I’m not super-sensitive, but… wait.

I had a piece of mine workshopped not long ago, and while my workshop-mates are all intelligent and caring people who try very hard to give the best possible feedback, I came out of there annoyed.  Others might call it ‘upset’, but I say ‘annoyed’ because it makes me sound less precious.

In any case, after the workshop I bitched to a friend of mine about the whole thing and in describing why one of the excellent writers in my workshop was in fact an idiot, I started with the phrase “I’m not super-sensitive, but….”

This is the point where my friend laughed and pointed out that every writer says that.

I wanted to argue that no, every writer except me was an over-sensitive artiste whereas I was a consummate professional who happened to be in a workshop with an idiot, except I started laughing at myself.  Damn.

Once you’ve been through the workshop process a few times, you start taking on a bit of an attitude about feedback.  Give it to me straight, people. I want honesty. Be brutal.  I can take it.

Then we all go and quietly fume to a friend about that one person, because, I’m not super-sensitive, but….

I think we should all stop lying to ourselves about not being sensitive.  We’re writers.  Sensitivity comes with the territory.

Still, in the same workshop, another workshop-mate wrote a long polite paragraph to tell me that (paraphrase) my work was shit, and I wasn’t offended at all.  In my head, I kept thinking, Why so many words? Give it to me straight. I can take it.

So why the difference? Why am I the consummate professional with one person and a fuming artiste with another?

I think what it comes down to is that most of us are not sensitive about the things we already know are problems. Maybe we knew that as we wrote and hoped we could get away with it.  Maybe we got caught up in something fun to write and ignored it.  Maybe we just had a deep but diffuse sense of something-is-not-quite-right-here but couldn’t put our finger on exactly what.

So when someone articulates these things, it feels a bit like relief, like finding the exact right word.  You knew it, you just needed someone else to clarify it.  Sure, there’s that moment of “Why didn’t I see that and write it that way in the first place?” but at the same time, you know someone else connected with your work.  They got it.  That’s why they can see what’s not working and make you excited to work on the piece again.

The sensitive hurt feelings come, I think, when someone doesn’t get our work.  They don’t connect with it at all, they do connect with it but differently than you did, their thoughts on how to rework or revise it make no sense to us, etc.  Either way, you just don’t see eye-to-eye on the piece.

I don’t think I’ve experienced a workshop where someone was mean (though I’ve heard stories) but it’s difficult in the workshop setting to ignore a person who just doesn’t get your work.  It’s a workshop–you’re there because you know your work isn’t quite up to to par, and you’ve asked for everyone’s thoughts.  Nothing like being un-confident and asking for criticism to make yourself feel like crap.

I also don’t think it’s avoidable; no one gets everyone’s work.  That’s a good thing, since otherwise, everyone’s work would start sounding kind of the same.  Having that outside perspective is valuable, in that it will give you access to a way of seeing the work that you don’t have within yourself. Later on, you can decide if that’s information you need to use or not.  Maybe it is.  Maybe it isn’t. Immediately after the workshop probably isn’t the right time to decide.

But, yes, it will upset you, make you angry, make you doubt your work, make you feel like shit, make you fume to a friend about how you aren’t super-sensitive, but clearly, you are in a workshop with an idiot.

Hopefully, that friend will make you laugh.

Intellect vs Intuition

In studying writing, it occurs to me that there are two distinct parts to it: the intellectual and the intuitive.  (As a side benefit, that came out nicely alliterative.)

The intellectual side refers to issues of craft—stuff that comes out when someone critiques your work. Things you discuss with an editor. In some ways, this side is easier to learn. Not that it’s easy; there’s a tremendous amount to learn about character, structure, imagery, dialogue, and so on. Shoot, I still puzzle over grammar.

But the intellectual side is tangible and available to everyone.  There are classes to take, about a gazillion ‘how to write’ articles to read, people to debate with. And there’s always the classic, read everything and analyze it like a writer. All of this is external, out there for you to see and figure out.

The intellectual side appeals to your inner critic. The intellectual side is where you get to look at your own work and break it down. Sure, it’s important to look and figure out what is working well, but sometimes the temptation to get bogged down in what isn’t working is hard to resist.

The intuitive side is more internal. This is the creative side, the part that makes strange leaps into deep water that turns out to be hot fudge sauce and chili. And yes, there are classes and books about nurturing the creative process, but ultimately, this is something unique to you. And as such, nurturing the intuitive side requires you to trust yourself as a writer.

This is well illustrated in this interview with George Saunders about The Semplica Girl Diaries. (Fantastic story, by the way. If you haven’t read it yet, there’s a link in the interview.) The story features suburban families who purchase immigrant women to hang by microlines in their heads as lawn decorations. This is a bizarre idea. There is no possible way to arrive at this idea logically. And Saunders didn’t—the image came out of a dream. Even the word ‘Semplica’ came from this dream. What Saunders did was trust in it, and continued intuit the story until the story worked.

You need to trust yourself as a writer. You need to trust in your intuition and follow the story.  Sometimes, you just need trust that there is a story even if you can’t see it yet.

Study the craft, learn to analyze your work, but the magic happens when you trust yourself.