Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Writers are Assholes"

photo courtesy of Steve Eggleston
The other day, over a beer and fried pickles, two friends and I talked about many things including writer's groups.

"Writers are assholes," one friend said, "I'll never attend another writer's group again."

The other friend agreed. I found that I couldn't agree, really, so I asked them to explain.

The one friend said something close to what follows:

"Every time I have tried to get together with other writers to work, they agree to the gatherings, and then pass out copies of their own work for everyone else to read and be really resistant to feedback. In fact, they just won't take it and then, they'll go on to mention how awesome their work is and tear everyone else's work to shreds for no reason. Sometimes the critiques aren't even constructive ("This sucks!). Sometimes they don't even know how to string two sentences together. It's frustrating. It's maddening."

I thought about this. I had been to some workshops like that, mostly as an undergrad. On the whole, though, I seemed to have had some really good experiences with writing groups.

I asked if I could tell them about my experiences. They gave the go ahead. I'll repeat them here plus some:
In college, I was president of a poetry club that a friend and I had founded. Sometime during the course of the year, attendants (of which there were no less than 10 every single week) asked us for poetry writing workshops. This made me nervous at first. I hadn't even finished my undergrad yet. But nonetheless, there it was. People came to our meetings, stayed two or three extra hours after so they could share their work, receive and give feedback. The workshops were productive, fun, and consistent. 
There were a few things that were very key in the workshops' success. Our poetry meetings were very inclusive. We'd invite members to present on topics they cared about. Then at the workshops we would gauge where writers were as far as receiving feedback went. Not everyone was there to publish. Some attendants wanted to feel that their work had potential. Some just wanted to write and share their work. It was our opinion that all of this was okay.
For me, meeting the writer where s/he was became pertinent. I'd ask questions to gauge like, "What kind of feedback are you looking for today?" and then continue when the answer had been received. I would mention what I  liked most about the work, favorite or strongest, most moving parts of the work and how the writer could grow as a whole (speaking while keeping in mind where the writer was). I would tell them colors or images if I saw them, emotions, things they could hold on to and recognize. The critiques were not highfalutin and this kind of workshopping became the model on which this particular group was based. 
I have attended a few odd or so workshops with some of the local slam poets. I was not able to attend consistently but I could see that they had a really consistent group attendance. The goal was to write performance poems, and really good ones, poems that captured the audience and won them. One of the leaders and many of the attendants were already receiving significant attention and had been working in the poetry community for a long time.
The temperature there was kind but it was not without its work. The workshops also felt inclusive. Attendants would workshop one poet's piece at a time as a group. After listening, they would take turns and tell the performer/writer what really worked for them, what hit them in the gut and the heart, what didn't, what was unclear, cliches, and on and on. No one left angry, as far as I could tell. Everyone was there for that particular goal. Everyone gave something and everyone gained.
I belong to some other writer's groups, currently. I work with a group of ladies who gather two or three times a year for poetry writing marathons, to share and workshop, talk about ideas, memories, stories, and to celebrate our accomplishments. It's always a wonderful time and we get a lot of work done. Between workshops/writing retreats, we check in and support one another.
I also sometimes attend other groups. I study formally in paid workshops with accomplished writers as well as have gatherings of my own to discuss everything from grammar to craft and reading. Sometimes I'll meet with someone once over coffee or tea. Sometimes, I touch base with an ongoing group, some of them hybrid on-line/3-D meetups of writers in just about every stage of development, some of them academic-minded, for example, some of them just getting started. Sometimes the meetings surround a small project or a fun writing activity like exquisite corpse.
I'm not really sure if writers are assholes or not. Maybe we all are. Here I am writing a blog post about something unresolved in a conversation I had with friends. I guess, for me, the key in all of this is knowing what you really need or want from a workshop. When you know what you need or want from a workshop, you can then decide whether the one you are attending works for you or not. You are allowed to walk away and make new groups or connect with others depending on those needs and wants. You steer the boat.