What an apt term: closet writer. I get it from Jina Bazzar, another WordPress blogger who I recommend you go read. In her comment on yesterday’s post, Journaling June: Prelude, she wrote: “You want to write, but you keep your writing in the closet, afraid of what people will think of it.” Yep. That pretty much hits the nail on the head.
(speaking of hitting on the head, we do tend to poke our head out every so often, which would make us a wack-a-mole writer.)
Dear Gawd! It’s much too early on to start this tomfoolery. Moving hastily on. . .
Jina brought up another good point in her comment: “I’ve received my share of bad critique, but they make me a better writer by pointing out my mistakes – which I do improve later on.” Again, she is absolutely correct. That is, assuming that by “bad critique” she means the critiques were hard to take, and not critiques that were done poorly. This got me thinking that maybe I did not articulate myself as well as I’d have liked yesterday. There’s a difference between taking critique personally because you are overly-sensitive and being shit on in writing workshops.
I will readily admit that my skin is not as thick as it should be. That is, I tend to take constructive criticism personally. I’ll likely never be immune, but I know that I have to take those hits if I am ever going to get better. Otherwise I’m going to repeat the same mistakes that are keeping me from taking my writing to the next level.
Herein lies the problem, the writing workshop. We writers need the critiques to get better, but just like there’s a skill to writing, there’s a skill to critiquing. I am ambivalent when it comes to writing workshops. I flip-flop one way and then back to the other each time I think about them. They are such a powerful force to a writer that if done right they can be immeasurably helpful, but if done wrong they can be destructive.
When done best they:
- Improve the piece being critiqued and the writer’s skill.
- Provide a sense of camaraderie in an otherwise isolated creative endeavor.
When done poorly they:
- Are not helpful at all.
- Can destroy the creative drive in the writer.
My college career was populated with teachers that had the wrong philosophy when it came to the writing workshop. Yesterday when I posted the quote from my professor I did not properly express the detriment that attitude had on me. So here’s a scene from another workshop:
I presented a piece that was angst-ridden tripe. It was the last moments of a young man’s life before he shoots himself. It was a journal/suicide note, so I used a handwriting style font, which I tweaked as the story got more “intense.” The final page, with a climactic death haiku, had red splatters of blood (from red pens I had broken open and flicked onto each of the photocopied pages). It was written performance art.
(CHRIST on his throne!)
I know. It was every bit as terrible as you’re imagining. A death haiku? What the fuck was I thinking? Haiku aren’t gritty and edgy. The mullet I wore in high school in order to keep my job and still rock hard had more concept and design.
When I had finished reading, the first thing the teacher said was, “Where would you put this in your application portfolio to graduate school?”
No one spoke. I wasn’t allowed to speak (the person presenting a piece reads and then sits quietly until the critique is over). If it had been someone else, I would have remained quiet not knowing where this line of questioning was going.
“You would put it at the back,” he continued. “You would include it to show you could write this stuff, but you put your strong writing first.”
Wrong. Fucking. Answer.
I admit it was horrible. I’ll even go a step further and say that it shouldn’t be included in a graduate application portfolio. But none of that matters as this wasn’t a portfolio consultation. It was a writing workshop. We were supposed to be examining the pieces presented for ways to make them stronger and/or ways to help us improve our writing. Shitting on it for not being portfolio material is not workshopping. It’s being a dick.
I’m willing to say there’s no way to improve/save that piece. It was an experiment that failed horribly. It was clichéd, sentimental drivel poop. It, and all the bad pieces presented everywhere, had one benefit: it served to expose the merits of the workshop. That is, whether the workshop was supportive of its writers and what they were doing or if it was elitist snobs looking to promote the next best same thing.
I would like to contrast that experience with the ones I’ve had over the past couple of years. I found a place here in Houston, Writespace, which offers writing workshops. The classes I’ve taken there have been 180 degrees different from the ones from my college days. The teachers at Writespace use the following rules:
- Start by discussing what the piece is literally about. For example, a guy goes to the grocery store for cereal and ends up the president of the galaxy. While it might seem stupid to go to the trouble of expressing the obvious, you would be surprised how often people read things differently, and even a small difference can make a huge impact on understanding the text.
- Next discuss what the piece is trying to do. That is, themes, metaphor, symbolism, etc. This is what most people think of when they discuss a story, poem, essay, etc. There is so much room for interpretation because of all that we bring with us to the page, on top of what is already there.
- Discuss what works in the piece, sighting things specifically from the text in terms of the craft of writing (setting, dialogue, point of view, diction, etc.)
- Finally, offer ways the piece can be improved.
That said, putting my suicide story/performance/whatever piece through this critique would not have saved it. Perhaps it would have given me things to think about, or elements that I could rework into another piece to better effect. The difference is Writespace’s critique process is supportive. Namely, it would tell me that what I had on the page didn’t work, but would have done so in a way that would encourage continued writing.
And why not? I mean, even if I am a terrible hack and all I’ll ever be capable of producing is luke warm dumpster juice, who cares? What does it hurt? Why is it necessary to discourage me? Just don’t read it. Is my writing so weighty in its badness that it will bring down the whole of world literature? No. That’s fucking stupid.
(and if it were that’d be significant in itself. we would rather be known for something else, but if all we can manage is dumbing down the entire world, so be it.)
So, I’m a closet wack-a-mole writer. Partially because of the shitty writing workshops I took in college. But, before I go pointing fingers, I’m to blame too. I kept going to these classes. I bought into the hype (specifically that anything other than “literary writing” was worthless, which was their philosophy at the time). And most importantly, for a long time after I left college, I sold myself out. I put as much into my Sisyphean boulder as “they” did.
That’s life. There’s shitty injustices we face all the time. So, I suppose, I should be a bit grateful for the perparation this “hard knocks” education gave me. While I wish all the lessons in life could be taught compassionately, and that we didn’t have to suffer, ever, that’s just not how it works.
(you play the cards you’re dealt.)
Know when it hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.
(christ on his cross! we’re still churning out trite shit.)
Yep. And by continuing to do so I am suddenly overcome with a childish sense of victory:
Nanny, nanny, boo-boo!
Stick your head in doo-doo!
I’m better than you!