Saturday, February 2, 2008

Make the Most of Writing Workshops

It has become very popular, now, to promote the ideal that all writing is worth reading, that all writing deserves a kind word. This attitude results from a very brutal fact about writing - good writing comes from deep within, and a scathing review is tantamount to cutting open the writer's soul. Many writers - especially writers just starting out - are not ready for this treatment. Many who face such critics end up hating themselves as much as they dread writing. Would-be careers are cut short before they've even begun.

Unfortunately, a writer who receives no negative feedback will not improve. I used to be such a writer. The words I put to paper thrilled me. Some of this was the fact that I had math and chemistry waiting and and early curfew - it was so much more fun to write than it was to do homework. And talk to my parents? Heck, that wasn't gonna happen - I was a teenager. So instead I wrote. I made up fantasy world spinoffs from King Arthur and The Lord of the Rings. I studied Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks as if I could grasp the essentials of storywriting through mastering the character template for hobbits.

Unfortunately, this wasn't good writing. I didn't understand plot or conflict, and my idea of character development was stealing Tolkien's Silver Mithril Armor (Hit Points Plus Three!) and draping it over my dice-rolled half-elven wizard knight. Somehow, the words "derivative plagiarism" never occured to me.

I was young, but I was also very lucky. The teachers I had took a holistic approach to reading - they taught the elements of good literature. Stories fascinated me, and from school I began to understand the components of good writing. I tried to emulate my favorite writers. I wanted to recreate the quirky tales we read in class - and of course I wanted other people to see my name attached to such good stories. I wanted to be a bestseller at sixteen.

It wasn't until college that my first workshop instructor told me the bad news about writing: good fiction is about conflict. He was polite, he was understanding, but he also told me that my story couldn't be a story without conflict. "Nothing really happens in your piece," he told me.

I was more confused than crushed. My piece had divorce and it had the new girlfriend and there was of course the poor kid shuttling back-and-forth between Mom's House and Dad's House. I thought it was poignant. But nothing happened. The characters did not grow or change. The little boy was cute, but he did not drive plot.

So I went back, and I thought about what my teacher meant. Some days, I still go back and ask myself because, as a writer, that is my weakness - my stories lack conflict. They lack the primary motivation that makes humans struggle. I'm getting better, sure, but it's a daily quest to find that inner turmoil to drive new stories forward.

When you sign up for a writing workshop, you look for crucial feedback like this to make your stories stronger. This is especially true for anyone just starting out. Whether you're age seventeen or age seventy-one, the stories you submit may be the first you've shared with other readers. It's a very tense moment. You want to know if your story works. You want to know if you've left out anything major - like conflict - and what you should do about that. But you also want to know something more critical still. You want the answer to the question that no writing instructor or workshop leader can answer directly. You want to know if your writing "has it," if your writing follows the recipe for "good" and "worth writing more." You listen to every ounce of feedback looking for the answer, looking for the clues that say "keep going," dreading the ones that say "don't bother."

Let me share a secret with you. Let me tell you what good writers take for granted, even on the days when it feels wrong. Once you've reached the point of sharing your stories with others, you have it. The writing may not be perfect, the characters might need work, but you are a writer. You are on the road. The key is to keep writing, to listen to the feedback, to learn how to strengthen your words. There will be days you don't feel like writing, even some days you might not feel that you can write, but those will pass. You will learn the tricks to get through them. You will improve. You will submit more stories to the workshop. And the feedback you dreaded most will become your stepping stone to the next level.

Visit my Creative Writing website. My own online writing workshops are coming soon. Or, if you like, you can visit my Feedback Page to send me an e-mail.

1 comment:

Praetorious said...

HEY RY_RY!! It's Amit!! How are you doing? Great piece of work ! I liked it!