As much as writing is a solitary activity, there comes a time when one must take their precious darling baby of a story, and throw it to the wolves. In other words: workshopping.
It is a rare creative genius who can write beautiful, erudite prose without ever having to get feedback from someone else. Hint: it’s not you. And it’s definitely not me either, since I had to Google to confirm the definition of erudite.
Getting feedback, and learning from it, is all part of the creative process. But what happens when the workshop goes bad?
Sometimes, it’s you. I remember in the very first creative writing class I ever took, one classmate wrote a piece so chock full of good writing that it really should have been seven fantastic stories instead of one somewhat confused one. The teacher, myself, and the other students raved about her writing but encouraged her to clarify which story she wanted to tell. I thought it was a great workshop, but she never turned up to class again.
I really hope she’s still writing. I can’t think of what went wrong in that workshop, except that perhaps it was so much input that it got overwhelming. If that’s the case, I wish I hadn’t gotten so excited about her writing, but damn, it was great writing. We told her that, repeatedly, but somehow, she didn’t hear that.
But sometimes it’s them. Ask around in a group of writers, and someone will always come up with the story of the destructive workshop that killed someone’s desire to write. Hopefully not forever.
Of course, there’s the guy (there’s always one) who is so convinced he’s a genius that every time someone gives him feedback, he patiently explains to that person that they are wrong. If you are that guy, stop doing that. There are times when I’ve been that guy, and it’s gotten me no where.
Chances are though, you might be the person who takes in what everyone says and turn it into something that’s not your story, but some mess that looks like a story but feels wrong to you. I’ve been there too. There’s a story in my drawer I don’t look at anymore, because I no longer know whose story it is.
For a lot of writers who haven’t figured out their voice yet, that seems to be the biggest problem–they are so unsure that they take everyone’s feedback. And if they balk at someone’s suggestion, they wonder if perhaps they are being pigheaded and arrogant and not listening. Maybe they are. But maybe that someone gave the wrong suggestion.
Being workshopped is hard because at some level, workshopping taps into the tangle of emotions that forms how you feel about your writing…. defensive, vulnerable, confident, confused, a blend, etc.
A good rule of thumb, is that if someone says something in a workshop that makes you react, positively or negatively, pay attention. The issue may not what that person says it is, but there’s something about what they said that’s worth digging into.
The best workshops are with people who connect with your writing and who truly understand your intentions for your story. That is rare. I have had my work workshopped by a lot people including many fine writers and friends–I often get helpful feedback, but it’s rare that I feel “Wow, this person gets me completely.” So understand, in most workshops, you are dealing in imperfection. There is still a lot you can get from imperfection.
Hey, when you publish a book, your editor may not be perfect either. Reviewers may not be perfect. Your mom might not get it. Imperfection is the world you write in.
Ultimately, you have to know your story. And perhaps it will take you several drafts to know your story. But keep in mind, while your darling baby story cries in a field and the wolves are circling… your story is not a baby and there are no wolves.
Nothing anyone can say can force you to do anything to your story. You are in control here. It’s your work. Try on people’s suggestions, sure, but ultimately, you decide what works and what does not.