The Etiquettes That Mean

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
That says my hand a needle better fits.

     —Ann Bradstreet

The friends that have it I do wrong
Whenever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

      —W.B. Yeats

 

   The etiquettes that mean a love for growth in creative writing workshops are to be handled with care. The drafts presented are at varying degrees of maturity and consideration of them should be done with an effort toward precise terminology and an efficient use of time. First impressions of a draft occur exactly once so workshop participants must exercise care in lifting the maximum benefit from this precious period of initial reading. Careful listening to first impressions may raise workshop participants’ ability to revise when alone. Because discussion of a draft provides opportunities to grow for the writer also, he or she would do well to be curious if not wholly receptive. Interrogative exchanges may give the writer new ways to meet the perennial challenges of intent, technique, and style. A fellow’s reading suggestions inspired by a draft may lead the writer to byways of new thoughts. Workshops may transcend mere technical appreciation of writing and enjoy a shared understanding of an idea that was enlivened by a draft. Conversely, the writer may witness the whole workshop fail to see something in the draft; and such a careful failure may prove to her the murkiness still lingering between idea and output. And as a workshop draws from a wider range of life experience than that range possessed by the writer, some comments may not only be useful or interesting for the draft, but critically necessary. Workshops, then, should aspire to grow drafts and their authors through refinement and deepening, and to never stifle a creative voice.

   The etiquettes that mean a love for growth among writers should welcome a diversity of creative voices. Considering the myriad styles of writing at hand for a given line we must have open minds. If by attending workshops students gain advantage over solitary diligence and experimentation it must be from what excellent workshops engender: the persistent openness toward other points of view and the robust curiosity to hear new voices. A diversity of creative voices has the potential to bring joy to the workshop. When joy is found in a literary milieu it is a treasure for students who often conduct writing tasks alone. With open ears a student hears his draft read aloud. Perhaps the ability to witness the animated reaction to writing reveals the importance of a literary idea. She may close her eyes at such preliminary readings of her draft, considering the concepts stitched into language from the perspective of a passive listener. There is a unique pleasure in hearing one’s own work from such a removed position.

   In such a gathering, however, the otherwise solitary writer is prone. This is so, to a lesser degree, even if the work under consideration is presented anonymously. Criticizing a draft at length without offering a single positive comment can crush the creative spirit of the draft’s writer who has given the benefit of the doubt to his or her fellows. Nevertheless, writers must have thicker skins were this to happen, for the eventual publication of final drafts often results in a diversity of critical opinion, including readers who may hate the work. But if in that early workshop, criticizing a draft at length without a positive comment is done without making eye contact with the writer, there is something odious. Malice has no place in the workshop, hatred nothing to do with the etiquettes that mean a love to grow drafts into accomplished writing.

   Depending on the school, the assessment of a draft may vary in its sharpness. That tradition urging for rigorous judgment of works-in-progress asserts the improved quality produced by stress compels workshops to be harsh when shaping aspiring authors. The danger when this tradition is not handled carefully is a tendency for a writer to strive for the approval of the workshop and its idiosyncrasies rather than the organic growth of her own imagination and ability. Another tradition advocates for tamer criticism of drafts and instead urges for greater observation of work. This methodology aims to bypass the potential for grilling and to help the development of creativity abstractly; it is perhaps best suited for an undergraduate scenario when more reading of published masterpieces will solve much. Others who consider the workshop as outmoded highlight a general truth: a writer must ultimately possess the motivation to work alone. This maturity, a necessary component for any writer, places the teacher or school in a supplementary position, enabling growth through a diversity of off-topic reading and prompts. A broader view and philosophy is cultivated. The danger for writers who write alone is their final drafts may be completely unreadable. And so this returns us to the benefits of presenting drafts to other humans for sampling. In all the various schools using creative writing workshop models or more mature arrangements for the support of writers and their drafts, a love for growth should always pervade.

Etiquettes.

1. Note impressions before workshop

The practice of noting your impressions of the work should be done beforehand. Unrushed, careful reading fetches the very stuff of workshop discussion and includes things as specific as the significance of a word or as general as the slight disharmony of ideas.

 

2. Don’t be timid as a reader and discussant

It is not easy giving work written in seclusion to a public discussion, albeit in a closed environment of peers. It takes guts. So as a reader, have the courage to venture your feelings, outline your confusion, or ask a question for clarity. Persistent quietness is cowardly. Disinterest is disrespect.

 

3. Don’t be unendingly critical, it is a draft after all

Some workshop leaders have comments start with positive statements (what worked, what was enjoyable, what was interesting). Although that practice is not necessary, workshops should avoid suffocating the creative spirit of the draft’s author with so many negative comments that the litany must be interrupted for lack of time.

 

4. Appreciate the draft using technical jargon

Technical jargon helps quantify the qualitative impressions of drafts. Whether positive or negative, comments utilizing established ways to measure technique increase the usefulness of reader responses. Draft authors can aid this by requesting the workshop focus on particular areas needing attention.

 

5. Allow the discussion time to breathe

Let interactions among workshop participants occur so as to replicate as much as possible the dynamic reaction by the general public to the final draft. A workshop with only one person’s reaction is time wasted.

 

6. When commenting, make eye contact with the author

Don’t hide in the text given to you. Look at the author when discussing a draft. The writer is more important than the draft in your hands because he or she has the responsibility for creative decisions.

 

7. Help in the progression of play, refinement, or style

Workshop drafts are at different stages. Some are early in the development and the emphasis may be on wordplay; some may have the broad strokes painted but need refinement; some may be nearly complete but seek a certain … something. Consider what stage of maturity a draft is—ask the author if you must—and comment accordingly.

 

   Consider the following informal “workshop” etiquette of three writers of English. It occurred in the home of HG Wells around the turn of the 20th century, early in Joseph Conrad’s writing career:

When Conrad first met Shaw in my house, Shaw talked with customary freedoms. “You know, my dear fellow, your books won’t do”—for some Shavian reason I have forgotten—and so forth.

I went out of the room and suddenly found Conrad on my heels, swift and white-faced. “Does that man want to insult me?” he demanded.

The provocation to say “Yes” and assist at the subsequent duel was very great, but I overcame it. “It’s humour,” I said, and took Conrad out into the garden to cool.1

Conrad, like many young artists, was sensitive about his work. Though the great playwright Bernard Shaw was probably saying something useful, it was the manner in which he said it that seemed insulting. Fortunately for us, JC wasn’t derailed by one reader’s opinion from the quest to master the craft of writing, however great a playwright that reader may have been.

   It is not blameworthy to be sensitive, especially in the creative field. Sensitivity is the specialty of the artist. Perhaps that is why the writing habit as a daily routine is so important. The discipline will tug the creativity through the darkness as well as the brilliance. Workshops as a species of deadline may help in this regard.

   Finally, there once was a short story draft presented in a creative writing workshop. One of the girls in class emphasized how the idea for the story was already written about in detail in a soon-to-be-released novel—a stunning truth for the workshop presenter who thought he was the first to write about that topic. So deterred, he planned to scrap his short story altogether. It took the teacher’s encouragement to pull him back from the negativity and so he finished what he started. It turned out the girl had lied; she meant to stifle his voice as a writer. No such novel, as she had politely insisted, was ever published in the following months. The young man’s short story, however, was nurtured into a novel and eventually became an international bestseller receiving much critical praise.

 

Zeshan Syed • December 2015, Chicago

 


1 “Wat shall we do with thesa things?” H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad: Interviews and Recollections. Ed. Martin Ray. University of Iowa Press: 1990. Iowa City. pp. 109-12.