The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, February 11, 2008

Workshop Notes: Getting over it

By Tamara Lee

Two weeks ago, I found myself in a familiar but near-forgotten situation: Surrounded by a diverse group of strangers, in a workshop led by a well-known Canadian writer. Over a dozen years after my last university writing workshop, I've started a weekly “Master Fiction Class” with Nancy Lee.

It’s been some time since I was in a face-to-face workshop. I’ve occassionally met with writers to discuss work and I’ve workshopped in other genres over the years, but those times, and my Internet workshop experiences, were rarely as focused, or as committed to the fiction-editing process.

Nancy, off the top, let us know what her goal in this class would be—the “Master” part of the workshop. We’re meant to leave the class with a much stronger sense of how to edit our own work well, and the ability to read others’ work with an eye open for how our readings and commentaries reflect our own writing.

The writer’s ego is a hell of a thing, the newer or emerging writer especially fragile. In university, a 20-year-old's sense of self seems more dependent upon the class’s glowing acceptance of her undeniable brilliance. But as mature adults, life experience tends to provide more than deeper story-wells. Our worlds are less likely to crumble by the inevitable negative criticism: we all have husbands, wives, children, careers; outside lives acting as retaining walls.

Another trait mature emerging-writers carry with them is a greater personal craft-awareness. I’d not once been asked as a young university writing student: “What do you want to get out of this class for your writing?” The young student couldn’t possibly answer such an open question, presuming she’s there for the same reasons everyone else is: to become a writer, to validate her sense of self as a writer, and yes, grudgingly, to learn a thing or two.

But in Nancy’s class, while many of the students’ goals overlap, it was interesting to hear others’ responses; how they’ve a vested interest, a certain self-awareness, and genuine insight into their craft weaknesses and what they hope to achieve during the next 10 weeks. Each of us is at a different level, working in a different style or genre, much like any university class, yet in some ways I feel more among peers than when I was at university.

What’s scarce, but certainly not missed, is the competitive tension many university workshops have. Nancy described two common workshop models:

1) The Iowa-based Writer’s Workshop-style: using judgement, criticism/opinion, and competition, where the writer learns through defending his choices with the aim of creating a strong writer’s voice, but often the result is writers who don’t write again for a long time;

2) The other model, Nancy’s preferred approach, is more supportive, based on informed response and considering the writer’s intention, allowing the writer to develop through more balanced critique, and learning from others’ work.

Admittedly, I became nervous at this point, thinking I’d maybe entered into the wrong class. While it’s nice to feel a bit of love, as someone whose first experience leaned heavily toward the combative approach, I’ve also experienced enough workshops to know that namby-pamby niceties will not inspire me, either.

Nancy was quick to point out that the feel-good, ‘you’re so great’ book club approach is not helpful either. In the end, she reminded us only about 10% of what’s said may be ultimately useful. Careful and informed consideration is the key; learning to ask ourselves: “Exactly why isn’t that suggestion appropriate? Why might that comment, the one I immediately resented, be the sort of advice worth truly considering? And what criticisms about his story may I apply to my own work?”

Then, as though she were reading into my well-guarded character-flaw diary, Nancy pulled out another nugget for those concerned about lacking motivation and momentum to complete a story: A writer’s inability to finish a story stems from the subconscious desire to maintain the story’s potential, as long as it’s not finished, it forever remains full of possibilities.

This week I workshopped a story I’ve been working on for years, and it didn’t go nearly as badly as I’d feared it would. Memories of angst-filled workshops-past needn’t have resurfaced. I was able to sit once again at a round-table full of strangers, staring down a growing mountain of our writerly weaknesses, as part of the communal process of just getting over it.

(Image credit: f/1.4)


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating, especially the part about why some people might not finish a piece. I agree with your not wanting or needing a soft approach. I'm in a writing group here in Victoria that doesn't pull punches although everything is said in the kindest of ways. Honest feedback is what you need when you're "mature." Sounds like you've found the right place for yourself at this stage in your writing career. Thanks for sharing your experience, Tamara. Hope we'll hear more.

Mon Feb 11, 11:48:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

That's exactly my problem- subconscious desire to keep the story as potential. My last four I haven't been able to finish. They are so great in my mind when I'm just 'feeling' their vibe. But when I look at what I've gotten down on paper it's so disappointing. So I retreat back up to where they are beautiful promises of perfection!

I hope next week you'll have what to do about that.

Keep 'em coming, T-Lee. I'll have to pay half your tuition for the vicarious learning.

Mon Feb 11, 12:36:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks, you two. Yes, I've been pondering her comment, and as yet have no solutions beyond the obvious. I do intend to pick her brain a lot during the next few months, so expect to have more to report.

Your payment, Andrew, could be a trip out west for a visit with your west coast pals. Okay, it's more expensive than the course, but I'll bet it could be just as enlightening!

Mon Feb 11, 01:20:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

This is incredibly inspiring, T. I miss my old writing group; this makes me want to go out and find another one.

That bit about subconscious desire to keep the story as potential hit home with me as well. I'm only able to finish things I don't have a chance to think about for too long. I REALLY need to get over that!

Mon Feb 11, 03:50:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Yikes. Inability to finish a story, that'd be me. I hope you keep us updated on how it goes.

Tue Feb 12, 01:09:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hey, you two, thanks. Seems a lot of folks have this condition...

Tue Feb 12, 02:13:00 am GMT-5  

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