Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to waste everyone's time

I'm a day late on the collective discussions on whether anyone can be a writer, with enough effort. But that is, in fact, what I was planning to talk about today as I reflect on a writing class I attended earlier this week.

In the comments to yesterday's posts on the subject, I said that I thought that success as a writer required not only hard work and practice, but the right attitude. And in my opinion, this attitude is lacking among some of the students in my current writing class.

Two weeks ago there was a hint of bad things to come, when some of the students vociferously argued against the suggestion that we might want to do a little proofreading before submitting work to the group. Some of the pages that have been handed out were in bad enough shape that the typos were obscuring the text... it was difficult to tell which character was talking at certain points, or the mistakes in English grammar just made the piece exhausting to get through. One student, bless his heart, said that he was probably making tons of mistakes and would be happy to accept any edits on that front. He was ego-free and willing to learn. But others seemed to think that the simplest copy editing would impede their creativity.

Now, I realize that materials submitted for discussion in a writing group are, by definition, going to be rougher than materials submitted at the querying level. But when fellow students are having trouble reading your materials due to sloppiness in use of the English language and failure to run spell-check... well, what are you hoping to get out of the class, exactly?

Then this week, one of the writers kept arguing with us about his piece. He must have started a dozen sentences with the word "But..." and he repeatedly cut off the other students as they tried to talk about the pages he'd submitted. We thought the emphasis of the piece was Character X, and that he needed much more to fulfill that promise. He insisted that the piece was an introduction to Experience Y, and seemed incredibly frustrated with us for failing to comprehend that.

We kept coming back to Character X, because that is what he wrote about, whether or not it was his intention to do so, and he finally just cut us off. Forget the content, he said, what about the language? Okay, we started to talk about the language. Description Z was quite evocative. He then ignored that discussion, and wanted to know why no one had mentioned Sentence Q, which he found especially delightful.

Amusingly enough, I had noticed Sentence Q. I read it several times in fact, because it had confused the heck out of me, because it had nothing to with with Character X, Experience Y, or Description Z, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why it was in the story. Kill your darlings, anyone?

And I kept coming back to the same thought over and over again: what was he hoping to get out of this class? He clearly didn't want our advice, and he seemed really quite disgusted that we weren't providing him with sufficient validation. The fact that a dozen of us all had the same thoughts on his piece was of no apparent interest to him.

There's a reason writers are not supposed to speak when others are critiquing their work... because we can't go around to the house of everyone who reads our books, and tell them that they're not getting it, and here is what we really meant by that passage. When you put something on a page, THAT'S IT. If the readers take away something different than you intended, then you have to accept that interpretation or rewrite. Or, I guess, you could find a more like-minded audience, but then I have to come back to the question of why bother with a writing class? After all, it might not contain your perfect target audience.

If anyone from my writing class happens upon this blog... I'm not really trying to be nasty. I spoke out in class as much as I could to say some of these things: your readers are reacting to what you wrote, and telling us that we're wrong is not going to improve your writing or our understanding of the piece. So, please, think about why you're in the class. More importantly, think about why you are asking for class feedback.

If you want validation, go to your mother or spouse/partner. (And I do mean yours, because my mom and husband have never pulled any punches. Ha!)

If you just want structure and a reminder to write on a weekly basis, then by all means take the class, but don't hand out your writing to a workshop unless you actually want us to, you know, WORKSHOP IT. Don't waste my time and yours.

I'm heading back to my NaNoWriMo first draft now... and I'd like to add a caveat that I am not dumping on anyone who blogs their fiction or otherwise shares an early draft of their work with an unstructured writing or blogging community. We all know that such sharing is for fun and encouragement. No one's paying a class fee with an instructor for that, you know?

It's pretty simple -- don't ask for advice if you don't want it. And if you ask for feedback, and twelve people all disagree with you about what your writing means... well. Maybe you should stop arguing and start listening.


  1. Amen. There is nothing more frustrating than giving someone constructive criticism (that they asked for!) and having them defend and/or disagree with every piece of advice. If someone chooses to get their work critiqued, they should expect to get a critique--not an ego stroking.

  2. Well, there are weirdos everywhere. Obviously what this guy wants is to be showered with praise for being a literary genius. Perhaps you should accommodate him so that the serious writers can have more time for the critiques they will actually listen to.

  3. Vent, baby, vent. But that was an excellent rant and oh so true. Let's face writers, as are most creative sorts, are egotists and thereby in love with what they create. No one what's to hear that their kid is ugly or dumb. Thicker skin is what's needed.
    By the way, what's the predominant age group of the class? Maybe that's part of the problem. I find that some of the younger generation do seem to be less literate and focused. But maybe that's a whole different topic there.
    I wish I had someone to critique my work.
    Keep up the good work, Carrie.

  4. You know, Lee, I think part of the motivation behind my vent is that I expected better of someone from one of the older generations... only two of us in the class are in our 30s, and everyone else is probably between 60 and 85.

    (It's a daytime class, so it caters to those who are retired or, in my case, temporarily unemployed.)

  5. You said it perfectly! We need to each other in this business, to help understand meeting the needs of the reader. No one person has all the answers and holds all the magic.

    The minute I shut myself off from being better is the beginning of the end. The end.

  6. Ahh, then maybe the cranky old codgers don't want some young upstart to tell what they should be doing. After all if they're older they must know more.

  7. not everybody can write.. it's just that simple. The reasons behind it can be complex (they don't really want to do it, they really have an ulterior motive, they can't spell, they can't conjugate a verb, they .... ).

    lots of people can do it.. but everybody just can't.

  8. Great post and couldn't agree more....however, I do disagree that not everybody can write. I think everyone has the potential, if they commit to learning and hard work.

    The guy you described who couldn't take any criticism and listen---it's not that he can't write. It's that his ego got in the way.

  9. I so agree with you - if one or two people mention something, maybe it doesn't need changing. But if several people mention it - then the writer needs to take a serious look at editing.

    As to if everyone can write, I think it's similar to what an artist told me the other day - he can teach anyone to draw, but when it comes to the aesthetics - you either have it or you don't. There's a difference between mechanics and craft. If you aren't willing to work at the craft, you might as well give up.

  10. According to my editors, they resoundingly say, "NO!" Not everyone can be a writer...

    I found this incredulous because I figured everyone could write and with time, classes, dedication, and perseverance, they could get there. I'd had a conversation with one editor about this and she shook her head vigorously...Tee hee! I think she'd seen too much slush by the same writers.