I’m currently talking a Young Adult fiction workshop class with Stephanie Kuehnert at the Hugo House — the first time I’ve participated in a writing workshop since I finished my MFA in 2009. It’s nice to be surrounded by writers once again, and I’ve been having flashbacks to some of the more memorable workshop moments of my past.
I remember workshopping a chapter of a memoir written by a guy we’ll call “Jay.” In the chapter, Jay hooks up with two wannabe-actresses in a hotel room. Both of the actresses have enticingly prominent breasts, and a large chunk of the chapter was devoted to Jay’s descriptions of the breasts, for which he used increasingly creative euphemisms. He called them “sweater kittens,” “chest pillows,” “puppies,” and, at one point, “chimichangas.” This led to me making one of the most epic critique comments in all of writing workshop history: “never compare a woman’s breasts to Mexican food.”
“I felt like I had written the word ‘breast’ too many times,” Jay explained. “I thought it would be funny.”
That’s the way it goes in workshop. Sometimes it’s hard to hear what other people have to say, and the tendency is to want to defend yourself. But often there’s truth in the criticism, and if you incorporate some of those comments into the piece, you’ll make it better. I know there are people who think workshops homogenize everyone’s writing, or that too many cooks spoil the short story, but for the most part, getting other people to read and honestly critique your work is a good and necessary thing. It’s hard to judge your own writing.
But bringing your piece to the public chopping block can be a scary thing. When I was getting my MFA, I was young and desperate for approval, desperate for someone to tell me that I had enough talent to pursue writing as a career. My ego was both big and fragile, like a giant porcelain vase. And so, when it came time for workshop, I would often submit my best, most polished stories instead of the ones I actually needed help with.
Recently I read an article about taking the ego out of yoga, and it made me realize that you also need to take the ego out of workshop. The point of yoga isn’t to impress people, and that’s not the point of a writing workshop either.
There have been times in a yoga class when I haven’t tried a difficult pose because I was afraid I would look foolish in front of the class. There are other times when I have hurt myself by going too far — turning yoga into a competitive sport. In both cases, I failed to take the ego out of my practice.
It’s a little different with writing. You need an ego to write. Your ego is what says, “I am a unique person with something important to say.” But when it comes time to workshop what you’ve written, it’s best to put the ego on the back burner. Instead of going in with your best pieces, hoping to impress people or look smart, submit the stuff you need the most help with, and go into workshop ready to openly receive constructive criticism. Instead of defending yourself or arguing with classmates about what you “meant” by a certain line, absorb their comments and consider them.
Just like a yoga instructor can make adjustments to your poses, your classmates can make suggestions and comments about your writing because they are seeing it from a different perspective. Even with a mirror, it’s hard to know what you actually look like in a yoga pose because you are a part of it, and for the same reason, it’s sometimes it’s hard to see your writing for what it is. If you can listen to your classmates suggestions and consider them carefully, you will end up making adjustments that improve your piece. I feel confident that every single story I’ve workshopped has become better in the process. I didn’t follow all of the suggestions, but I listened to them all carefully.
Last week I was trying to decide which chapter to submit for my group critique tonight in class. I finally picked one of my worst chapters (in my opinion), containing the scene I’m most unsure about. I worried briefly what my classmates would think of me: That I’m not a very good writer? That they can’t believe I actually have an MFA? But then I let my ego go. It’s the chapter I need the most help with, and isn’t that why we workshop our writing in the first place? Maybe my classmates will be able to see something in it that I can’t see.
In that nonfiction workshop back in the 2008, after we bashed Jay’s chimichanga piece for being sexist and ridiculous, he thanked us for the feedback. “I didn’t realize people would see it that way,” he said. He was good-natured and humble, which are two very good qualities to cultivate when having your writing critiqued. I can only assume he took to heart my suggestion: never compare a woman’s breasts to Mexican food.