How to Bear a Workshop

I had a wonderful 10-minute conversation with the teacher of the workshop I started attending late last summer. We spoke largely about how difficult it is to bear listening to criticism of one’s own work — how hard it is to separate the poem from the poet. And also how necessary it is. She described for me some of the things she did during her first workshop at Radcliffe 25 years ago. They were petty, but they worked, and they hurt no one. I’d be interested in hearing how other people manage to keep mum while the best-intentioned of colleagues make suggestions for how to make a poem better. I’m thinking of putting a stone in my shoe, literally biting my tongue, or doodling the price of the workshop in the margins, as a way of motivating myself to stay silent and as receptive as possible.

What are the things you’ve done to keep yourself mum during workshop? The pettier and the sillier the better.

8 Replies to “How to Bear a Workshop”

  1. In my experience there are few things harder then actively listening to criticism. When I am creating something I feel a romantic attachment to the ideas and structures and its hard to see the flaws. If I recognise that I am a flawed human with streaks of brilliance then I have to acknowledge that my creations are not perfect.

    The same is true of the critic.

    I think that since criticism is levied by other imperfect humans it only through embracing the criticism as just another flawed opinion of your own flawed product that it can have meaning. I mean that not everything a person says in a criticism is valid but if you can’t listen to what is being said you can’t gain any benefit from the things that are relevent.

    If the critique is communicated in such a way as to be confrontational, opaque, or imprecise the the value of the interaction is diminished.

    So I try to think of the critic as trying to help, and the conversation that ensues as a collaberation.

  2. Good question! Because I’m also a writer for a living, I’m always open to word-by-word critique that might make any piece of writing stronger. That said, I also know that the critique is someone’s subjective opinion, and I’m free to take it or leave it. It does get harder when the piece is very personal–as poetry usually is!–and the critique feels somehow like a negation of your original intent, or worse yet, your deepest self. I advise you to always take critique with a grain of salt–and I so agree with Mark’s second-to-last sentence. There ARE critics out there who almost seem to have a personal agenda to slash and destroy. I don’t understand this at all, see less of it as I’ve become more selective, and have come to realize that it’s a very immature response to a workshop setting (and honestly should not be allowed by the group leader).

    In terms of “sitting still” while someone critiques your work, I’d suggest asking yourself whether there’s any merit at all to the critique you’re being given–is it in any way helpful to you or the poem at hand? If there’s even a tiny bit of the critique that’s useful to you, scribble it down. Otherwise, simply thank the critic for their time and move on to the next. If it’s someone whose critique means a lot to you, you might want to ask for clarification, without necessarily arguing for or defending your work.

    Hope that’s helpful!

    1. Karen, that’s definitely helpful! My overall impression of the people in this workshop is that they’re seasoned writers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good critics. So perhaps paying attention to the person speaking rather than the words they’re saying is a good strategy for the next session — which is tomorrow night. Wish me luck :-/

  3. hehe i have sometimes enjoyed the distraction of a stone in my shoe.
    i have also made collages and then cut them up to help me let go of the result and just practice making

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Lucy. I enjoy looking back at collages I’ve made in the past to see what was on my mind back then, and what sorts of wishes have come true.

      Last night’s workshop was a resounding success, actually. I’m sure that was largely a result of all the talking and thinking I’ve done about it — and the many helpful suggestions friends have made both online and in real life.

  4. I am taking a fiction writing workshop now and the first time of hearing everyone’s critique of my story was emotionally brutal. Still, I didn’t say anything, and just wrote everything down. After a few days I picked up my notes and everyone’s comments and there were a lot of good ideas for improving the story. I’d focus on not trying to defend or explain yourself or even understand at the moment what they’re saying. Just take notes and look at them when your emotions calm down.

    1. Blue Flute, your story reminds me of my days at Vassar. I was fortunate enough to be selected for both the Poetry and Narrative classes. I found the workshops very helpful, but after I graduated my literary ambitions stalled. There were a lot of reasons for that, and very few of them had to do with the quality of instruction at my alma mater. I remember looking at the written comments on the drafts years later and feeling a sense of vertigo — some were contradictory, some were awfully lazy, and I could no longer remember the gestalt of the workshops that I was present for. This is the first critique workshop I’ve attended in 20 years, and the biggest difference is me. In the old days, I had a whole series of defenses in place, but most of them have been discarded. I do believe I’m a better person — and a better poet — as a result, but it means that I had to learn a whole new way to be open and present while in workshop.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your own experiences. I’ve taken a look at your site. It looks like you’ve been studying poetry for some time! I’m very curious to know whether your mother tongue is English, Chinese, Japanese, or something else entirely.

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