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Posts Tagged ‘online writing workshop’

Writing criticism and the all-listening ear.

A few days ago, I wrote about Roy Peter Clark’s Learning Tools for Writing. Since then, I’ve found Clark’s list makes for fascinating reading and re-reading. I’ll likely add my thoughts on several of Clark’s tools in the future, but one in particular caught my attention. Learning Tool #49: Learn From Criticism is how I wish all feedback was accepted in both live and online writing workshops. Part of what draws me to Clark’s tools is his articles are both clear and fun to read. Clark explains both the seeming impossibility of such a task and the importance of it, plus he gives a humorous example of how a journalist / editor may disagree on the matter, as well as a bullet-point summary of his already-brief article (make the concise even more concise, I like it).

Clark has a simple credo: “I never defend my story against criticism.” I’m proud to say this has been a staple of my workshop behavior for some time. I never understood the point of explaining why a story I wrote is actually wonderful when the people I asked to read it and give me their honest opinions tell me the story is less-than-stellar. Whatever fodder I have to defend my story with should already be in the story. Staying true to this idea has helped me develop my “all-listening ear.”

The all-listening ear takes in all praise and all criticism without discrimination. The all-listening ear leaves no bit of feedback behind. When I have a story workshopped, I take in all the feedback, jotting down the oral notes and almost never look up as I continue writing whatever my peers have for me. Sometimes, I write down who said what, sometimes I don’t (more on that in a future post). I’ll hear notes I agree with, and am almost guaranteed to hear a few I’ll think are doggerel, but that doesn’t stop me from taking them all in. If I were to pick-and-choose notes I thought had merit in the moment, I would likely lose notes which might make sense to me upon a second look. Instead, I save those recorded oral notes, along with the written manuscript notes, for another day. I return to my asked-for criticisms another day, fresh, ready to weigh each one equally. It’s not easy, as Clark says, but it’s worth it.

I think of the would-be contestants on talent-based “reality” tv shows who don’t make the cut, who have judges tell them what rubbish their act is or how if only they tried a little harder they might have something, someday. The camera invariably shows these folks who want to appear honest and good-hearted doing anything but be honest with themselves. “Those judges just don’t get my act,” one may say. “I don’t care. I do what I do and I’m proud of it and I’ll make it, anyway, so we’ll see who has the last laugh.” If the determination they show in that type of proclamation is genuine, I wish them the best of luck. But if it’s only emerging as a knee-jerk reaction to tough criticism, their time spent in the mire of mediocrity is only bound to get longer.

-nm

On giving notes and taking notes…

This is (nearly) straight from the Scrawlers FAQ. We’re interested in making Scrawlers as close to an actual writing workshop as possible. To that end, we decided to give tips on good notegiving and good notetaking; it’s advice we wish more writers in actual live, in-person writing workshops would take to heart…

How do I write good workshop notes?

Reader feedback can be a great thing, and it’s what a writing workshop is all about. The best feedback is helpful feedback. Merely stating, “I liked it!” or “This sucks!” doesn’t tell the writer anything. Be specific. Point out details. Offer solutions. Ask yourself questions and answer them for the reader:

Why did you like it? What works for the story? What made you laugh or cry or smile? Just as important is what is missing from the story? What may improve its readability? What specifically isn’t working? There are dozens of questions you could ask yourself – choose the questions that matter for the story you’re reading and answer them for the writer.

We suggest going into the notegiving process with an open mind. Not every note you make will make sense for the reader, but giving constructive notes will help you read better, discern between good notegiving and not-so-good notegiving, and improve your writing.

How do I respond to workshop notes?

There are two kinds of writers – those who take all notes equally and those who end up playing defense. The writer who end up playing defense are the writers who immediately respond to every negative note with justification or dismissal.

The writer who takes all notes equallys is the writer who lets notes sit in their brain for a little while. They may not agree with every note they receive right away, but if they go away from their story (and notes) for a week and come back, they may find some of those notes are right.

We suggest going into the notetaking process with an open mind. Not every note will make sense for you, but weighing the merits of each one will help you see something you didn’t see before, discern between good notegiving and not-so-good notegiving, and improve your writing.

* * *

These aren’t failsafe, by any means, but it’s a good place to start. There’s nothing worse than getting fifteen pages of manuscript you slaved over back at the end of a workshop, only to see someone simply wrote “I liked it!” on the last page. On the other hand, when a writer gets their rejected stories back from editors, magazines, etc. it’s true that personalized notes are few and far between, so perhaps be happy you’re getting even, “I liked it!” At the very least, it won’t be, “This sucks!”

~nm

AWP is the place to be.

I attended the AWP Conference held in Atlanta, GA and learned five things.

1. Some panels have amazing presenters with a passion for what they’re speaking about, and a few panels have people reading a script with no presentation skills. You can imagine which panels caught my attention (and the most notes jotted down in my notebook).

2. The Hilton is tall, but the Marriott is taller. Like “Darth Vader throwing the Emperor down the shaft” tall.

3. A taxi will drive you to Thelma’s Kitchen, but it won’t pick you up. Sorry, it’s just not gonna happen.

4. There are amazing people in my MFA program. All right, I already knew this, but now I know it more thoroughly.

5. There are people out there who are passionate about writing. Some highlights:

Charles Jensen from Arizona State University is working on a community outreach writing program, and had good advice on starting out (start small, use a phased rollout, anticipate low enrollment at first with solid standouts to spread the word, etc.). He emphasized service to the community, and using constant, consistent opportunities for feedback and structured evaluations. That’s a concept I dig. “They” say people never let you know when something is working, only when it goes wrong. Here’s hoping one can get people to say what’s on their mind more frequently.

Ben Moorad is doing tremendous work in Seattle writing with people in need. He says, “Community writing gives a sense of belonging, a sense of self.” He gave an example of a working-class mother with children transferring from bus to bus just to make a writing workshop – for him, it put a lot into perspective. Here’s someone who has to go through so much, just to get to a writing workshop they love; seeing that can change your own definition of self as a writer and the seriousness of the stakes involved. I found that wonderful advice, the kind of advice to make you sit down and spill out as many ideas as possible on the page.

An instructor at Marietta College named Janet Bland has her students play The Sims and write short stories based on what happens in the video game. Now that’s what I call progressive classroom learning. She also suggested a writing exercise book called “The 3 A.M. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley; I immediately ordered an examination copy upon returning home to see if it’s right for the “Intro to Creative Writing” course I’m teaching next fall.

Bev Hogue says to think of blogging as “a challenge to write something suitable for public consumption everyday.” That’s a challenge I’ve not yet embraced, but it’s a good one, nevertheless.

I spoke with Rob Spillman and subscribed to Tinhouse magazine. It’s wonderful, near as I can tell.

Great quote from Tom Bligh: “Saying to learn the rules before you break them is like a dad telling his son he has to learn to drive the car before he can wreck it.”

I could go on and on, but there’s a good sampling for now. I’m planning on attending AWP next year in NYC, and am considering applying to present, as well. Finally, to link my attendance at AWP with learning about starting up Scrawlers, I attended several panels on community writing and online writing and found one thing clear – people are looking for an online writing workshop opportunity. Well, fancy that. 🙂

See a photo of me reading at an AWP open mic and another take on my “Five Lessons Learned” at AWP.

-nm