- I wanted to become a professional author and was at a loss at how to actually do it.
- I wanted to be a better writer (note how this is not connected to #1)
- I had nothing better to do with my life at the time.
My program was very helpful in a variety of ways. It did make me a better writer, though not in the ways I imagined it would. It earned me a career, though not exactly the career I anticipated at the time. It did, indeed, give me a worthwhile way to spend my time.
It also meant I spent three years in a large number of writing workshops among like-minded individuals (would-be writers) refereed by the kind of person we all aspired to be (professional writers). This, I realize, sounds like writer-ly paradise to many. It sounded like that to me, too, when I first started. Here it was – an opportunity to have my writing read and considered and critiqued and debated by people whose opinion about such things actually bore weight. This is a rare and valuable commodity.
If you write, you know of what I speak: of all the various friends and relatives who step forward to read something you’ve written, 75% of them (or more) will not actually read it. Of the 25% who do read it, the vast majority of them will just compliment you to be polite and their criticisms, if they exist, will be indications of taste rather than actionable critique. Then there’s that guy you know who takes a real, honest-to-God crack at it and tells you stuff that is about 80% worthless (“did you know you missed a comma on page 3?”) and 20% puzzling (“honestly, I thought the main character was a woman the whole time, so when she went to the men’s room, it was jarring”).
So, a writing workshop sounds like a refreshing break from the solitude of writing. The thing is, though, that all the same rules that apply to your friends and family also largely apply to writing workshops. The only difference is the moderator in the room – the professional – who, if they are doing their job well, will prod the chorus into providing more interesting and useful critique. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I caught a variety of my peers in this program off guard. My most common comment was “I was surprised I liked this,” which is about as backhanded a compliment as it is possible to give and, furthermore, entirely useless critique. All it indicates to me is that you are incapable of judging something that does not exist within your own narrow band of genre awareness, which belies a certain inability to separate genre (which is specific) from the art of storytelling itself (which is universal). The criticisms ranged from the occasionally thoughtful and useful to the completely useless (“I find science fiction pretentious” is a hard nut to swallow from somebody writing self-indulgent navel-gazing lit fic).
Then I had that one workshop where the majority of us in the class were fantasy or scifi authors. It was cool – a lot of that ‘genre-shock’ stuff was cleared out. I had a professor who knew her stuff, who challenged me about my understanding of my main character, and so on. It was pretty great. I walked away reeveluating my entire novel at the time, and that was well worth it. Even within that context, though, there was a fair amount of chaff to be winnowed from the actual wheat. It took a lot of effort from all of us.
Since that time, I’ve steered clear of most writing groups. I learned a lot about myself as a writer during my MFA program, and most of it was stuff I taught myself. I taught myself how to evaluate my work objectively, how to keep writing to a deadline, how to accept criticism you disagree with, how to accept a compliment (I’m honestly the worst at that one), and how to frame questions for others that will get them to address the concerns I have with my own writing. The people I was in workshop with, well-meaning and talented as they were, could only help me so much. I rather doubt I was much help to them myself, despite my efforts. I have had some trouble seeing what I am to gain from another writing group; what am I hoping to learn about myself?
That’s the trouble, I suppose – the unknown unknowns. If you know you don’t know something, you can learn about it. If you don’t know that you don’t know something, you can’t – you need somebody else to tell you. It’s searching for buried treasure without intending to; it’s somehow blundering into self-awareness. The odds of it happening are slim, let’s face it, particularly if you’ve been at the whole self-reflection game for a while. And writing groups can have negative effects, too. They can become an echo chamber, inflicting a kind of subliminal homogenization on the participants. The group and what it considers ‘good writing’ is often only one kind of good writing, and sometimes it isn’t the kind you want to write or that feels good in your bones. Sometimes, if you’re good, all you hear from the group is how good you are and you forget your own flaws. Sometimes, if you aren’t very good, all you hear is how bad you are and forget your own strengths. This can be as damaging as it is helpful, sometimes even moreso.
As I write this, I have informally joined a new writing group of sorts. They are all talented, prolific, and many of them (like me) have professional sales under their belts. This is why I joined (I’ve been alone in this too long, methinks), and I’m considering how and when to submit my first piece for critique. I’m wondering if there’s a nugget of wisdom waiting for me out there, somewhere, for me to stub my toe on or, perhaps, for some brave soul to chuck at my head. We shall see.