For someone whose ability to value herself was at one time so steeped in the opinions of others, a creative writing workshop is dangerous territory. Just like with my relationships, I pour myself into my writing. Even if it’s fiction. Talk to me enough and you’ll see it. So when I’m sitting in a workshop and my piece is up for discussion, I’m terrified. After almost five years of being in different levels of workshops for different genres and forms, I still get scared because this piece of writing would not have existed if it weren’t for me. That specific idea existed in my brain and my brain alone, so if I didn’t write it, then it’d die with me. That’s what I mean when I say I pour myself into my work. Every poem, script, or chapter I put on paper is in some way dealing with a past trauma, depression, hardship, loss, etc. It’s all drawing from such a deeply intimate and personal place within me that it’s hard to maintain a healthy distance.
When I first started taking workshop courses, I would leave the classroom with stacks of feedback letters and marked-up copies of my manuscript, but I wouldn’t touch any of them until it was time to do a revision assignment. I was afraid of what people had to say. I believed that if they didn’t like my work, then they didn’t like me. Someone in workshop would say “this part needs work” and my brain would hear “you aren’t a good writer” So how do you shut off that negative self-talk and start taking the feedback for what it is? I wish I could say there’s a tired and true method to doing this, but really it depends on the individual. For some people, it might help them to think of the work as separate from themselves once they distribute it to the class. As if to say, “we’re not here to talk about me, we’re here to talk about these characters and this narrator.” Remember that you are not your characters. You are not your narrator. Someone disliking a character you wrote doesn’t mean they dislike you. Distance yourself emotionally and act as if you were reviewing any other story your class would read. Approach the workshop like a discussion about a piece from an anthology: what are the strong points, what’s the literary merit of this piece, and how can any weaknesses be improved.
So what do you do when you have someone in your workshop who is making it personal?
First of all, talk to your workshop leader if it’s becoming a serious issue. If this person is going beyond critiquing your work into a place where they are just totally negative and unconstructive, they are a problem. Not just for you, but for everyone in that workshop. There really are people in this world who have nothing positive or constructive to contribute, and the good thing is that these kinds of people are easily recognizable. They’re probably the one sitting at the workshop, arms folded, saying nothing until the workshop leader says they have to participate somehow. They’re the ones who write comments in the margins of your manuscript claiming that something doesn’t make sense, when really it’s not an issue of your writing, but rather it’s most likely just them not reading the piece as closely as a reviewer should. Maybe they’re insecure in their own level of experience as a writer, or perhaps they’re just having a weirdly long series of bad days. Who knows.
What you have to do is take their feedback with a huge grain of salt. Most of it will not be useful. That’s just a fact. If they’re just here being petty, probably 98% of their critiques will be shallow, vague, or woefully unhelpful. You have to learn how to sort out what you can use from what you can’t use. A workshop environment is engineered so that you get lots of eyes on your work, lots of perspectives and different backgrounds of knowledge and writing experience to help you see your work more clearly. This space is also supposed to be a positive one, where the writers come together to help each other improve in their craft. When you have someone who isn’t on board with that mission, the best thing you can do is identify them as soon as you can and talk to your workshop leader, because I promise you won’t be the only one who has those concerns.
Try to remember the positive feedback you get, too. One person’s “I don’t like your writing” will always, always be zapped out of existence by another person’s “I’m excited to read more of your work.”
And remember, just because you like a piece doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because you don’t like a piece doesn’t mean it’s bad. Whether or not a piece fits with your preferred aesthetic is totally irrelevant to the piece’s literary merit. A challenge for you, dear reader, whoever you are: the next time you’re critiquing someone’s piece in workshop, do your best to avoid “I like” or “I dislike” statements. Frame your feedback so that you are being as objective as possible, because whether or not a text is in your “taste range” is irrelevant to its successes or shortcomings as a story. And, as always, remember to be constructive. The workshop space is only as healthy as the participants make it.