Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop, Part 5:Talking Yourself Out of Writing Well—Ignoring the Comments of Your Workshop

Why write down all the comments that people make about your writing in a workshop? Because it’s hard to really hear that much criticism all at once. It’s a bit overwhelming, and mostly you're too excited by the attention to your writing to be in a completely receptive mood at that moment. Time is the best editor. Sometimes you’re eager to incorporate the feedback you’ve gotten and you want to revise right away. But oftentimes you need time to reflect on the comments, to see which ones roll off your back, and which ones sink in deeply.
Even if you carefully listen to and record all the comments about your writing in a workshop, there are all-too-many ways you can talk yourself out of making good changes suggested to you. Here are a few.
If the change that a workshop suggests turns out to be obvious, my first reaction is to think that this change simply has to be made, and the sooner the better! But then, after the workshop, when I’m back home, I start pondering the suggestion. If the suggestion was so obvious, why didn’t I see the problem myself? So if I didn’t see the need for it, maybe no one else will, except the few misguided individuals who happened to be in that workshop that day, so why should I start tampering with my writing?
A similar way to ignore good criticism is to start blaming your readers, instead of hearing their criticism. You might write a piece with the intention of being funny, for instance, but it could come off as self-righteous or angry to your workshop. It isn’t easy to make the difficult effort of rethinking your writing and subtly changing its tone. That takes a lot of rewriting, and most of us hate to rewrite. It’s much simpler to fault the criticism, and imagine that the others were just misreading you. That’s a dangerous assumption, since readers are your audience, and who else is going to appreciate your writing if not your readers?
Another way of talking yourself out of a good suggestion is a strategy I’ve seen my seven-year-old son employ very effectively, which usually begins something like, “Mommy, Daddy says I can’t have another dessert because I already ate cake at the birthday party.” My son knows that I will hold the line on not having two desserts in one day, but his mother can always be relied on to bend the rules when it comes to sweets. I’ve seen creative writing students and less experienced writers do more or less the same thing, playing a more indulgent mentor or faculty member off against a stricter one, just to avoid making a change to their work that, on a deeper level, they know will improve it.
Sometimes you might also think that the pure spontaneity of your creation will be spoiled by making the changes that a writing group or workshop suggests. You experienced that glorious rush of passionate creation while you were writing, and all those unfortunate others just don’t understand. If you make changes, the flow of thrilling artistry will evaporate during the process of correcting and editing. But that is the equivalent of saying that if you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t actually spend time together, because the perfection of your love will be smeared by the reality of being in that person’s imperfect presence. Well, some people actually do believe this, too.
Similar to this is the fear that some beginning writers have that they only possess a limited amount of creativity, and that if they cut anything in their work, nothing will arise to replace it. I don’t believe that creativity is like a diamond mine, where once you pry out all the gems, nothing is left, and you might as well block up the shaft. Creativity is like a fountain or a well, which flows incessantly—barring disasters. There’s more where that writing came from, so if it doesn’t work, don’t worry about deleting it.
Another way to avoid making improvements to your work is to use the lack of consensus in a workshop as an excuse for not listening to any comments. “If they can’t figure out what I should do to fix this,” you tell yourself, “why should I listen to anything they say?” Because some of their comments are more useful for this particular piece of writing than others, to put it simply.
You have to be diligent about editing and improving your work because you can’t really afford consistently to annoy or anger your readers. Your readers are not your sisters or brothers or your roommates. Your readers are like people you meet by chance at a party. They will only listen to you as long as they like. They can walk any time. You have to be attentive to what interests them, what amuses them, what moves them, and what makes them think—and conversely, what inconveniences, confuses, or bores them. There are many other authors they could talk to at this party. That doesn’t mean you have to reduce your content to the lowest common denominator, it just means you have to deliver that content in a way that both considers and buttonholes the reader.

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