Creative Writing Workshops

A Mentor's Notes from the Round Table

"I understand what you're saying, professor, but that's my point exactly. My character really would
say this."

writing is sexy
I can't tell you how many times I've heard this very argument from students in workshop after explaining that clever as a fox, or, smart as a whip has no place in their writing. A cliche, my friend, under any pretext, would still smell as stale.

Creative workshops, the wonderful retreat of the self-absorbed writer. 

As a student at countless peer-review round tables, I learned to appreciate the voices that indulged me with their feedback. Some were useful, others extraordinary, and many, well, just weren't fit to use for ESL exercises. It is the way of the table.

My approach during these formative gatherings was to listen critically and judge the sincerity of each feedback offered. The person who dripped blood, i.e. covered my draft with liberal doses of constructive red ink, was someone to pay close attention to. This writer had spent time reading, analyzing, and meticulously sharing their findings with me in order to help me improve. I may not have agreed, but I sure did consider. The jerk who only wrote 'Great piece! I love what you did with (insert easily gleaned image from first paragraph here), next to a hastily doodled pink smiley face, would be rewarded with a polite smile pulsing with scorn.

Be more or less specific Oh, participating in those early exercises was ever so much fun.
These days, I run my own.

Now please, don't take me for some disgruntled hack who never saw publication, and is simply using his blog to rehash old grudges. Quite the contrary. Many of my stories, poems, and photographs have seen print, and I have a story that has been adapted to a screenplay. I am senior editor for a GLBT? speculative fiction journal, and fiction editor for another magazine whose goal is to pair new voices with seasoned veterans. I teach creative writing, composition, literature, and humanities subjects on the collegiate level.

Trust me. I know what I'm talking about, and for this blog post, it is the intricacies and nuances of the peer-review round table.

an active reader. The books you read need to be absorbed and analyzed. If you can't come to the table with even the most basic of lexicons, don't bother sitting down.

A Farewell to Arms Quote
#1- You have heard this time and time again, but it so crucial it bears repeating. To be a writer of any reasonable caliber, you first need to be a reader. And to that, I shouldn't have to add

It gives me heart palpitations when I refer to Harper Lee's use of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird as a silent cry to Scout's innocent witness, and the inevitable student blurts out, "I never read that one." Seriously? Where the heck did you get your high school diploma? Other books that receive such disdain from me if 'skipped' include Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath, Old Man and the Sea, and Fahrenheit 451. There are, of course, many others, but these six I consider a starting point. How can you write if you don't know how the great writers wrote?

So if you don't already read, start today. Read copiously. Read the classics. Read the great American novels. Read the transitive post-modernism cornerstones. If you run out of these, begin the list of Nobel Prize in Literature nominees and winners. If need be, screw your own Reserved brass plate into a chair at the public library and get yourself some literature. Seriously. Read.

Why use punctuation #2- You will feel the hackles on the back of your neck rearing the first time you receive thoughtful, yet critical, commentary in a workshop. More than likely, also the second. In fact, it could well be a life-long condition of which there is no respite. My advice is to embrace the wave of adrenaline. Not only does it mean you are on the right path to acceptable writing, the rush of blood to your face is good for the complexion. In cases where this reaction occurs, it is important to take a deep breath and listen.

If the comments revolve around clarity, you will want to take detailed notes. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are one thing (well, three), but comprehension is altogether another beast. Your writer peers, for the most part, are intellectuals, and if they cannot understand your layered naturalist symbolism wrapped in the irony of character angst, you will want to make a few adjustments.

sections of a story
#3- Give solid feedback. If anything, your treatment of another struggling writer's work is crucial to your own potential success as a writer. Remember, these people have become aware of your weaknesses through your preambles, and are prepared to demolish any self-confidence you have built should their 'children' be maligned in an unthoughtful way.

Your comments should be direct and to the point, and not tempered with emotion. Pointing out to a fellow writer that you would expect to see more exposition in their establishing paragraph is much more suitable than saying, "I haven't got a clue what you're writing about." On a more pragmatic note, your careful, provocative, line-by-agonizing-line analysis of their 'opportunities' can only strengthen your self-critiquing skills. You must be prepared to slash and burn your own work just as you would suggest others, obviously, do to theirs. If something is not right, no matter how beautifully written, you must be trained to put it down while causing the least amount of suffering.

Books are sexy #4- If you are handed a copy of someone's draft to more closely read and comment upon before the next session, closely read and comment upon the draft before the next session. Do the work. This is more than a simple homework assignment, in fact, it is a scholarly quid pro quo. In these types of exchanges, you can sure as heck bet the reciprocating party has a copy of your magnum opus in hand, well-marked after a week of slogging through your misplaced metaphors and digressive confessions of hating a mother you never had, in order to assist you in getting your piece fine-tuned. How is it going to fly when your written response to their unread work is, Sorry dude, I never read it, or worse, All I have to say is, great piece! I love what you did with that part about your mother's hoop earrings! Smiley face.

Social media and the writer#5- Though I do know a few who have done so with a modicum of success, I do not recommend falling in love at the round table.Writers tend to display more attractive attributes with a pen than during actual human interaction. Those traits you come to adore from the person sitting across from you, as they woo verbosely with their weekly submission, are nothing more than repressed emotions that can never be fulfilled off the page.

Another why not is that your weekly critique of your love's use of imagery, and all further commentary for that matter, quickly becomes discounted by your remaining peers as you can't stop forming little hearts with your hands while you speak.

Get into the arts
#6- As soon as your group tells you to submit a piece, do so. It is never too early to toughen your skin against journal editors such as myself. I'm being harsh, of course, but there is truth in my venom-laced suggestion. You will never be published if you don't submit.

Your peers have lovingly given you carte blanche to release your baby onto the literary scene. They have confirmed your imagery is appropriate. Your dialogue is well-crafted. There are no more misspellings, grammatical errors, POV shifts, or tense issues that can be found. By them, at least. Your story, after all the knuckle scraping agony, is ready.

Start by making a list of publications that accept unsolicited stories. There are countless, but some reputable publications include the Tower Journal, Glimmer Train, Tin House, and McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. You would also be well-served by perusing the journal listing at Poets & Writers, found here. Once you have the your selections made, review them for submission requirements and follow them to the letter. Now, send away, and bon chance.

If there are any last noteworthy observations I can offer, it would be these. You can become a published writer if you simply listen to your respected peers and continuously work on improving your craft. No one is born a writer- our experiences drive us to tell the stories we have collected and have yet to express. To be successful, you need to learn the methods of telling those stories well so others will read them.

Be a writer every day, and be happy in your work.