On taking offense in workshop

In response to an interesting discussion on WOM-PO:

Hi, Miriam–

There’s a great deal of merit in listening instead of defending as one’s work is critiqued. However, the weakness I’ve found in (the many and varied) workshops I’ve been in over the years has been in the sophistication and constructiveness of whomever is doing the critiquing. Another weakness is in the workshop “leader” assuming a 100% passive role–never correcting people privately for irresponsible critiques.

This all dances dangerously around censorship and control and letting people figure things out for themselves as artists. I think most workshops allow a lot of B.S.ing to go on; sometimes, they allow a sub-workshop of two or three people talking at and congratulating each other to go on; sometimes, there are hierarchies based on who’s been where, who’s won what, etc. that are also completely counterproductive to whatever is on the page at that moment. I find these kinds of workshops dull and endlessly irritating, a total waste of time for all concerned. My own pet peeve in advanced workshops is the overly-polished poem, the galley-ready work that is only worthy of praise and perhaps one minor word-tweak. I like my drafts messy, interesting, and in process–not first drafts (though I was guilty of handing one out myself last night) and not last drafts–but, shall we say, medium-rare to medium-well on the scale of raw-to-cooked (whether one’s aesthetic is of The Raw or of The Cooked, in that other sense).

As someone who shoots off my mouth on a regular basis, I appreciate your call to speak out–against? Authority? In workshop, are we not all authors? Are we then not all yelling at one another? Meanwhile, the poem waits patiently for us to shut up and listen to it.

As Carol’s example indicates, there are some people who find offense at every turn, who make “speaking out” an end in itself, no matter how counterproductive it may be to the given poem’s development. Like Carol, I’ve seen a lot of close-minded undergrads AND grad students, good people who are completely unable to detach from their own psychodramas and fears long enough to consider other people’s writing, who are so willing to cram themselves into this or that ideological label as The Answer To This Scary Life, that they completely miss the point–and force everyone else to substitute their own dramas and ideologies for what the poem itself is trying to do.

Imagine if a music student stormed out of rehearsal because he or she took offense at the composer’s politics or the evil people who liked the composer’s music (Wagner) or some pathological association he or she had with the piece (add your own creepy musical  associations here). Would that student still be welcome in the ensemble? Would everyone else be on eggshells henceforth, waiting for the next freakout, silencing *themselves* because they know that individual might personalize any critique offered in the spirit of artistic exchange and development? If people don’t want feedback, then why do they enter workshop in the first place–to feed their own egos?

What could be more arrogant, more self-centered, than forcing everyone else who has gathered to work on their art to focus on one person’s personal drama? And if portraying one’s personal drama (or experience, etc.) as an act of witness *is* the purpose of one’s poem, then it’s doubly important to be still, to listen to why the words themselves, the way they are put together, advance what it is one’s trying to say or get in the way of your larger speaking-out.

In short, the ability to take criticism dictates the extent to which one is able to progress artistically after X point. Everyone wants acceptance and praise; no one wants to hear “This is too private” or “Some commas would make this sentence easier to follow as it progresses down the lines” and no one in an upper-level workshop wants to be caught making “beginner’s” mistakes–though we all do it.

Imagine going through therapy thinking you’re never going to face any demons. On a much smaller scale, and for much lower stakes, our work needs for us to face our worskhop-demons–inept analogies, weak verbs, adjectivitis, opaqueness, etc.–and *not* pull the bait-and-switch of substituting one’s own *personal* demons (traumas) as distractions from the reason why workshop exists in the first place.

Best,
Robin

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