Once a month I teach a writing workshop — SHARPENING THE QUILL — here in Princeton. We are a group of about twenty. Some have been coming for years, others for just a few months. Some are published, some are emerging, some are real beginners. All are welcome.
I love my students. One of the things I love most about them is how supportive they are of each other. Over the years I’ve been part of various writing groups and have found some of them actually detrimental, actually harmful. That happens mostly when egos get involved and competition rears it’s ugly head. The next thing you know snide comments — usually unattributed — appear scribbled on work people have submitted for critique, or nasty little asides get made about other people in the group during class. Envy. Jealousy. General snarkiness.
The death of the writing group.
Where, I ask myself, does this come from?
Well, I truly believe it comes from fear. The business of writing — publishing, prizes, reviews, etc — is a feeding frenzy of competition and envy and lots of people get their noses out of joint. Feuds develop. Hurt feelings. Revenge reviews. That sort of thing. (There are lots of examples, including a quite a famous story about Richard Ford spitting in Colson Whitehead’s face over a bad review.) A writer has to work hard not to fall prey to negative, corrosive emotions. But that’s the business end of things. When we are in writing groups or workshops, the business of publication shouldn’t intrude, in my opinion. Here, we should be concentrating on making our work the very best it can be.
This is hard work. And it’s courageous work. To present your writing to other people is a brave thing to do. Risky. We all need a safe place, and that’s the sort of atmosphere I work hard to create. We don’t snark at our fellow writers. We don’t lie, of course, we don’t say a piece is ready to be sent out to editors until we feel it is, since that would only harm the writer. But we don’t belittle. We consider what the writer is trying to accomplish with his or her work, and if that intention hasn’t been met, we try to figure out why. Is the dialogue off? Does this character need more work? Is the pacing too slow here? Is something unclear? It should ALWAYS be about making the work better.
I have found one thing to be universally true — if a writer is confident in her own work, she is wonderfully generous in their support of other writers. When a writer fears his own work is a pile of poo, that’s when the nastiness begins. It’s so sad to see, since the other universal truth is that ALL writers fear their work isn’t good enough; all writers fear rejection and harsh criticism. To continue to write in spite of that — and remain a decent human being — takes effort, in my case in the spiritual realm. Not recognizing that fear as being the work-destroying trickster that it is not only destroys one’s fellow writers, and possibly undermines the group itself, ultimately it stops the fearful writer from doing any good work herself.
I’ve heard stories of writing workshops where the criticism is so harsh and the gossip so rampant that people end up in tears, and in some cases they stop coming, stop writing altogether. What a crime. I’m not saying everyone in my workshops will publish. They won’t. But that doesn’t mean they should stop writing, stop trying to make meaning of the world around them by telling their stories. What better way is there to lead one’s life, if one is born with the writing gene? We give honest feedback, pointing out weak spots, praising great writing, and always encouraging people to keep going.
So, I want to take a minute to thank my students for being not only fine and dedicated writers, but fine human beings, kind and supportive and truthful. Together we have created the sort of group where friendship and long-lasting bonds are formed — two valuable assets in anyone’s life, but certainly in a writer’s. We have created a group in which all members feel safe bringing their blood-and-tear-stained pages, knowing they will be greeted with open minds, open hearts and encouragement.
There’s always room at the table for one more. . . if you’re interested.