I've not posted anything here for ages as I've been busy with work and with novel #3, two activities which between them manage to be pretty all-consuming. But what I have been doing is talking incessantly with my friend Jennifer McLean, who is my sounding-board when it comes both to writing and to life.
Jenny is a poet and short story writer with a Masters degree in creative writing (you can read her blog here), and has also worked as an English and Drama teacher. We often spend time dissecting the fiction we love, as well as our own writing habits and bugbears. In this Writing Talk series we thought we'd share some of those conversations.
This first post is about sharing work: from our experiences of writing as a taught subject, to the reasons why we're still both so cagey about our work in progress.
Given those assumptions and that acknowledgement, I have found my experience of creative writing education in general, and workshopping in particular, to be positive and valuable. I know that that isn’t universal, so it’s interesting to me to consider why, especially as I’ve spent a lot of time examining the teaching of creative writing from a pedagogic point of view. At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive; like many, if not most, people who enjoy writing, I tend to be quite solitary in my process (and in life generally - insert stereotype about depressing music and black bedroom walls and poetry at midnight), and I did find the idea of presenting my work for criticism to be initially quite scary. Throughout compulsory schooling, feedback on writing tends to be quite mechanical: these features deserve an A, these do not. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t fantastic teaching of writing going on in schools, but the outcomes and summative assessment are not completely different from other subjects. Then you’re pitched into a workshop, with a group of people you don’t necessarily know or trust, and expected to sit with a bland expression on your face while having your insides dissected, for sport. ‘It’s just not really working for me, you know?’
There should be some sense of cooperation and an attempt to understand what the writer is trying to achieve, even if it’s not your cup of tea.
Another key factor, and possibly the most important, is what you put in, as the writer. Sure, you need the group to work well together and give decent feedback, but ultimately they can’t do that if you haven’t worked hard on your piece, and had a clear idea of your vision for the piece and what you want to get out of the session. When people speak, rather than jumping in to explain the many ways in which they’re wrong, or bringing in things which are not in the piece in front of them (scenes from elsewhere in your novel, or character background which hasn’t been made clear), it’s probably best to listen, take notes, and then decide later that Hipster Dave just doesn’t appreciate your worldview. You’re the writer, after all, and you shouldn’t be pulled in twelve different directions or chuck in a robot because Dave said so. Nonetheless, if all twelve people are saying something, maybe time to reflect on that would be useful.
I know we don’t necessarily align on this, so I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d disagree with in my assessment, and if there’s anything in the formal/academic workshop format that still appeals to you - or are you done with it for good? What’s your take on the creative writing degree, nearly ten years after we started? (I know, right?)
S.E. Lister: Has it really been ten years? That’s terrifying.
I didn’t go beyond undergraduate level with my studies, and unlike you I’ve never been a teacher so don’t know what it’s like from the other side. In terms of the debate about the teaching of creative writing, my views are far vaguer: of course, like any subject, it’s an area in which there are skills to learn and standards to reach, and study can get you some of the way there. But I’m also pretty certain that a) it’s not what’s best for every aspiring writer and b) you cannot teach someone to be a writer. You can teach them to write better than they did before, but I doubt you can instill creative vision and an instinct for language if it wasn’t there in some form to begin with.
I wasn’t ready. I got so little out of those hours in the writers’ room because I was still too young, too scared to assert my strangeness and my individuality, too uncertain of my abilities as a writer and of what kind of work I wanted to make, too insecure to receive feedback in any meaningful way. I also didn’t yet realise - and this is something I would emphasise to anyone going into a workshopping situation - that it’s OK to say no. Your past is your past, your pain and your issues belong to you. You don’t have to spill your guts just because your life-writing tutor told you to. A creative writing class is not therapy. Give what you want to give, and keep your treasure; good work should not come at the cost of your mental and emotional health.
I was so obsessively private about my writing as a kid and as a teenager that I used to slam my laptop closed whenever anybody came into the room. To go from that to the scrutiny of a writing workshop? It was too much. I don’t regret studying creative writing and plenty of positive things came out of the experience, but to be honest the stress and the pressure were paralysing to me. It took me months, if not years after university to build up my confidence and find my identity as a writer again.
