My notebooks are littered with “DO NOT GET SELF-REFERENTIAL” scratched in the margins. I try not to write about writing. I also try not to write about myself. I do both of these things regularly, much to my vexation. I will do both of these things now. My problems with creative writing workshops are simply my problems. I have problems with writing and people and creativity and criticism and honesty. My feelings about the creative writing workshop experience should not be generalized to any population other than the population of superstitious neurotic female cynical narcissistic idealists who are afraid of human interaction. As such, this is more a piece of shameless self-absorbed mirror gazing than anything, and probably has little to do with the creative writing course at all.
My workshop with Liz was part of my first creative writing class. I should have taken one long ago. The creative writing workshop has always both intrigued and repelled me. Like a strange sexual perversion, I longed for it and cringed at the thought of it. The writing workshop—in my head and before ever taking one—had always been an uncomfortable place where people read aloud their short stories about ominous clouds and their poems about soul abysses. I envisioned a room full of passionate and bad writers, a room reeking of false hope and four syllable adjectives and word-droppings like “semiotics” and “post-post-modernism.” I pictured cardigans and moleskines and mary janes. I heard voices lamenting all sorts of pains in forced rhyme schemes. I heard people gently telling me that my characters didn’t breathe or that my paragraph structure wasn’t fluid enough. Everyone would either be offensively bad or unnervingly good.
Talking about creative writing (an activity that I usually only do either in late nights of panic-stricken despair or in early mornings of euphoria) at school and at a decent hour seemed odd. I thought creative writing workshops should be held at seedy bars at eleven in the morning. That would be more appropriate. Everyone should get shit-faced and tell the truth. People should act like pompous assholes and have an excuse to cry/knock someone out when they find out that their writing is bland. Also, the class should be comprised of mostly middle-aged world-weary men with scars all over their knuckles and moist eyes. Creative writing workshops should happen in dark, dank rooms, drenched in the stench of alcohol, sweat, and human sorrow.
Instead we sat in a well-lit room that smelled like clean people and had polite conversations. Nobody wrote as poorly or as well as I had hoped and feared. Everything we created was mediocre.
Every Monday, we sat around the table and lied to each other for half an hour out of empathy, compassion, and fear of reciprocation. “I like it. It’s good, but I think you might need to work out some of these awkward sentences and you might try a little subtlety around here and I don’t really follow where you’re going with the soul abyss thing. But that’s just what I think. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about writing. This is really good, I think you should keep going with this.”
I tried not to lie but I did, because that is what you do in a creative writing workshop, and because I care more about other people’s feelings than my own integrity. I lied because I have no idea how to make my own—let alone anyone else’s—work any better.
We lied to each other because none of us were good enough to offer anyone advice about writing. We lied because you can’t tell somebody that their work is mediocre and juvenile when your work may likely be even more mediocre and more juvenile. We lied to each other because we had to be constructive with our criticism instead of simply admitting that we liked certain things because they seemed like they were transmitted straight from the heavens and out the author’s fingers, and we disliked other things because they made us feel icky inside the part of our brain where good taste lives.
Good writing is magic, and there is no science to it at all. Art isn’t something that you enjoy with your editor’s eye, but something that you enjoy with your gut, your tear ducts, and your third eye. You can’t make good art if you are trying too hard to make sense and you can’t make sense of art if you are paying too close attention to sentence structure and grooming for excess words and clichés.
Nonetheless, I learned important things about the craft and I learned that the creative writing workshop is good for me. Too good for me. I was way too keen on it. I found myself doing things like standing on a corner and staring at a hose in a pile of dead leaves and mentally trying to describe it in a poem, or accepting invites to parties that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy because I had a hunch that they would make great fodder for a piece of prose. I read everything that everyone submitted online, even the stuff from other classes, and I was the only person in my group who reviewed everything everyone in the group submitted. My grades in my other classes dropped because I spent most of my mental effort having conversations with my characters and figuring out how many “fucks” I should allot myself per page. I was kind of obsessed. I was worried about that. I knew that would happen.
But the workshop was good for my writing, and what’s good for my writing is good for me. It gave me exactly what I needed, and what I needed was discipline, camaraderie, positive feedback, exposure therapy, and a remedy to my strange form of perfectionism (where all the flaws have to match and be evenly spaced, but not noticeably evenly spaced, and where intentionality should be hinted at but still doubted).
