Friday, September 19, 2008
Workshopping and Criticism
A huge part of my experience in Squaw Valley involved a group of 11 other writers. Together, we were Workshop 8. I'd never participated a workshop before, but to many writers, those who have studied creative writing in school, workshopping is a pretty standard and sometimes painful part of the writing process.
Every morning for six mornings straight, Workshop 8 met for three hours in an odd room that during the winter is part of Squaw Valley's daycare/ski school. One side of the room was walled with windows that overlooked: a grassy ski slope, and a ski lift that was all torn up and under repair. The other wall had a rainbow stripe that looped across it. Funniest of all, the toilets in the bathroom around the corner were tiny and almost too low to be usable. But all of that disappeared while we talked about the manuscripts—two a day, each written by one of the members of the group.
The whole workshop concept was one of the reasons I hadn't applied to Squaw before this year. (Having to apply being the other reason.) The thought of my fragile little writing being evaluated and judged by 11 people made me squirm. And Squaw has the reputation of attracting writers of literary fiction and I don't consider myself very literary. Although, the term literary doesn't seem to have a hard and fast definition. I asked several of the staff members at Squaw what they thought the difference was between literary and commercial fiction and there wasn't a consistent answer. Regardless, I wasn't sure I'd fit in with the other participants and I was afraid to expose my not-exactly-robust writing ego to their criticism. But as I mentioned before, I had a great time that week and am very glad I was able to get my courage together and do it.
So a couple of days ago, I received an email from one of the other members of Workshop 8, Kael, and a link to his blog. U N P U B L I S H E D N O T D E A D includes several podcasts that among other things, discuss the Squaw experience. Check it out! Kael's hilarious and doesn't pull any punches in describing his reactions to the writing and critique styles of the other participants. I found it fascinating to hear his take on the workshop and compare it to my memories.
One thing I realized however, after listening to Kael's Podcast 3, and also from a conversation I had with another Workshop 8-er, was that some felt the critiques were too negative.
I thought the group was surprisingly positive and gave each manuscript pretty careful consideration. Sure, not everyone liked everything, but part of what we were supposed to do was tell the writer what didn't work for us. I think some of the participants only heard and remembered those kinds of negative comments and didn't hear/remember all of the good things that were said.
None of the manuscripts were trashed by the group. One was pretty heavily criticized by that day's workshop leader, but even that leader had many good things to say about the writing and the story, and every member of the group had lots of positive comments about it.
So while I'm sure there are people who enjoy ripping other writers to shreds and are only looking to bring them down, I don't think there was anyone like that in Workshop 8.
Learning what doesn't work about our manuscripts is important. It's necessary. When we write, we are communicating with the reader, after all. If the reader doesn't understand what we're saying, or is drawn out of the story by an inconsistency, say, we as writers haven't done our job. I don't think the workshop would have been very valuable if only the positive things were said. We need to hear the negatives in order to get better.
For example, one comment I received from several people on my day, was that they didn't believe my main character, Lindsay, would react the way she did. They thought she should be more aggressive and demanding considering the situation she was in. Well, that's not her personality at all. It wouldn't make any sense for her to act the way they wanted her to. But their comments made me realize that I needed to better establish why she was the way she was. It was a problem in the story and I needed to address it. And I never would have realized that there was a problem if they hadn't made that negative comment.
I'm still scared of criticism. It's hard to hear negative things about one's creation. We open ourselves up when we create and expose that soft little inside part of ourselves. But unless we only write for ourselves and don't ever plan to have anyone else read what we've done, we have an obligation to the reader. We won't find out if we've met that obligation unless we let our readers tell us what they think—both the positive and the negative.