Friday, November 11, 2005

workshopping your writing

A former student and current friend asked me to blog on something controversial, so he could comment. So I sat for a minute, took a bite of fettucine with chopped basil and tomatoes, and thought. This was a hard one. I've been so controversial at times that I've lost friends over that quality I have that allows me to say more than I intended (or maybe I did intend and just wanted to push and see what would happen? I do like to shake things up, it seems).

So, controversial means (to me) something that might lose a few friends for ya. I really don't want to lose more friends than I already have, but then it came to me. I had just the thing that would be controversial, at least in regards to this friend ( and former student) who wrote asking for controversy.

This is it. It has to do with writing workshops and having a thin skin and encountering a few workshop participants who either don't get your work or get it and are giving you a hard time about it. So you leave. You decide that you've gotten all you need from said workshop and it's time to strike out on your own. At least that's the excuse you give.

When in fact what has happened (most of the time) is that your ego has grown ungainly and is misleading you, as egos tend to do.

So many writers are too thin-skinned for their own good. And it's too bad because I've seen some talented writers decide what they really need is to go it alone, and then falter. They start doing crazy things--or continue to do crazy things that I (or another teacher) told them not to do: they write for no pay because it gives them a deadline (they say) or they decide their book (or story) only needs one more pass, if that, and they start sending it out (prematurely) and it gets rejected and then they badmouth the publishing industry (which, frankly, does deserve it, to a point).

You may be thinking: I have this opinion because I need paying students to help keep me afloat. Wrong. These writers that I see go astray are often the ones I've told I'd let stay in the workshop for free, because I see their need.

This brings me back to that old saw: Why do we think writing is different from learning another art form? That we only need to be writing seriously a year or two and then we're ready to go it alone? That is so wrong.

Most of us need workshops for a loooonnnnnggggg time. Years, actually. We need to hear what other writers--our chosen critiques--have to say. Because just get out there and start dealing with agents and publishers and if your skin is thin from years of seclusion, you will give up the whole dealybob of writing to publish.

Well, my dinner is finished now. I have a piece of basil stuck in my throat. I'm going to get up and pour some more pinot. And I'm going to wait for my friend (former student) to post to this very controversial post and tell me how I'm full of it.

8 comments:

Lorianne said...

Here's something controversial: I think our *entire culture* is set-up to encourage thin-skinnedness. Everywhere you hear talk of self-esteem, so teachers of just about *everything* tip-toe around criticism, and parents are afraid to correct and/or deny even their own children for fear of "psychological damage."

Whenever someone hears I'm a writing prof and then asks for my "honest opinion" about something they've written, I know where it's headed. I'll say, "Do you really want my *honest* opinion," and they'll say yes. Then when I point (politely) to something that could be improved, they'll either pout or *argue* with what I've said.

If you want/seek honest feedback, you should be ready to hear stuff that hurts. But I guess it's like that famous Jack Nicholson line: people "can't handle the truth!" :-)

Anonymous said...

Controversy is good. It helps define and clarify the strengths and weaknesses of one's position.This ex-student you seem obsessive about is probably many of the things you attribute to him/her/it i.e. rash, impulsive, headstrong,egotistic. On the other hand, as Confuscious said, "In a throroughbred, it's not its strength you admire, but its temper.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

That's so true, Lorianne. People say they want feedback and then you find out they only want feedback if it's positive feedback. Of course! No one wants to be told what they've just written stinks. Although one thing to be said about being told your story is so-so is when, down the road, you bring in a new work, and that same reader says what you've written is sublime.

And, anonymous (though you and I know who you are...), it's not just one student (i.e., not just you I'm talking about, and don't worry, I'm not obsessed with you...). Actually, there are a few former students I seen go through this--sensitive, talented people who, like you, seem to get in their own way. I love 'em all.

Lorianne said...

I could understand/empathize if folks felt thin-skinned about being told their work *stinks*. But I'm talking about gently worded items of improvement: for instance, "Your opening is vivid, and this paragraph here could stand a similar level of detail."

It's almost as if people want to hear "Your first draft is PERFECT: don't even *think* about revising!" And perhaps this goes along with our cultural fixation on instant gratification, quick fixes, etc. We don't want to diet: we want to take a pill that melts away flab. And we don't want to *re-write* or *revise*; we want everything to come out miraculously perfect the first time.

Okay...I'm stepping down from my pulpit now...! :-)

Anonymous said...

First off, I think ALL writers are thin-skinned and egotistical.

Maybe you're taking his leaving a bit personally and a little out of context? After all, not everything a person does, especially a writer, has to do with egos going awry. Sometimes there are other issues at hand.

It is unprofessional and unfair to judge a person without getting all the facts straight.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

The leaving of any student in my private workshops affects me personally, I'm sure. I invest a lot of myself into them and into their writing futures. And maybe there are other issues at hand--there often are--but I can only deal with the information people give me, as to why they're leaving. When students say they're leaving because their work isn't understood, I want them to grow a thicker skin and not just go away. Not a good reason to leave, in my humble opinion. I can only deal with the information I'm given. Of course I could second guess: He doesn't have the money or his wife doesn't want him to take the class or he's depressed. But I'd rather just accept what he says instead of assuming it's a ton of other stuff, too. And I'm not sure how me wishing he got over being thin-skinned is unprofessional and unfair. As a teacher, I'm asked all the time to judge work, to judge talent, to judge writing ability. So should I then withhold judgment when a student leaves? I think not. But what do I know?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

I will also say that I won't be posting anymore comments that are left anonymously. Sorry. But if you're going to respond to a blog of mine, then I need you to take responsibility and say who you are. Own it.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

That's "any more."