization of the Church, and finding means to make the Church more accessible to people by generalizing concepts of religion. This was nice because it tied in with another of my points: the role of the religious genre author is to take religious concepts and make them accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

I then went into how faith was a similar mechanism to the approach of a reader coming into genre fiction. Religion requires a believer to have faith in its precepts, to believe in the things that the religion claims have happened. A genre reader walks into genre fiction willing to believe that the things he's reading in the work can be imagined.

The third exercise was passing around three pictures of completely non-Western depictions of angels and demons (or close approximations thereof). Participants were divided into three groups, and got one picture per group. They were then required to first decide if the picture was of a demon or of an angel, describe what they saw and use three words from the board that was used to describe an angel or demon in that description.

The three provided pictures in question were Hanuman, Ravana and Lady He (of the 8 Heavenly Immortals). I was cheating with Lady He, but that was only because it became horribly difficult for me to find a clear black and white sketch of a heavenly maiden.

The group that got Ravana couldn't figure out if he was Evil or Good, and therefore didn't know if he was demonic or angelic. The fact that he was the colour blue apparently didn't help. Explained who he was, also noted with interest how the first group was immediately flabbergasted as to how to connect the rakshasa with imagery in their own culture.

The second group put down Hanuman as the monkey god. (Interesting from a cultural angle if only because the East Asian monkey god very likely was borrowed from concepts of Hanuman.) They knew he was a mischief maker and a joker, and immediately put him down as a neutral character. This led into a discussion on how deities and heavenly beings of the East tended to be more neutral than the ones seen in Judaic-Christian-Islamic pantheon. There's less clear definitions of good and evil, with the gods having personalities more akin to the people they represented. They can switch sides, and the physical features may not always help.

The last group identified Lady He as Chinese by costume, though they weren't really able to decide on her gender. They thought she might be a force of good, because she was carrying a food offering, the scenery around her also looked 'heavenly' and given that the Chinese were into ancestor-based worship. I was suitably impressed.

My point in that direction, again, was that religious genre fiction was based in and depended on cultural concepts. How do you get a religious idea across to someone who is completely unaware of the idea in question? Appealing to as wide an audience as possible is a good habit to keep in mind. Know the audience. Know what works for them. Make them sympathize with the conflict and characters.

Churchgoing lady then asked if people in Asia really believed in the Monkey God. I mean, it's a monkey right? Do they really believe in monkey-shaped gods? Do they just leave the offerings and be done with it? My response to that was that in much the same way there were people who really believed in Christianity and applied it in their lives, and there were also people who went to church for the sake of it, there were people out there who really did believe the Monkey God exists, and those who likewise worshipped as a matter of conditioning. But did they really believe in the Monkey God?

Discussion breaks out about concepts of gods with human traits. Someone brings up Nordic gods and how Loki is an equivalent trickster god. The same person quoted A Passage to India and the difference between stuffy British ladies and earthy Indian women. I later mention that Asian gods are based in practicalities -- the Chinese diaspora have a range of gods, for example, to do with making money. Religion isn't always heavy on philosophy, and has more to do with relaying practical wisdom. Someone points out this is similar to Aesop's fables -- under which case, a monkey wouldn't look strange at all. And a lady relays a thought that this might be like cartoons -- using animals because it's politically correct and much easier to relay a moral message this way.

This was my cue to ask why substituting a human being with a magical/mystical image was better to convey a moral or social message. Churchgoing lady kept repeating that it was entertainment. Various types agreed. When I asked why it was entertaining, the reasons ranged around it being a harmless subject to approach difficult questions. I pointed out that substituting this way was also fascinating. The reason mystical images work is because they fascinate people. They grabbed their attention. The job of the religious genre author was to fascinate his audience. Again, the audience has to sympathize with the characters at hand, or at least intrigue them. Take for example, Tom & Jerry. They spent decades just chasing each other around. What's the appeal? They were capable of fascinating generations of a wide range of people.

Break time was spent with me nearly running from the room. I was terrified of the workshop. I was nervous coming in, and I was mostly hopping on nerves for the entire first one and half hours. Tea helped. It turns out only three people brought writing to the workshop, which was a relief, because we were running for time. All the pieces brought in were of a good short length.

We returned from break to do the two set reading pieces I planned: Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. All of one person appeared to know this novel. Many people said the four pages I brought were difficult to read. The concepts were rich and nearly unfathomable. Questions we asked:

Who is Paul?
I noticed a considerable amount of people guessed he was a religious and political leader, but everyone seemed to be sidestepping the fact he was a Prophet character having revelations (in that excerpt).

What are the main themes?
Everyone got the idea the people in this story were at war. Everyone also got the idea that the passage talked about a reluctant leader and the dangers of mixing religion and politics.

At least two people got that the culture being represented in the Freemen was nomadic, primitive and heavily stoned. Chris the Treasurer turned out to be a Dune fan, and inadvertently did the honours of explaining Dune to the workshop. I got in my two cents about Dune being a great example of a successful SF author handling religion in fiction (people did ask how something like Dune could be considered a classic), and also the idea that Dune was ultimately a great space chase for the Great Opiate -- that all the religions in Dune, for which Christians, Muslims and Jews are represented, sought to conquer space exploration by conquering access to the Great Opiate. And partly because this is my workshop and I needed to say at least something like this once: Religion is the Great Opiate.

After which, we did Stranger in a Strange Land. I chose the scene of Mike's demise for our workshop, only because it was such a clever, hippie, TV commercial event of a thing (and most of the other parts of SiaSL are either hard to take on their own or somewhat boring-er). I assured everyone it would be lots easier to read than Dune.

Who is Mike?
He's head of a cult, an anti-Christ and a man being killed for deviating from the norm (of religions).

What are the main themes?
That society dislikes it when you go against the norm. They also picked up that religion in SiaSL was commercialized fanfare.

My take was that Mike is a hippie. Stranger in a Strange Land had a hippie preaching peace and love (and getting shot in the head), and in fact was a social commetary on hippies and the fallacies of their idealism. I pointed out this theme had relevance to our times -- the hippie generation of the late 60s were today's politicians. (Hippie attendee protested that hippie-ism isn't dead!)

The remaining portion of the workshop was dedicated to the attendee's own work. Only 2 of the 3 pieces was religious. The third happened to be a historical romance. I handed out guidelines for three religious genre fiction publisher's who were currently open to submissions. It was originally meant to be part of the earlier icebreaking exercise, where I'd get the attendees to try and fit their neighbour's work into one of the three publications shown based on the guidelines.

I left the messages of the afternoon: that the religious genre fiction author had to work to appeal to the widest audience possible, that religion is a widely available tool but also susceptible to cliches because of it, and that one had to make the fiction sympathetic for the audience. Knowing the audience and what makes them tick was the key. I also reminded everyone that the characters had to first and foremost fascinate the audience, because without grabbing the audience's attention to begin with, everything else was moot. (And yes, that's actually general advice for general fiction, but you work with what you have.)

After-workshop conversations were had. People left. It was a weird rush. It took me hours just to process what had occured. I think underneath the entire horror of running the workshop, I actually enjoyed it. I retired for the day. Kind of. I still have five articles and a translator's test to finish. I have also recently found out that our garden has wisteria. It's not very large or very healthy wisteria, but it's very nice indeed.

The Thursday Night Group apparently knows me now as that girl with the story that was all nicely about people having dinner and suddenly there were dead bodies.

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