There’s been plenty of discussion regarding last Sunday night’s episode of “Girls” when Hannah participated in her first Iowa writer’s workshop. Ah, it brought me back. All those writing courses and the interactive feedback sessions. The papers read aloud, the commentary you must be open to in order to improve as a writer. The whole, “getting out of your head” concept, and allowing in the critique of readers who’ve read your work, or have listened to it read loud in class. Ugh. Just plain…ugh.
When Hannah’s workshop scene uncomfortably revealed itself onscreen, I cringed with familiarity at the hyper critical snark of her classmates. After many classes at the New School in New York and undergraduate work at my college, there was something useful, yet self defeating about hearing the reactions of my fellow classmates. On one hand, they provided productive suggestions, allowing me to hear a reader’s perception of my work. On the other hand, the critiques were given with a hint of ill intent and taken with bad feelings, especially if one’s skin wasn’t thick enough.
Now, this isn’t the case with everyone. Writing workshops can be fun, inclusive and educational. Most of the time they are required for college credit, but in non-academia life, a writer will volunteer to participate in the self flagellation and come out like a dented can. Yet, there are good parts to the process. You can meet like minded people, create connections and even find a life long collaborator who will send you both into fame and success! But sometimes it’s the opposite, and I’ve run into contrarian fellow writers who want to rain on your writers workshop parade.
One time, I had an article read aloud in class. Honestly, I cannot remember what it was about, but I do remember writing on how much I loved New York City. In one passage, I referred to New York City (or Manhattan) as being a “town”. It was a colloquial commentary, just to color the description of the topic at hand.
One person raised their hand and said. “New York City isn’t a town. It’s a city.”
The entire class sat silent. I remember the silence felt like a ten minute pause. What do you mean, New York isn’t a “town”? Of course it’s referred to as a “town” in a jaunty little tip of the hat kind of way.
The quiet pause ended when my teacher, and various other students started singing “New York, New York, a hell of a TOWN”.
I looked at the guy. “See?” I telekenetically said to him in my head, “A hell of a town. From the musical and film “On The TOWN” containing a title referring to New York as a TOWN?”
I like good, constructive criticism and most of the time, I enjoyed it in this class. But, I’m not down with deliberate call outs that don’t hold up.
Sometimes, the critiques are personal. One time, I was in a non-fiction writing course where we each had to write a short memoir on our parents in the guise of our younger selves. In my essay, I mentioned an incident with my mother (who dealt with mental illness) and how it embarrassed me. It didn’t embarrass me that evening, and it doesn’t embarrass me today, but in writing like a child, it embarrassed me when I was that child. The paper was read aloud by our professor.
One student remarked, “How could you be embarrassed by your mother over her illness?”
“I was writing about me as a child and how I was embarrassed by what she did,” I defensively said. And defensive I was. This was my story as a child. My mother. My feelings were on display within each sentence of this manuscript, as were all of our stories that day.
“I just don’t get why you are embarrassed by your mother,” she continued.
“That’s getting really personal,” I said. “This is my story about this moment as a child.” I continued, “Writing reveals icky things. If this article didn’t show proof on why I was embarrassed, then I didn’t do my job as a writer. This isn’t a family discussion, this is workshop. Don’t judge me. Judge the writing.”
When it comes to doling out comments that are more of a judgement of YOU than of the writing – it can really damage a writer. She shrugged at my response, but I still felt really crappy about the moment. It set me back on writing honestly about things that can be a tad brutal. Feedback like that can plant the seed of self doubt. It sucks. But it’s your responsibility, as it is mine, to not react that way. Brush it off. Seriously. Just. Brush. That. Off.
Part of the process of writing and the interaction of other writers is knowing the balance of good commentary and bad. You have to let the bad comments go, and let the useful ones stay – and I’m not talking about compliments. Even the ones that hurt can be jewels, but not if they are given out of ill will spawned from competitiveness or just for the sake of being a naysayer.
Sometimes writer’s workshops are terrific resources to get you writing. Other times, they make you believe you’re doing something about your writing, when in fact,you’re not doing much at all in the long run. Take a class, get what you can out of it, but don’t do what I did. Don’t take too many. Want your work read? Bring in friends, beta readers and editors. Those useful reviews aid you in getting something OUT THERE in print or online. In class, everyone is looking out for themselves. Everyone wants something published or read on NPR. They’re aren’t interested in your own positive outcome. Critiquing your work is allowing them to learn about their own writing – not yours. Slowly but surely, self doubt seeps into your head. This doubt leads to stunting the writing process. So I say…let it go. Don’t take it personally. Just let the words flow and have a goal.
I’m still chuckling at the self righteous snobs in Hannah’s class. How does anyone get any writing done with that self guessing, negative noise? Go Hannah (and every writer out there). Take what you can, but don’t let them get to you.