My first writing workshop was in high school, me and some boys. The faculty adviser was my English teacher that year.
One meeting, there were just three of us: me, Kevin, and John. Mrs. Danner had another obligation and had left Kevin in charge. Inexplicably.
Keven and John read their pieces, I did my best to give them constructive comments. My turn. I read a short fiction piece I was working on. Rules of the workshop were you read, then you shut up while everyone else talks about it. No matter what. This is how the grown-ups did writing groups, so this was how we were going to do it, too.
Almost immediately, Kevin and John began to not criticize, but to make fun of my piece. I tried to be quiet, I did. I really did. I still remember the way it felt, to sit there and be silent, first the chill of realization, then the heat of fury.
I was desperate to be seen as an adult, as mature: my mother had died a few months previously and I had already learned that if I showed any weakness, I’d lose more things that were important to me. And this–writing–was important to me.
But I couldn’t keep quiet as they, quite deliberately, made things up about my story and laughed with each other at me and at my writing. I finally couldn’t stay silent any longer and protested. It did no good. Eventually I was quiet again.
Later, Kevin called Mrs. Danner to tell her what I’d done.
The next day in class, in front of everyone, Mrs. Danner decided to tell me how my behavior had been inappropriate. I tried to tell her about Kevin and John’s subversion of the intent of the rules, but worse than that had been my speaking up in defense of myself, in defense of my work. I remember looking at her and saying that I wasn’t going to discuss it any further with her and I shut down completely.
I can’t remember if I went to any future meetings.
My second workshop was my sophomore year of college. It was an introductory level creative writing course, required for people who were focussing on creative writing as I was, but it also filled an English general education requirement, so it was a really diverse group of students.
It was a fantastic workshop. Listening to criticism wasn’t a problem and I learned a lot. Credit for that goes to the instructor, a young graduate student who had never run a creative writing workshop before so wasn’t too set in his ways. I’ve looked him up over the years and it seems he’s had some success as a writer and academic and that pleases me. He was a good teacher and, later, a supportive peer (we were in several lit classes together).
I was writing a lot of fan fiction at this time, a long serial story with my best friend. We’d mail installments to each other once a week or so. This story was one of the things that kept me sane my first two years of school.
I was also writing a lot of poetry.
And after this workshop, I was fired up, ready to learn more.
I expected the rest of the workshops I was required to take for my degree would also be supportive good faith environments.
This expectation didn’t even come close to meeting reality.
I thought we would learn about basic story structure and be given writing prompts and be encouraged to grow as writers. Instead, we were told to purchase the current year’s best short fiction or poetry anthology and to read it with no classroom discussion about any of the pieces. Pick it up by osmosis.
I remember asking about formal poetry forms once and being laughed at. By the instructor.
Once, I brought a poem with a deliberate and explicit allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (a clumsy allusion, truly) and the instructor very patiently explained to me the existence of the poem. That I’d read it and made a choice to allude to it on purpose was not something that even occurred to him. I felt small and stupid.
We were expected to figure everything out for ourselves. Everything.
I’d bring in intensely personal pieces and after I read them, I remember feeling crushed as the only critique I received was a few sentences from the instructor before he moved on to spend the next 45 minutes rapturously encouraging the young woman who appeared to be channeling Sylvia Plath in her work.
Once, I signed up for a workshop run by a nationally known writer who happened to be a professor at my school. My department did a switcheroo at the last minute and gave us an adjunct. I never knew why, but it was a major disappointment nonetheless.
The first day of one workshop, I walked discovered that one of my classmates was someone I’d gone to high school with, who had graduated the year before me. She told me that I wasn’t supposed to be there. That was an awkward semester.
During my final workshop, me and a handful of other students sat at the far end of the table and whispered to each other and passed notes to each other every session–we were very critical of everything and we did the bare minimum to get by. Why would we do anything more? We must have been incredibly disruptive, but we were never asked to stop. I got an A.
I learned that I wasn’t writing the right sorts of things. That my voice wasn’t needed or wanted. That I was not going to amount to anything, so why was I even trying?
I stopped writing after that.
I’d been told that I needed to put myself on the page–even now, I read about people opening metaphorical veins and bleeding on the page. I opened myself up to criticism and got nothing back but was constantly expected to give and give and give some more. Every workshop, I would start off strong, coming in with pieces that I had worked hard on and that I was excited about–and every time, I would leave feeling as if no one had even bothered reading them.
I’m not delusional: I know that what I was writing was apprenticeship level stuff and needed work, but at that time in my life I desperately needed a support network (I couldn’t rely on my family) and thought I could get an approximation of one in community with other writers, and was bitterly disappointed. Maybe I expected too much.
Perhaps I have never been a real writer, as real writers write–but I feel that my desire to write was snuffed out and is now, only 20 years later, beginning to rekindle.
Which is why comments like the one made by Neil Gaiman this morning no matter how hyperbolic or benign his intent, about the necessity of going to an expensive and exclusive workshop, hurt. And the tone policing of people who were upset by his words wasn’t helpful, either.
In many ways, these types of comments remind me of what I’ve missed out on and can never have–I have obligations that make it impossible for me to take six weeks away from my life for a workshop, even if I could afford it. I don’t flatter myself to think I could qualify for a scholarship: I’ve never qualified for one before, so why would I now? I’m always just not quite good enough.
They also imply that if, for whatever reason, you can’t deal with the kind of pressure cooker that some workshops are, that you are somehow weak and unworthy. I know myself–I know that I can’t put myself in a pressure cooker and hope to come out whole. Other people can. And that’s great, but we’re all different people and there are different paths.
I’ve spent 20 years wondering what I could have written if those around me hadn’t been so intent on putting me in my place when I was young and fragile. 20 years of staring at blank pages, not knowing how or where or if I even should start.
I feel like I am scrambling and that I’ll never catch up. And while I know that comparisons are really unhelpful when it comes to art, it seems to me that mine has been a bit more meandering than it could have been.
So now I write three sentences a day. On days when I write non-fiction, this is easy–I don’t have the same hang ups about non-fiction. On days when I don’t, well. Words eventually happen. Sometimes I find writing prompts and use them and other times, I try to continue what I’d started the previous day. I haven’t yet finished anything.
None of it’s very good. But I’m trying. I have a small handful of friends I trust to look at my attempts at fiction. They’re very encouraging, which I appreciate beyond measure. That these friends–professional writers–are willing to read my halting attempts and give me feedback means so very much to me.
I’ve thought about trying to find a small critique group, but I don’t know where to start–I know there are online communities, but the idea of opening myself up to strangers doesn’t sit well with me. And the mere thought of putting myself through another workshop experience terrifies me to the point of utter paralysis.
But for now, I’ll keep writing. Because I am a writer.