I’m taking part in a memoir/novel workshop that starts this Saturday, and I’m psyched.
Although in general, I have mixed feelings about workshops.
The right workshop can be a thing of wonders, but I never found the ‘right’ one: I found, instead, nooks of ‘right’ scattered both online and off.
I would start a class with enthusiasm and then, at some point, drop out, not because I thought it was a waste of time (it wasn’t) or because the other writers were stupid and untalented (they weren’t), but because critiquing others’ work ate up so much time and energy that the benefits didn’t seem to justify the compulsive-obsessive effort I put in.
I’ve always found it a bit odd that aspiring writers would seek advice and guidance from other aspiring writers. If you’re an aspiring brain surgeon, do you go to another aspiring brain surgeon and ask, “Hey, can you show me how to saw open this guy’s head?” Or do you go to the best brain surgeon you have access to, who has accomplished what you want to accomplish?
Admittedly, it’s a flawed – and extreme – analogy, and doesn’t take into account the other reasons for participating in a workshop, such as the sense of community, the support, the commitment to produce the required work, as well as the pleasure of talking about writing.
Critiquing is a skill like anything else, and the way to get better at anything is of course to practice practice practice. But when it comes down to learning the craft – and not just the craft but how to make it serve your vision – I can’t help thinking that the better investment is to seek professional help.
Seek out mentors: published, accomplished writers and editors who hire out their services; you can pay them to give a critique of your stuff. Revising a novel with a professional’s one-on-one assistance will teach you the most in the shortest amount of time.
It will also hurt in a way that workshops tend not to.
Real growth – and this applies to writing as much as anything else – is painful. The only way you can make your story better is to fix the things that are wrong with it, and often the only way you can learn what’s wrong with it is by getting somebody else to tell you.
This means, however, that that same person has to a) have the depth and knowledge of craft to be able to recognize what’s not working b) convey that to you in a constructive manner and c) not care overmuch about hurting your feelings, either because they know we’re all professionals here, putting aside our egos to get the job done…or because they’re a sadistic sociopath.
My advice is to avoid the sociopaths.
Also avoid family members and friends (some of whom may be sociopathic themselves, although that’s beside the point).
Learn to love and seek out the tough, constructive criticism delivered by knowing professionals. After all, that’s part of the job description: once you’re published, that criticism will come from agents and editors whose own careers are riding on the quality of what you produce.
In my experience – and keep in mind this is only my experience – many aspiring writers can’t do it.
And it’s not a question of talent – often the most talented are also the most defensive, so accustomed have they become to ego-stroking. Instead of being open to change, willing to re-envision – re/vision – their work, they throw up excuses and rationalizations for why they shouldn’t have to change anything.
And as a result, they don’t progress.
They don’t progress not because they’re not talented, but because they’re not teachable.
And to be teachable, you have to be open, unarmored, and vulnerable.
That is where the power is, the strength : being able to look at your work through someone else’s eyes, seeing what they see and making decisions according to what is best for the manuscript, not your ego or self-image. Find people who are better than you, who know more than you, who are willing to invest their time and attention in you…and listen to them.
If you can do that, you are way ahead of the game.
You are teachable.