I’ve officially climbed out of the tower. I finished my third degree, and I’m done with academia, at least as a student. And I have to say, I kind of feel like I want to give my brain a bath, get all that academic nonsense outta there. Only the nonsense, not the good sense. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Example: My boyfriend and I have been writing language arts lessons for a website for pay this summer. The way it works is you write a lesson, turn it in to the online submission manager, and wait. They give the lesson to three reviewers who then give you feedback. You’re supposed to take that feedback and use it to revise your lesson. Pretty simple really. But yesterday Dylan received reviews of his very first lesson. Two of them were very positive, didn’t want him to change much, but one of them was kind of scathing (if something can be kind of scathing) as if this reviewer (who we’ve decided is a little old lady who hates creativity and fun) was out to get him from the start. Everything was wrong, according to this reviewer, the whole lesson a failure.
Unfortunately, this reminded me of graduate poetry workshops. First, let me make a disclaimer. I’m not talking about any one workshop, I’m talking about all of them, the nature of them. I suppose I should also say that I have been in exactly nine graduate poetry workshops at three universities (long story about how that’s possible or why I would subject myself to such torture) and so my views may not be typical or healthy. But here’s how I see it: workshops aren’t so much good for the writers being workshopped as they are for the writers doing the workshopping. The experience helps us read more closely and critically. It exposes us to dozens of other writing styles that we can steal or disdain, but in my humble experience, the workshop doesn’t give the writer much useful advice about how to proceed as a writer, either regarding specific pieces or a writer’s style as a whole. I generally find, out of ten or more workshop critiques, one, maybe two, people who have something useful to tell me about a particular piece. Maybe that makes the workshop worth it. I don’t know. But it certainly doesn’t, in my mind, make up for the dozens and dozens of useless, confusing, and sometimes hurtful comments that people make in these situations.
The problem, I think, is that of perspective and forced audience. Every person in a poetry workshop comes to the table with his or her own set of ideals and tastes around what poetry should be, and your work, or mine, might not fit into that mold. We might not be a good audience for the people we’re forced to read. So workshop becomes more about students trying to shape other people’s writing to their own expectations rather than trying to see the work for what it is and what the writer intends for it to become. In other words, it becomes an academic exercise of who can be most articulate or most scathing about someone else’s work, not so much in the spirit of helping their process, but in the spirit of putting another notch it the criticism belt.
Which brings me back to Dylan’s lesson and the one scathing review it received. When he first read all of the reviews, that one stayed on his mind even though it was the outlier, even though the reviewer was mostly wrong. That’s the one we’ve been talking about since, the completely unhelpful, inaccurate review from some anonymous person with their own agenda. And one of the first things Dylan pointed out was that he has a hard time taking that kind of criticism seriously anymore because it feels like workshop all over again. (He, too, spent years in creative writing workshops.) Most of it’s not all that helpful, and it’s hard to wade through it all to figure out what is.
And in the midst of all the criticism and advice, you, the writer, have to keep a sense of self, a strong vision of what you want to create and who it’s meant for. And then you have to go out into reality and try to fly with your own ideas, if, by some lucky chance, they’re still intact.