Tag Archives: writing workshop

On Workshops and Professors

I saw a diagram recently on a friend’s Facebook page about the writing process. In particular, number five stuck out to me: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ninamohan/charts-that-perfectly-sum-up-being-a-creative-writing-maj?bffbbooks#.dvdOBPjQLO

Why, you ask? It’s my life.

After the summer and a particularly good group of writers in a long distance writing workshop over video chat, I was feeling pretty enthusiastic about my writing again. I had a good grasp on what my biggest problem was, the fact that I just want to dump all of my trauma into the essay and then run away and leave the reader holding the bag. The most illuminating feedback I received over the summer was that my writing can be “like throwing a bunch of punches at the reader and then never offering them an ice pack.” It made perfect sense to me. I write about these sucky things, and then never give the reader 31 year old me, the me in the now. I make the reader sad, and I generally leave them there. Armed with this insight, I made some edits to one of my more recent pieces of work and then jumped at the chance to go first this semester when my new writing workshop professor asked for volunteers. Yay new semester! Yay new professor! Yay new class with new feedback!

My zest for school dampened pretty quickly, with the gloom of last year quickly settling back in once I was in the classroom. I promptly stuck my foot in it with my new writing professor as I was passing out my essay. I tried to tell her how excited I was to take her class because of all the fantastic things I had heard about her, and it must have come out wrong, because she said that she felt like I was pressuring her for feedback and that she was now so uncomfortable she didn’t want to read my piece.

My professor. Didn’t. Want. To. Read. My. Piece.

I was completely crushed, and I sat in shock for the rest of class, playing with my phone inside my bag. This woman who had been incredibly built up by my peers was yet another let down in a school of let downs. That night, I went home wondering if she would even read my essay. I had an extra copy left over after it had made its way around the classroom, and I told myself that she hadn’t even taken one. It was a terrible, horrible, no good week of waiting that included seeing said professor in the hall and having her look right through me like I wasn’t even there. I wanted to scream after her “I WAS JUST TRYING TO TELL YOU HOW EXCITED I WAS TO FINALLY TAKE YOUR CLASS BECAUSE EVERYONE SAID YOU WERE AMAZING AND GAVE THE BEST FEEDBACK.” But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all.

Went to class the next week and discovered that she had indeed read my piece. The workshop went okay; it wasn’t the worst one ever. (There’s a blog about THAT workshop somewhere…) The professor was actually really nice. She asked my permission to read out loud scenes depicting rape. She discussed the piece with a respectable amount of decorum, especially compared to my workshop the previous semester where it was suggested the sex was consensual. And then, as I do after every workshop, I immediately pulled out her written feedback on the train home.

She called my use of the word “rape” too harsh. She said that it ran the risk of alienating the reader, and she suggested that I remove it, along with any graphic depictions of violence. I wanted to drop the essay onto the subway floor and grind it under my shoes. I wanted to rip off the outfit I had carefully picked out because workshop and scrub the makeup I had applied between class and dog walks right off my face. I wanted to quit. Too harsh. The word rape was just too harsh for the reader to handle, the word that I spent forever learning how to be comfortable saying was “too harsh.”

I cried. It was the first time in a long time that workshop feedback made me cry. I decided that I would never again work on that essay. I told myself that I would never have a thesis advisor, that all my dreams in terms of that were completely out the window.

The following week was a whirlwind of school-related disasters, culminating in the moment when the head of the program called me into her office to tell me that my workshop professor had called me high maintenance and said that my writing was disturbing.


I gave consideration to quitting graduate school for what had to be the hundredth time. And then I made a decision. I emailed my professor. I apologized for whatever grievous offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sorry at all. She wrote me back thanking me. After class last week, she approached me.

“So what’s the deal? With…this?” She gestured from herself to me and back again.

“I …. I ….” I opted for the honest route. “Look. The head of the program said that you called me high maintenance, and I was really offended. Because I’m not. Like I said in my email, I just wanted to learn from you. And I’m sorry if I stuck my foot in it the first day. I really meant to say all of the things I said in my email—how awesome I had heard you were, how excited I was to be in your class. And it didn’t come out that way. I—“

“Wait,” she interrupted me. “She said I said WHAT?”

It turned out that the program director had lied to me. Or, well, SOMEONE had lied to me. My workshop professor and I talked in the stairwell for over half an hour and hashed out our garbage; I decided that she is what I will be in twenty years—nervous around people, but a strong writer with awesome feedback. We hugged. We made up. We decided that the program head was trying to say anything she could to make me her thesis student. We both apologized to each other for everything that had gone wrong.

It occurred to me as I walked home, once again, that workshop didn’t mean nearly as much as I thought it did. That feedback could be taken wrong. That I was only as good a writer as I let myself be.

I am only as good of a writer as I let myself be.

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On Being a Writer

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.

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