At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.
Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.
Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.
For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.
When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.
Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.
During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,
“Now tell me, is the story finished?”
I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”
“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”
“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.
But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”
“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.
It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.
Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”
This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.
I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.
But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.
So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.
But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.
I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”