Why We Critique as Writers and How to Stay Confident During This Process
Author: Marc Dickinson
Why do you think workshop is such a central element in creative writing? What do you think a student stands to gain from workshop?
In my opinion, workshop is the center of writing so a student has everything to gain from the experience. A lot of students feel violated when they get feedback, which only leads to them putting up their guard. They think, “How dare you?” or “My girlfriend/boyfriend/parents/dog loved it.” First off, your lover/parent/dog don’t love it—they love you, so they draw a star on it and put it on the fridge as a testament of that love. If you want real feedback, go to other writers. They’ll be all too honest about what does and doesn’t work. Then students say, “Who are you to say such things, it’s not yours?” But workshop really trains writers to give up ownership of their work. At some point, you’re going to have to let a piece go out into the world and survive on its own—you can’t follow it around for the rest of your life, nor would you want to. Workshop it about learning not only to be open-minded to change, but also it’s a way to gain confidence in your own voice, to become secure in your work. Letting it go is liberating. You don’t have to possess a piece, which can ultimately kill it if you hold on too tightly.
What sort of advice do you give your students before they start work-shopping for the first time? What advice do you have for a writer who’s never experienced workshop?
I spend a lot of time preparing expectations for first-time students since most can be intimidated by workshop. The idea of sharing one’s work, putting yourself out there, is nerve-wracking and rightfully so. However, it’s necessary to allow an audience into your work. So to ease that fear, my advice is to remove the “personal” from the experience. I once had a professor who when we started workshop said, “We have a small room here, so we don’t have the space for anybody’s ego—check it at the door, please.” And it’s true for both writer and reader alike: when you workshop someone else you’re not there to show off or be a know-it-all, and when your piece is critiqued it’s not an attack on you. You can’t let your own sense of self dictate the proceedings. That kind of atmosphere only leads to aggression on one hand, defensiveness on the other, and in the meantime you’re not respecting the craft, which is the true purpose of any workshop: to honor the process. It’s a brave thing to offer a story or poem to strangers, so everyone has to treat it with dignity. At the same time, when we offer suggestions it’s not an affront to anybody’s talent but a way to offer respect to the writer. In fact writers often feel more insulted when they don’t get solid feedback. When peers jot down superficial notes or say “good job,” it’s a sign of disrespect by not taking the work seriously. But if you critique someone in the spirit of helpfulness, it’ll be received in the same spirit—it’s a symbiotic relationship, which is part of what writers need to do to be accepted into a community and truly call themselves writers.
How do you balance listening to the critiques of others while maintaining your own voice? Are these incompatible?
They’re not incompatible but actually quite integral. The central element in workshop isn’t to put our own vision on someone’s work; we’re not writing it for them. It’s to try to understand what the writer is doing: what is their voice, what’s the heart of the piece? It’s about empathy, seeing someone else’s vision outside one’s self. When you can do that not only do you become a better editor, you also become a better reader and therefore a better writer. We’re there as guides, not doctors offering prescriptive solutions. Think of yourself as a music producer there to shape the work, like how George Martin was just as essential to Beatles as the musicians themselves—editors should take ownership of that role. We’re only offering questions. Students are sometimes resistant but if something isn’t working, it’s not the readers fault for “not getting it”—it’s the writer’s fault for not articulating they’re vision. And showing your work to an audience is a way to make that vision come to life.
What’s one workshop experience that really changed the course of your writing?
When I first learned I had no idea what I was doing. Writers think they know what they’re work is about, and they want a thumbs up or thumbs down on it. But of course no draft is bad or good,—it’s not worth giving up on, nor is it not done yet. That was a strange lesson: revision never ends. But the whole point is to truly re-vision your work. When I saw that a workshop was reading my story differently than I’d intended, I revised it to align with my original vision. But now I tend to side with the workshop. I’ve given up on knowing what my story is about. I write what feels right using what craft I can, and give it to a workshop to help me see what it really is. It helps because I’m not chained to anything, no grand visions, and it makes revising much easier. I still copy and paste it into a new document so that I never truly lose anything, which gives me permission, a safety net, to run wild and take risks in revision. Then it’s like writing a new draft. It makes revision exciting; cutting back on failed conceits feels like shedding weight—it’s liberating because each change is the better choice 100% of the time
When was your confidence most shaken, and what did you learn from that experience?