JM: I absolutely agree with what you say about this sort of course not being for everyone, and not being a magic bullet. Even more, I relate to the idea of wanting approval, and in fact I think it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move beyond this. One of the reasons, I think, that I enjoyed aspects of our undergraduate days more than you did is that I was so desperate for any scrap of approval that I would participate in workshops or seek out professorial feedback at any opportunity, and then mull over it in the middle of the night when I’d convinced myself, yet again, that I’d never be any good at this. Forever with my hand in the air, Hermione-style. Indeed, there’s a whole discussion to be had about perfectionism amongst writer-types, which is also linked to gender and all sorts of other personality and mental health topics. But I did have to move on from that in order to get anywhere with my writing - to accept that I wasn’t, and would never be, ‘finished’ as a writer.
I’ve found it vital to keep sharing, to encourage accountability, to keep improving, and to connect myself to a sense of community.
Which brings me neatly on to sharing in a non-academic setting, because you don’t get that kind of approval in daily adult life, and your peers and friends are not obliged to feed your ego (nor, of course, are academic staff, which is why I was continually dismayed not to be told I was the Next Big Thing. Shudder...). As I’ve, debatably, matured, I’ve found outlets for sharing work that are just as rewarding - if not more so. I share my writing with friends in informal workshops, and participate in collaborative pursuits like this one, and these are in contexts and with people I’ve chosen for myself. I’ve found it vital to keep sharing in some fashion, to encourage accountability, to keep improving, and to connect myself to a sense of community - which is, again, surprising, because I am essentially grumpy and lonely.
I’m still, like you, very private about my writing in its initial stages, and I have to trust someone a lot before they’ll see first drafts of anything. I also agree there’s a lot of… I won’t say pressure, because it’s unspoken, but there’s definitely often a feeling that to workshop is to bare your soul, and you must keep nothing back. Again, I’m a little happier than you with the concept of writing and workshopping as a kind of therapy, or at least I’m certainly less nervous about sharing feelings than I used to be.
What’s most important to emphasise, and you allude to this, is that there’s no one way to feel about sharing and workshopping, and it can even change from day to day, or piece to piece. I have certain people with whom I’ll share certain types of work, and in other contexts I’ll need something to be much more polished, or less personal, before I’ll share. I think this relates to what you say about being too young - as you know, I went back to university for another round recently, and I have to say that it was so much less fraught in so many ways to experience the whole thing as an adult. Establishing identity as a writer, for me, was more about growing up and addressing hangovers from my past. And that’s an ongoing process, as my current writing is still very much informed by childhood and the question of where we come from. Plus, having had a career and a life outside academia, Hipster Dave’s feelings on my adjectives are a lot less nerve-wracking.
Does that hold true for you? How do you share writing, now? Are we still growing up? Will it ever happen?
SE: For me, one of the things that’s been helpful in figuring it out has been thinking about motives for sharing work. Back in the day, as I said, I signed up to study creative writing pretty much purely on the basis that it would give me some sense of legitimacy, and I think it’s often a craving for legitimacy that leads us to put our work in front of other people when we’re first starting out. You know: ‘Tell me I’m good, tell me I’m special, tell me I’m going to make it.’ We want people (particularly older, wiser, more experienced people) to take one look at our first draft and be knocked out.
But hopefully, as we gain confidence and find our voice, that need isn’t quite so urgent. I’ve also developed - or at least attempted to develop - a certain detachment in recent years about the idea of pleasing everybody. Sharing your work isn’t about impressing just anyone: it’s about connecting to those particular people who your work seems to speak to, and doing that as best you can. Getting insight from somebody who actually understands where you’re coming from. So feedback becomes less about the ego boost and more about making sure that your work is actually communicating what you intended it to communicate, and seeing if there are any possibilities within that work that you might have missed.
Talking about a book while you’re writing it drains energy and excitement away from the actual writing.
But what I do do now, which I never used to, is talk regularly and openly about the job of writing. A novel is a lonely thing to be spending your time on, day in, day out, and while I might not want to share the specifics of character and plot I need to talk about what kind of writing day I had: whether the words behaved themselves, whether something surprised me, how many words I got done, whether I’m ready to pack the whole thing in. I know I need to talk about these things to stay sane, I think it’s important to have both specifically writer-y friends (like you) who understand first-hand, and for other friends to understand the place that your work has in your life. Since I've been published and my friends have started reading my work for the first time, people have been great at being that supportive community, even though I'm still so cagey about specifics.
...And talking of specifics, it's time to get back to that novel. But watch this space for more reflections on writing, coming soon.