On the Workshop Method and Trusting Myself

There is a myth in the writing world that strong writers welcome continual feedback on their work. It's a testament of character, people argue. It's the fastest way to learn. My response? Bah, humbug. All writers are different. I would argue that many writers write as a result of feeling wounded and alienated at an early age, causing them to retreat to their own private worlds. Do you seriously think that this kind of a temperament is amenable to a critique group? Yes, I am intense on this subject. Here's why.

I am the product of a graduate school creative writing program. The first class I signed up for was Novel Writing 1. I had this childhood dream of writing novels. Here was my chance to learn. But early on in that class, I decided it was too overwhelming to do. Why? Because there was no teaching of craft. The entire class was workshop. Students handed in their work, and class time was taken up by student critique with the occasional comment thrown in by the professor.

So I decided to focus on the short story, which involved more classes that had to do with the workshop method and still no formal teaching of craft, but at least short stories were manageable. By the time I finished school, I was so dispirited that I turned to creative nonfiction. It seemed easier to write about my life and make the prose as pretty as I could. When that was not satisfying, I began writing more analytically, creating a blog where I wrote reviews of things that I read and watched, eventually focusing on The Good Wife, until the writers in that show took leave of their senses and treated their characters horribly, and I could no longer in good conscience write about it any more.

I eventually ended up in a guided-prompt writing group, where people wrote about their private lives in a confidential forum, and there was no feedback. It started me back on the road to where I wanted to go. One day in the group, the leader asked us to write about a moment that had truly affected us. After we did that, she asked us to write about again and change it. That's when I remembered that fiction could be really fun.

It was a bumpy road. Writing for fifteen minutes on my own at home felt like forever. I had to rebuild muscle. I had to learn to trust myself. I remember one time talking to another novelist, and she told me that she loved walking outside, looking around, and making up stories. It jogged a memory. I used to love to do that as a child. I had forgotten all about it.

I made mistakes. I went to a fancy writers' retreat and got my sensibilities clobbered. I was treated like I did not know what I was doing. There was a small voice in my head that said, “Maybe you're right. But even though they didn't teach me much craft at all, I am a graduate of a creative writing program, and they thought enough of me to hire me as a lecturer.” I thought, “Why am I getting so upset by this attitude when this person has never written a novel? Why did I spend so much money on someone who hasn't done what I'm trying to do?” I cried more there than I've ever cried anywhere at any time. I was told that I should put aside my book and go into therapy for at least a year. I could feel my book dangling inside me by a very thin thread. I ended up cutting ties with this teacher and set about to write my book.

Luckily, when I got home, I found The Plot Whisperer, and in that book, Martha Alderson said that I didn't have to show anyone my first draft. That made sense to me. I held that idea close to my heart. I did try seeing a therapist, but in mid-session, I knew I would never go back. I had  a history with therapy. I had been with one therapist for many years. I learned my issues. In the end, I had to get out because I was giving too much power to my therapist. This has been an issue for me all my life, thinking more of others than of myself. At that time, I vowed to continue checking inside, to trust my assessments. I wasn't going to go back.

But I did end up going on medication. I was still crying way too much. So I gave it a try, and it has really helped. I had previously thought that using medication was a sign of weakness. I thought it would turn me into a robot. It has helped me function in life, and I wish I had starting using it a long time ago.

I actually intended today to write about beta readers. That's where I am in my process right now with my current project. I didn't think I would write any of the above, but that's what came out today. Next week, I plan to share about that point in my process where I do need to receive feedback, and how that works for me.