Workshops, no matter how professional or laid-back they may be, are difficult. Everyone hopes that they will walk through the door into a room of peers and present them with something they will be astounded by; something that they will laud you for the entire time reserved for your piece (…hell they may even go past the allotted time;) they will praise your narrative voice, your character development, the rhythm and fluidity of your prose, but let’s face it, this never happens. And why should it? Deep down we all know whether we are consciously mindful of it or not, the reason we are in a workshop is to improve our craft. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest that one should not enter the workshop without those thoughts, quite to the contrary. In fact, if you’re not entering the workshop without those hopes stapled to your neatly typed document you probably shouldn’t distribute it. Hell, I’m harsh; you might as well not even call yourself a writer. You must seek to amaze, to wow your peers, to push yourself, to push them.
But what do you do after the workshop is done? I’ve had peers who’ve told me that they never go back a look at workshop notes. Tisk, tisk! Shame on them. This one of the only times you will have a captive audience of peers willing to read your work; to take the journey you’ve set before their feet. There will come a time in a writer’s life if s/he becomes successful (and perhaps to some degree unlucky) where peers won’t tell you the truth about your writing…they will only seek to serve themselves by feeding your ego. Cherish the time you have now; find readers that you trust, that know what you’re doing in your writing. Keep them close. Read their comments carefully and with consideration. My practice was to read the comments of those peers that I trusted most, first. I would take the time to consider what they had said during class, the comments they wrote in the margins. Try it. If they’ve made line edits, read them aloud. Allow your voice and your thoughts about what you’re doing (read: what you think you’re doing) to subside so that you can truly hear the suggestions offered to you. Try them out. One of the simplest and most efficacious lessons I learned in Grad school, which I am almost ashamed to admit, is full and total use of the “Save as” function; make as many edits as you want and save the document under a different name. Sometimes seeing something on the page in printed ink as opposed to something scribbled, almost illegibly, in the margins makes all the difference.
Is this to say that you should only listen to those peers that you trust, and share a mutual admiration with; no. I’ve found that even those individuals who don’t like your work, who think you may have one or two things working but everything else you’ve done is completely and utterly wrong can help. They’re honest, albeit painfully so at times. I once had peer, who, I should say, absolutely hated my work write: “your verbs are weak.” Needless to say, my pride was a hurt. I thought to myself “my verbs are not weak.” After some time passed, after I was able to tamp down my ego, I re read my piece and thought…“those verbs were weak.”
What am I trying to say here; what do you do when you leave the workshop? If you’re like me, you’re a kid on Christmas morning and can’t wait for that instant gratification or let down. Perhaps you’re not so egger to find out and want to give it a little time before examining your peers’ remarks; you want some distance from the piece. Maybe you have elements of both personalities, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re ready and willing to consider what’s been offered, even if it is expressed in a way that less than desirable. The fact is, if someone truly didn’t care s/he wouldn’t put in the effort needed to get a rise out of you. Consider everything…but most importantly trust yourself; be both your biggest fan and harshest critic. View your new work with comments and criticism from things work shopped in the past; and edit, edit, edit. Be as in love with the editing process as you are with the act of writing, only then will you move from hobbyist to writer, amateur to professional, good to great.
In this section, we invite writers we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with to talk about the writing process. In this Guest Post, Nick Johnson an upcoming and celebrated poet in San Francisco talks about life and purpose after attending a writers workshop.
About Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson is a poet and playwright from Baltimore, Maryland. He currently lives in San Francisco where he attended & received a masters’ degree from the California College of the Arts. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at metazen, Black Renaissance Noire, Samizdat, Brilliant Corners, sPARKLE & bLINK, The Cincinnati Review and the anthology Conversations at the Wartime Café: A decade of War. He’s currently working on his first collection of poems.