Have you ever had your writing critiqued in a writing workshop? If not, you’d be in for an experience like none other. My first encounter was in one of the first writing workshops I took in the year 2000. The piece was my first attempt at writing poetry; in fact, it was one of my first attempts at writing anything.
The instructor called on me to read what I’d written. The class of twelve was seated around an oblong table at the impressive white brick structure of the American Library Association in downtown Chicago. Up until then, I’d been a suburban nurse educator holding a doctoral degree in nursing; I was excited, now, to start an educational program in this new avocation of mine.
Seated mid-table across from the instructor, I proudly read my first poem. As is usual, when the class responded with feedback, I, as the writer, stayed quiet, taking it all in. I recall murmurings about its worth. Or lack of it. I remember clearly only one response: from a woman seated at the end of the table on my left. She sat sideways to the table, leaning back in her chair with her feet elevated on an adjacent chair. I sensed an air of superiority from her as the rest of us sat upright, classroom style, in our places at her feet.
Her response? In an airy sing-song voice, she offered, “I thought poems were supposed to have rhythm.”
You can bet that every time I’ve reread my sentences over the past twenty years, I’m conscious of rhythm.
In the current September/October issue of Poets&Writers, Rachelle Cruz offers a critique of this usual style of giving feedback where the writer stays silent and takes in the critiques. Paraphrasing her ideas, she wonders if the current mode of providing the climate that allows the peers and instructor to eviscerate the work of the writer, who must remain silent, is the best way to run a workshop. Or would a collaborative method work better?
I’ve attended over thirty workshops since that summer of 2000, and after the first few, I developed a hard shell against evisceration of my precious words. Just as I looked for trends during the twenty years I received nursing student evaluations, I look for trends now in my writing feedback. What problems are consistent over time? When teaching, if most of the students said the same thing, I respected their evaluations as valid feedback on what I should change in my teaching methods. By contrast, with writing, I can accept or reject the feedback, dependent on how well I think the feedback fits with my vision for that manuscript.
Reading this issue of Poets&Writers this morning, the flood of feedback I’ve gotten in workshops over the years rushed back into my consciousness. To give you an idea of how this works, I want to share a few key points from the feedback I got from my latest workshop. If you’re a writer, you’ll relate; if not, see what you’re missing.
Imagine yourself seated at a rectangular table in an old marble building in an old, dark high-ceilinged wooden classroom with a transom over the door, formerly a State Capitol building, at the University of Iowa, surrounded by the instructor at the head of the table and nine classmates. Each classmate has read your story beforehand, and they now have three hours to give you feedback. This type of class is called an “intensive memoir workshop.” A few months before the class, I’d submitted the first draft of the book I’m still revising on our experience with Marv’s cancer.
During the three hours, I sat mum, taking notes. Toward the end I was allowed time to ask questions of the class. I scribbled nonstop. Rather then list the positives (and there were many) here, I’ll mention the things that can be improved. In view of confidentiality, I’ll deal with them as themes.
First, interiority. There were several comments that the readers did not hear enough about how I felt or what I was thinking during the seven months of Marv’s illness. For example, they wanted my pain described and how I felt about Marv refusing treatment.
Second, repetition. Because the manuscript contains blog posts, emails, and personal notes, there are some events that are told more than once, even though some details differ.
Third, background. Readers wanted to know more about what we looked like, how we met, how we developed our relationship (was there a codependency since I emphasize how Marv “did everything”?), and how we faced this challenge of Marv’s terminal diagnosis.
Fourth, medical knowledge. Since the writer is a nurse, why isn’t there more “disease” information?
Fifth, my faith. This has come up, more than once, as a turnoff in workshops. Is my faith real? Does it really help me? Am I subtly trying to promote a belief that differs from their own?
Sixth, conflict. Not enough conflict. Was it suppressed to get through the experience?
I consider this feedback as very, very valuable. As a writer, I’m blind to my own omissions. And as a workshop recipient, I always am wanting to jump in with my explanations! The answers are clear to me, why are they missing them? But I’ve been reminded many times that just because something is in my head doesn’t mean the readers can see it; I must get it down on the page. Just like I taught in nursing when we talked about charting; if a nursing intervention was not documented on the patient’s chart, it would be viewed as not done if a case ever went to court. In the case of writers, not written down means it’s more than we can expect our readers to figure out. We want to leave some mystery, but not too much.
Now, with clear-cut feedback, I must keep at the revision! And dream about what a more collaborative method of giving and receiving feedback might look like.