Judson Merrill Takes a Workshop

My literary career is young but it’s never too early to begin stuffing moth balls into the wool sweater of posterity. For the benefit of scholars and fans alike, I will use this space on The Outlet, on a semi-regular basis, to release a selection of my correspondence and other papers. Enjoy. (Universities interested in acquiring the complete Judson Merrill archive should contact me through my web site.)

Dear Jane,

I really enjoyed reading “Climate Control.” Your story definitely has a voice and a sense of place and is populated with characters! I do have some reservations, however. I love the premise of an HVAC repairman in the middle of a divorce but I can’t help wondering if you’ve brought in enough conflict. What if, instead of getting stuck in an air duct, your protagonist murders his wife and then hides in an air duct? That could raise the stakes without changing what you have now. Consider it.


I think what you’re responding to is a question of language. My story needs to be told in this lyrical, soaring patois. I consider each sentence a sort of tone poem. When you write, “Much in your story borders on the meaningless; portentous but without direction or even subject,” I think, “Exactly!”

I’m challenging the idea of narrative. How many times have we all heard, “Your story doesn’t make sense. What’s happening on page 2? Why is this character doing this?” I’m turning those questions back on the reader. Why does she expect things like explicable actions and believable motivations?

With that in mind, please give “Field of (Dis)vision” another read and let me know what you think.

Hi Christophe,

“Frat Mouse” is your strongest work yet. Your language is often evocative and you really draw the reader along with the way you describe sequential events. However, I did wonder, “What’s the occasion for the telling?” I know your main character is pledging a frat when it catches fire and he almost dies of smoke inhalation, but presumably this kind of thing happens at fraternities every day. So why tell this story? Give gifts to the reader, not to yourself!

Separately, have you noticed that Jane really resists feedback? I would hope we’re all doing this to improve as writers, not just to collect pats on the back.


I can’t tell if you’re joking. If I don’t write “Laplander’s Love Nest” in the future continuous, what’s the point of writing it?


Super busy this week. Only got a chance to skim “Pointillist Nightmare” but it looks like you’ve got a pretty big confrontation scene toward the end with a lot of crying and screaming. I guess I’m worried that you haven’t earned it and, right now, it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Find some way to build to that emotion more.

Also, maybe break up whatever’s on page 7 and 8. Those long paragraphs just turned me off and, since I was in a rush, I skipped right over them.


Thanks much for your comments on “Time Grieves.” I’m relieved to get some feedback that’s not personally motivated. (How ironic is it that Jane complains about the criticism she gets and then goes around outside of class calling your writing “ham-fisted and reductive”?) I’ll especially take your advice and look again at the section where the Concept of Time kills pheself. However, I think you’ve missed a lot of what I’m trying to do with this story.

You say you find the perspective confusing. That’s sort of on purpose. The story is written in the fourth person, which I know is a challenge and might alienate some readers, but it’s a really strong fit for the story I want to tell. But, yes, that’s why I use the pronoun “phe.” And that should explain my word choice since, obviously, I can’t use the verb “to be.”


Your latest, “The Yurt,” isn’t quite working. I don’t believe your characters and your language is awkward. Your plot’s confusing and your structure’s manipulative. Also, your sense of pacing is off and I have trouble seeing your setting.

Hope that helps without being “too proscriptive.” Good luck with the next draft!

Hey Everybody,

Please find attached “Sumo Dating,” my story for workshop next week. I didn’t get a chance to spell check but it’s still a pretty solid rough draft. (No page numbers, either. Sorry.) Also, note that this is only the first two-thirds of the story. The final scene will sort of explain everything that’s come before and give the story its emotional ballast. Keep that in mind when reading.

On a related note, I can’t be in class next week, so I’d appreciate if someone could make an audio recording or transcribe the discussion of “Sumo Dating” and send it to me.

Finally, could someone forward this on to Jane? I think she’s blocking my emails.


* * *

The full Judson Merrill archives can be found here.

–Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at judsonmerrill.com.

Photo from The New Yorker [Robert Frost (second from left) at Bread Loaf]

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