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Advice From The Round Table A Mentor's Notes On Creative Writing Workshops
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"I understand what you're saying, professor, but that's my point exactly. My character really would say this."
I can't tell you how many times I've heard this very argument from students in workshop after explaining that clever as a fox, or, smart as a whip has no place in their writing. A cliche, my friend, under any pretext, would still smell as stale.
As a student at countless peer-review round tables, I learned to appreciate the voices that indulged me with their feedback. Some were useful, others extraordinary, and many, well, just weren't fit to use for ESL exercises. It is the way of the table.
My approach during these formative gatherings was to listen critically and judge the sincerity of each feedback offered. The person who dripped blood, i.e. covered my draft with liberal doses of constructive red ink, was someone to pay close attention to. This writer had spent time reading, analyzing, and meticulously sharing their findings with me in order to help me improve. I may not have agreed, but I damn sure did consider. The jerk-wad who only wrote 'Great piece! I love what you did with (insert easily gleaned image from first paragraph here), next to a hastily doodled pink smiley face, would be rewarded with a polite smile pulsing with scorn.
Oh, participating in those early exercises was ever so much fun.
These days, I run my own.
Now please, don't take me for some disgruntled hack who never saw publication, and is simply using his blog to rehash old grudges. Quite the contrary. Many of my stories, poems, and photographs have seen print, and I have a story that has been adapted to a screenplay. I am senior editor for a GLBT? speculative fiction journal, and fiction editor for another magazine whose goal is to pair new voices with seasoned veterans. I teach creative writing, composition, literature, and humanities subjects on the collegiate level.
Trust me. I know what I'm talking about, and for this article, it is the intricacies and nuances of the peer-review round table.
#1- You have heard this time and time again, but it so crucial it bears repeating. To be a writer of any reasonable caliber, you first need to be a reader. And to that, I shouldn't have to add an active reader. The books you read need to be absorbed and analyzed. If you can't come to the table with even the most basic of lexicons, don't bother sitting down.
It gives me heart palpitations when I refer to Harper Lee's use of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird as a silent cry to Scout's innocent witness, and the inevitable student blurts out, "I never read that one." Seriously? Where the hell did you get your high school diploma? Other books that receive such disdain from me if 'skipped' include Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath, Old Man and the Sea, and Fahrenheit 451. There are, of course, many others, but these six I consider a starting point. How can you write if you don't know how the great writers wrote?
So if you don't already read, start today. Read copiously. Read the classics. Read the great American novels. Read the transitive post-modernism cornerstones. If you run out of these, begin the list of Nobel Prize in Literature nominees and winners. If need be, screw your own Reserved brass plate into a chair at the public library and get yourself some literature. Seriously. Read.
#2- You will feel the hackles on the back of your neck rearing the first time you receive thoughtful, yet critical, commentary in a workshop. More than likely, also the second. In fact, it could well be a life-long condition of which there is no respite. My advice is to embrace the wave of adrenaline. Not only does it mean you are on the right path to acceptable writing, the rush of blood to your face is good for the complexion. In cases where this reaction occurs, it is important to take a deep breath and listen.
If the comments revolve around clarity, you will want to take detailed notes. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are one thing (well, three), but comprehension is altogether another beast. Your peers, for the most part, are intellectuals, and if they cannot understand your layered naturalist symbolism wrapped in the irony of character angst, you will want to make a few adjustments.
#3- Give solid feedback. If anything, your treatment of another struggling writer's work is crucial to your own potential success as a writer. Remember, these people have become aware of your weaknesses through your preambles, and are prepared to demolish any self-confidence you have built should their 'children' be maligned in an unthoughtful way.
Your comments should be direct and to the point, and not tempered with emotion. Pointing out to a fellow writer that you would expect to see more exposition in their establishing paragraph is much more suitable than saying, "I haven't got a clue what you're writing about." On a more pragmatic note, your careful, provocative, line-by-agonizing-line analysis of their 'opportunities' can only strengthen your self-critiquing skills. You must be prepared to slash and burn your own work just as you would suggest others, obviously, do to theirs. If something is not right, no matter how beautifully written, you must be trained to put it down while causing the least amount of suffering.
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