My first ever writing workshop was easily one of the worst experiences I have had as a writer. I didn’t know how to respond to my classmates’ commentary, nor was I allowed to respond. That’s how it works it writing workshops. You sit and you take it, just like I sat and I took garbage for years from people in my life—I was never allowed an opinion or a voice. Not being able to respond is not something that inspires confidence within. I went into that workshop actually liking something I had written, for the first time ever. But no one else did. It brought me right back to that place, that place of not being good enough.
The piece all started with a dog. I interviewed an animal shelter worker who told me an incredibly interesting tale about a dog she had fallen in love with that was about to be euthanized unfairly. I decided that the best way to tell the story was to use both first and second person, alternating between the two in different crots to help create a profile of the doomed dog. I emailed the professor before the workshop:
“I’m really nervous about workshopping it because it’s SO totally different from any piece I’ve ever written. It’s essentially done at this point, so I might as well go ahead and put it up. But I find that I keep tinkering and moving things around. I’m not sure why I like the second person, but I do. It allows me to put myself in a situation I wasn’t actually in while still remaining removed. Switching tenses allows me to show where I’m actually IN the scene. If that makes sense. I’m excited to see what you think. I hope it doesn’t suck.”
She wrote back:
“I’m excited to see what it looks like!”
Then I got to class.
The class did not like the different points of view. They called them terrible and disastrous. The nail that hurt the most was the comment, “This literally killed the piece for me.” I thought that the piece was beautiful, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that. To keep my mouth shut, I wrote in my notebook while people were talking. What is truly amazing to me, looking back at that notebook now, is how the quality of my writing slowly degraded over the course of the twenty minute session. I started out putting a positive spin on comments that were said to try and make myself feel better. Then I moved into just plain writing was said, and after that I started adding in my own little phrases to what people were saying.
“Your lack of transitions is horrible. Grr. You’re an idiot.”
“The tense shifting doesn’t work; you need to come up with a better mode of transition because you’re weird and nobody gets where you were going with it.”
“You (using it) is obnoxious. Get rid of it.”
“*sad face* Why did you think this was a good idea?”
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I have three pages of commentary that I wrote down, and they stopped being useful comments after page one. Where people really were saying the transitions were horrible, I started adding in the little voice in the back of my brain that turned it into a direct insult of me personally. I take criticism much too seriously; I hear everything as a direct insult. I thought that I was getting better at it, and I signed up for the first workshop because I thought that I could take it. But I couldn’t. And by the time I was allowed to talk, I was broken. That wasn’t all the fault of the class; it was partially mine as well. I left in tears.
The professor emailed me within the hour:
“Your profile was awesome. I should have defended what I knew to be amazing about it more to the rest of the class. I tried to lead them into understanding. It failed.
The thing is, I’m asking all of you to take risks, and as writers, you may be better at taking risks than at interpreting the risks of others as readers. I think that was the case today–I think that for both you and for [the other student] no one seemed to give the benefit of the doubt.
This is the first one though. I’ll be better next time, now that I know a bit more about what I’m dealing with.
What’s ironic is that because your piece was such a strong piece, I wanted to make sure (if I could) that you went second–because I felt that if you went first, and we were nothing but praise, [the other student] might feel embarrassed or sad in comparison when we didn’t give him as much as we gave you.
I’ve made several people read this piece because I’ve thought it worth sharing. It makes me want to go get that dog! And if you could make [someone] feel bad for the dog, you are doing something right. You do not need to change the point of view.”
I replied later and asked the professor how to take things less personally, to which she responded: “I don’t know how…You shouldn’t feel judged by people who weren’t able to meet the piece where it is. It’s like when you send stuff away; some people like it, some people don’t. I think “rejection” letters never get easier to handle.”
Over the course of that class, the only real workshop I had before graduate school, I got better at being workshopped. At handling the criticism. At separating myself from both the negative and the positive. I started understanding that while the work is mine, and because it’s memoir, it’s me in a way, it also isn’t me. It’s my work.
I got to graduate school and I promptly forgot this lesson. I prepared a gender profile piece, outside of my chosen and comfortable memoir genre, for my first workshop. I finished it, and certain it sucked, I instead submitted a memoir piece that I had prepared for the second workshop. The memoir piece was good, and I knew it. The reviews I got were strong. Though it was definitely a scary topic to approach with a group of near strangers, and took quite a bit of bravery to admit the topic on my part, I knew that it was my writing at its best. I played it safe with my submission, and saved the gender profile for the second workshop.
That workshop was this week. As I had already recognized, the gender piece had problems. My struggle to protect a source who wanted to remain anonymous left the piece with generalizations and vagueness throughout. My usual scene work just simply wasn’t there, because I wasn’t sure how to deploy those scenes in a piece meant to be more factual. Worst of all, I tried so hard to put all of the interviews and research together that I forgot about my old friend, passive voice. The difference between this workshop and my first ever was that the piece really wasn’t me at my best, and the criticism I got (minus one not so nice comment) was constructive. But I still left in tears. I had never submitted a piece for people to read before that I didn’t know on some internal level was good. While the gender piece is good, it has definite flaws. However, I have learned a good lesson from it.
I’m too emotionally attached to my writing. That is why a lot of my writing does not get shared. I hear the critique and I put it on myself. I wrote the piece, so I own the blame? Right? Right, in a way. Writing is about fixing, about revising. I’m the writer, so I own the blame, but I also own the power to fix what is wrong, what is broken. A critique isn’t a personal attack on me. (At least, it shouldn’t be). It’s a suggestion for improvement, it’s a way to make my writing better. And it’s a thing that I need to suck it up and deal with if I’m going to be a writer.
And I’m going to be a writer.
I could be good. Hell, I could be great if I could just let myself BE. It is incredibly difficult for me to step outside of my writer box, let alone my person box. Critiques make me doubt myself, and I can’t let that happen. I want to be able to trust my work, and myself. Trust that I can take a work I have begun and make it better. I want to be a writer, and to be one, I need to pick myself up, dust myself off, and be ready to fall back down on my ass. Because I will. A lot.
Bring on the stunt bag.