Every time. I workshop often, both as writer and teacher. I’ve been doing it a long time, so I’ve become callus to criticism and rejection. In theory, it doesn’t bother me a bit, at least not as much. But if I’m being honest, each time you put something up for critique, and you have a good reader, you’re basically asking for punishment—you want them to be tough, tear it up, and hold no punches. It’s almost masochistic. And so you’ll always feel a bit of a sting.
But it’s better than when I had my first “real” workshop in graduate school, where I was surrounded by great writers and tough critics, and though they were tactful and polite, I had to sit there quietly while they spent a better part of an hour taking my story to task. Looking back on it, the comments weren’t that extreme, but it felt like it. After class everyone takes you out for a drink, almost as an apology, and tries to bolster you by talking about what they did like. But I was depressed all night—went through all the stages of grief: denial that my peers didn’t know a thing, then anger about the whole idea of workshop, you cry in your sleep, bargain that maybe if I just changed a sentence the whole thing would fall into place. You feel hit by a truck. But at last I woke in the morning and realized to my chagrin that they were right. That I had to be honest to the work, if not myself.
The experience becomes easier to the point where you crave harsh feedback, but self-doubt comes with the territory. I don’t mind being crushed by critique because if I wasn’t I’d doubt my connection to the piece: if you don’t take the comments personally, if it’s not worth getting upset about, maybe you don’t really care about the writing. The point is to take that sting and turn the pain into something productive.
What kind of illusions do writers have, and do they need them?
Writers do need illusions, but not in the sense that they delude themselves. It doesn’t mean you lie to yourself by believing a piece works contrary to everyone’s advice. Again, that’s just ego. But I do think writers need a bit of blind confidence—not being above criticism, but persevering despite it. Despite rejection, despite the challenge of revision, you find a way to work through it. Sometimes you have to trick yourself to keep that process going. As for illusions that are completely counterproductive, I see a lot of students who put the cart before the horse. They ask about publishing, or how to sell a book, or what about agents? They have the end goal in mind before even starting. It’s almost as if they want to know the ending to the story before reading the first page—what’s the fun in that? So we have to talk about how time works—that writing is a long road, and why do you write, what is motivating you? Is it money, fame, the trophy of a book on the shelf, or is it something else? It’s that something else you have to dig into first if you’re ever going to gain those other goals—and in the process you may even forget to have a goal aside from creating something new to the world.
How do you know if someone is a good reader of your work?
You think it’d be someone who writes like you, someone who shares your vision, who “gets” your style because it’s theirs as well. But that usually just creates a shallow, self-congratulatory atmosphere of “Aren’t we so great.” And that’s no way to be. It’s more isolating, in a way. It’s good to share a vocabulary, find someone who is well-read, especially since workshop is an incredibly complex activity—it’s evaluative, self-reflexive, meta-cognitive, and yet requires emotional awareness and sensitivity, but you have to be honest and tough, but also constructive without being prescriptive. So finding someone to trust with your work and who can balance all these criteria isn’t easy. My advice is to find someone who is your opposite. If you’re more character driven, get someone who is plot-oriented. If you’re lyrical, a minimalist writer. Also, make sure you have someone who sees the big picture—avoid the person who corrects grammar or suggests changing a paragraph. And always be wary of someone who says your work is good, especially if they don’t have a sound argument for it. You want someone who can get excited about the draft by offering inspiration about what it could be—I want to be energized and look forward to revision. And a good workshop partner does this.