(This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of our free monthly newsletter, The Practicing Writer.)
TEN WAYS TO TICK ME OFF IN A WRITING WORKSHOP
By Erika Dreifus
As most of you know, I've recently returned from a writing workshop. Within our group of six, I established what promise to be two lasting friendships. And I am quite positive that I made one lifelong enemy.
In my history attending conference and MFA workshops, I've usually managed to complete each session having connected with at least one other writer I can still call a friend (and a reader) even years later. But truth be told, I'm pretty sure I've also earned the eternal dislike of at least one classmate each go-round as well.
"You're a tough critic, Erika!" my most recent instructor observed last month. And it's true. I am a tough critic. I'm especially "tough" when the workshop I'm participating in is billed as an MFA workshop, or a Master Class. Then, my expectations, both for the level of critique and the quality of the manuscripts, are ratcheted up. (I'm a demanding teacher, too, but I won't get into that here, except to paraphrase semi-disgruntled remarks on student evaluations, such as: "Sometimes it seemed as though Erika actually wanted us to live up to the same high standards she has for herself." Guilty as charged.)
Anyway, my most recent experience led me to think back to previous workshops I've enrolled in. It sparked reflections on the aspects of workshops I've most loathed in the 15 years or so I've taken part in them. And so this month, I share with you "Ten Ways to Tick Me Off in a Writing Workshop."
1) Submit a piece that exceeds the page limits the instructor has delineated. Especially if you're distributing your piece on site, at the conference or the residency, and I have to squeeze in my reading between all the other scheduled activities. Chances are I wouldn't even want to read "extra" Flaubert in that situation! NB: Managing to avoid submitting a piece that exceeds the page limits only by "adjusting" the line spacing and margins isn't going to make me happy, either.
2) Accompany the manuscript with a full-page, single-spaced autobiography, revealing that every instance of mistreatment your fictional protagonist has suffered is, in fact, grounded in the truth of your own harsh childhood. On a personal level, I'll be very sorry for your suffering. But this is a writing workshop. It isn't group therapy.
3) Riddle the manuscript you submit for group review with errors of spelling, punctuation, and syntax. If you want to give me reasons to become frustrated as I read through your text, and to be completely distracted from whatever story you are trying to tell, go right ahead. But you probably won't appreciate my commenting on your problems with standard English in the critique.
4) Repeat, every single time you open your mouth, that what you're about to say around the workshop table "is just my opinion." Of course it's your opinion! Who else might you be speaking for? And isn't everything we offer in a workshop "opinion"? It's true that some of us have more informed and insightful opinions than others. But every time you preface your remarks with this kind of "disclaimer," you help ensure that I won't count yours among them.
5) Scrawl illegible comments all over the manuscript. Believe me, I know what it is to have terrible handwriting. Which is why I type up comments for each manuscript I critique.
6) Tell me what YOU "want" or "would like to see" in my manuscript (or, for that matter, in anyone else's manuscript). It's astonishing but true: Writing workshops are supposed to be about MANUSCRIPTS. About what each writer is trying to accomplish in her manuscript, and how it succeeds in meeting that intent. It's NOT an exercise in getting someone else to write a story YOU "would like" to see written. Here's a hint: Some of the most successful critiques I've received rarely used the word "I." They were not about what the reader "wanted," but rather focused on what she found in the manuscript, what seemed confusing or inconsistent. I've come to try to reduce the first person pronoun in my own critiques, too.
7) Tell me that since you are a mother, you know how my mother characters should be portrayed a lot better than I do. (For a detailed discussion of this particular peeve, click here).
8) Tell me that I should dumb down my manuscript simply because you don't have any familiarity with the subject or setting it treats (and likely wouldn't choose to read a book that dealt with it anyway). This has happened to me many times, particularly in pieces of historical fiction connected with World War II and the Holocaust, and in writing on Jewish themes more generally. I will never forget my disbelief (and, to be frank, outrage) when it became clear that one of my classmates thought I'd invented not only the "character" of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, but also the entire massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and thought I should add "explanations" throughout my story accordingly (that story, minus any "explanations," later won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for writing on Jewish themes).
9) Return my manuscript without any mark-up whatsoever. Without any written critique. Especially when I've devoted my time and energy to yours.
10) Return my manuscript (with or without mark-up and comments) late. Or fail to return my manuscript at all.
Yes, I've managed to alienate a certain segment of nearly every workshop I've participated in. But I've remained true to my standards and myself, and I've somehow managed to collect a cluster of creative writing soulmates in the process. You can't please all the people all the time, as an author. Or in a workshop. But it is possible to please me!