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Shopping for a Workshop

I debate with myself frequently about whether or not to go to a Writer's Workshop.  On the one hand, I'm sure some of the input will be valuable, interesting, and extremely helpful.  On the other hand, the last time I participated in any kind of creative writing class / workshop, it was the singularly most unhelpful thing I had ever done - both for me and for the people I critiqued.

Good criticism is hard to do on the spot, and I'm not sure that I would trust anybody who dives right into it.  Unless of course they're picking apart something blatantly obvious, like, "You spelled 'murder' wrong."  I think of the times that I've written movie reviews in the past, and I suck at it if I try to rattle something off within minutes of my first viewing.  I just don't think you can truly appreciate or reject something until you've had a little time to dwell on it.

But more to the point, I'm not sure what kind of advice I would be looking for, and I'm not sure I would actually value what I hear.  I already know my characters, I know what kind of themes I'm trying to tackle, and I have the story pretty well mapped out.  What I would want is somebody to read the book and then just tell me that they like it - but then I'm reminded of that quote from Midnight in Paris, "If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

Now, to flip-flop again, I am fascinated by the process of creative development.  I think I'm much better at appreciating it than I was when I was younger.

When I first participated in the 48-Hour Film Project, I think I resisted the thought of other people's ideas leeching into my work, even if I tried to pretend as though I accepted collaboration.  Earlier this month I participated in the Project and picked up a movie camera for the first time in seven years.  I made a point to let my screenplay serve only as a springboard; an outline to fall back on if all else failed.  I tried not so much to direct as to encourage.  And even though the movie still looks like a complete amateur production (it was) made by people who have no budget (we don't) who were just goofing off (we were), I think it's by far the best short I've made.  I'll put up a link once I'm able.

The way that an idea that I thought was terrible at first could be transformed by the right line read, or the way that a character on paper felt redundant and stupid until somebody put the right energy into it, is so incredibly appealing to me.  That's the sort of thing I'd love to get out of a workshop.  But it's very selfish.  "Hey, you guys read my story and let's discuss it, and then I'm leaving.  Good luck with that writing thing, by the way."

I also fear that I will say something incredibly stupid and ruin somebody else's work.  It has happened before, and it haunts me to this day.  Time for the first of what will hopefully not be too many trivial-yet-embarrassing anecdotes.

I wrote about this on the Internet before, on my now-defunct blog, "Philosophical Appliances."  I doubt that anybody remembers that blog and I have no intention of reviving it, though I will revisit some stuff that I posted there.  More on that later.

When I was in college, I took a Creative Writing class that was taught by a poet.  That's the first mistake right there.  Poets and novelists should never critique each other's work.  Poets are artists who dabble in watercolors and impressionism and fill the canvas with wonder.  Novelists are house painters.  We start in one corner, roll over everything, then look for spots where we need to go back and put on a second coat.  It's totally different.

Anyway.  One of the things we did from time to time was read a short piece of work out loud, and then wait for the class of 20-30 or so students to raise their hands, one by one, to offer feedback.  This only ever seemed to end in one of three ways:

1) It would be humiliating because people would put a microscope up to details that didn't matter, and then you would say, "Okay, better cut that because it's throwing people off," but then they wouldn't let it go, and they'd keep focusing on stuff that you had no intention of keeping and so your work would be analyzed into a pulp and you hated it.

2) It would be unhelpful because people would just say, "Oh, I loved it!  Great work!" and that was it.  Nice esteem boost, I guess, but I was kinda looking for something specific.

3) Alternately, nobody would say a damn thing.  You'd sit in silence for a few minutes before moving on to the next person.  This was both humiliating and unhelpful.

Now, you'd think that the single most devastating memory I have of this class might be a time when I read my own work, but that's not it.

There was a time when one of the young women there contributed her poem, which, as far as I understood it, described a time when she was young and on a camping trip away from home where she witnessed her father being drunk.  The poem specifically mentioned empty bottles surrounding him and his drunken antics.  It's possible that it actually wasn't a particularly clear poem, but I remember being quite moved by it.  It gave me a sense of childlike fear and made me want to give her a hug afterward.

What happened next was that like ten people, including myself, raised their hands to give a response.  I was just going to tell her that I thought the bottle imagery was particularly strong and what I took away from it was childish fear.  But I didn't get called on first.  The professor decided to have us go in order, and I was just about at the end.

And what did those other nine people say before me?  Oh, God, everything.  One guy thought it was about being abused, another guy thought it was about finding Jesus.  Somebody mentioned broken families, and somebody else might as well have mentioned Family Matters for all the good it did.  Each person said something completely different and so far out of left field that I felt like a moron for not understanding a poem that I had just heard, just now.  And after each person spoke, the professor asked her to read her poem again.

By the sixth or seventh time, I had completely forgotten my original point.  I no longer knew what the poem was about.  I no longer knew what I was about.  I could have been ready to join a cult at that moment, lost and confused and just waiting for something to guide me!

Oh, and what was it that reached out and guided me at that moment?  Bottles.  A bunch of beer bottles, because that was the strongest image in the poem.  And what did my dumbass brain think of when it thought of a drunk guy surrounded by bottles?  It thought of a guy pissing in the bottles, because he's drunk, and he's gotta pee somewhere, right?

So now this was a poem about a guy pissing in bottles.  Right?  So when I finally contributed, I think I rambled something about toilet humor, then said something about the bottles, and then I was like, "Uh, I don't get it."

Even later that night, when I was far away from the class, digesting all that had happened, I had a twinge of frustrated guilt surging through my body.  Did I just tell some lady that her poem about her drunk dad was a lowbrow toilet humor gag?

Oh my God, I did.  I just told her I thought she was writing about pissing in bottles, which is not even something that women would write about, and it doesn't even make sense because if the guy was drunk he'd just piss wherever.  A bottle is the last thing he'd piss in.  It's too small a target.

This happened almost ten years ago.  I still feel horrible when I think about it.  I imagine this woman going back to her dorm room angry at the world and giving up on poetry because everyone she talked to was being a damn idiot.

Random St. Mary's College poet, whoever you are, I'm sorry.  You wrote a good poem.  I hope you kept writing them.

Since this is the takeaway I have from writing workshops and classes, I'll probably stay away for awhile.  But I might try again.  For as devastating as group-think can be, sometimes it can be quite beautiful, too.  At least now I have one really good experience to counteract the really bad one.