Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 1: Whose Comment Are You Reading?

Many writers attend workshops to get comments on their creations. Workshops can be incredibly helpful, but they can also be confusing. For one thing, people’s reactions are often completely contradictory. “I especially love the ending,” says one person in response to your latest opus. Then the person sitting adjacent comments, “It’s good, but you really lose it at the end. The whole piece falls apart on the last page, where it becomes trite and predictable. That doesn’t feel like the right ending for this piece at all.” So who is right? How can you tell?
You have to pay very close attention to all the comments that people offer about your work. I write down every single comment that anyone makes in the writing group that I show my poems to, no matter how trivial or unfamiliar or wrong a remark may seem at first. But I also write next to the comment the initials of the person who made the remark. When I hand comments to a writer, I always put my name or initials on the copy.
Why? One of the things you need to identify is the aesthetic of the person who is making the comment. Sometimes you know that a person has a certain bias that you may or may not agree with. Let's say you've written a sestina about working in a fast-food joint (I'm thinking of Jan Clausen's wonderful poem, "Sestina: Winchell's Donut Shop"). You bring it to your workshop and someone says, "I love the idea of your poem, but I don't like formal poetry. It's too stiff. Why don't you rewrite it as free verse?" This comment might be accurate, but it might completely miss the point that you wanted to see if the sestina form could be used for such an unlikely subject as fast food donuts, and whether the repetitions of the sestina form could reflect on the monotony of fast-food jobs.
Even if Elizabeth Bishop were to rise from the grave and bring to your writing group a great sestina, you know in advance that workshop member would jump right in and say, “Liz, I have to tell you, I hate formal poetry.” That doesn’t mean that you always have to agree with this member's comments. Put her or his initials next to that advice, and keep in mind that person's artistic preferences. You need to observe and analyze the taste of those who give you comments, and figure out where it does and does not overlap with your own. In fact, that’s not a bad way to figure out you own aesthetic, by measuring it against the comments of others. Listen carefully to everything your peers say, even what they say that has nothing to do with you, or even to do with writing. You’ll find that certain critics you can usually trust on certain questions, and you can rely on others for completely different issues in your writing.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

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