Having discipline was great. Guidelines and timelines and rewrites forced me to actually do some writing and some editing and finish something, despite the self-loathing and crippling doubt. I had to tame the lumbering creative beast in my head and teach it to make sense and be productive and use appropriate punctuation.
Meeting other people who write in their free time was also neat. These people who suffer for naturalistic sentence structure and proper uses of alliteration⎯I didn’t believe these people really existed. Since most of them are hopeless introverts, I rarely meet them. And if I do, they don’t tell me about the late nights pounding their heads against the wall to the rhythm of the word processor’s pulsing vertical line. It’s comforting to know you’re not alone.
Positive feedback is also an extraordinary comfort. Fear and insecurity are both the stuff that makes writers and the stuff that debilitates them. When you make something and somebody tells you that it’s alright, suddenly it’s as if everything is alright and you can write again. Of course there’s the flip of this. The night before I submitted my fiction piece for grading, I had a nightmare that I received a big red D on it. A few days later, Liz sent the class an email informing us that in fact, most of the pieces would be receiving a D. Then I was delighted, and hoped that I would get the D, and then I would quit writing and become a prophet instead. When we got our work back, I didn’t get a D, but I found myself leaving class with someone who did. And she was almost in tears, and I hardly knew her and I tried to comfort her with, “It just means you’re ahead of your time,” because lies are the only way I know how to comfort people. She was too smart to buy it. We should have become friends.
When it was my turn to workshop a poem, I chickened out and submitted not a poem but a recent blog post with line breaks. It was an attempt to remove that pesky “I-ness,” which Liz referred to in one of her previous posts from the I-filled sexual experience. I thought I could protect my ego from the blows of criticism by not submitting a real poem and by submitting a not-poem with an utter lack of “I.” Instead of exposing a real piece of me, I could give them something made half-heartedly, and I hoped nobody would notice my cowardice because I handed in a sex poem. By not really committing to the assignment I could escape the fear that people would poorly lie about liking the poem—and by extension the most important parts of myself. I noticed that a few of us started doing this as the course progressed. We started submitting pieces for workshop with disclaimers: “I wrote this in half an hour between classes yesterday,” “I know it sucks,” “I hate myself.”
We didn’t want to expose our naked quivering artist souls to the bravado-crushing, flow-slowing rationality of the group. The writer is a creature who needs to believe that it has something vital and interesting to say—it can never be told that its thoughts are tired or clichéd. It might die. The amateur writer fluctuates between alternating periods of wild mania and deep existential depression. Creative writing workshops are ephedrine for the manic and arsenic for the depressed. They get the high higher, and poison the low.
I got me some praise, which helped me write. The workshop helped with the fear. Mostly I’m terrified of writing. I’m terrified of writing anything bad and I’m equally terrified of writing anything really good. The workshop exposed me to those fears and made me grow a pair and deal with them. I also had to get over my strange perfectionism because I actually had to hand something in, which meant I had to write pages of coherent work instead of just strings of single well-formed but unrelated sentences. Somebody was actually going to take some time and read what I’d rambled on about, so I had to be considerate. Writing is hard, and it’s scary, but it’s not as hard or as scary as you think it is when you’re not doing it. Creative writing workshops make you do it, and they make you show it to people.
I’ve always considered writing to be a form of thought-prostitution—if one is a successful writer they are a thought prostitute. This makes amateur writers just attention sluts, just psychological exhibitionists. Doing it for free seems somehow much dirtier and more shameful to me than doing it for money. There is nothing more shameful and obscene than being an amateur writer. The creative writing workshop is like a support group for people who are depraved, but instead of helping us get over our depravity, it simply normalizes it. I am depraved. I want you to see deep inside me, and I want it so bad that I’ll show you for free. I don’t want to be a writer but I have to be because I’m captivated by the illusion of a careful reader taking in my carefully written thoughts. That excites me to no end. Creative writing workshops with all their cheesy ickiness excite me. Sitting in a room filled with people who like words almost as much as I do and spending time trying, however futilely, to make better art out of words is great. Writing is great. And I enjoy writing too much to focus on anything else. Creative writing has ruined my chances of dedicating myself to a more practical occupation, and the creative writing workshop was just encouraging. My addiction to creative writing is my occupational hazard and it will most likely ruin my life.
Colleen Thompson is a Psychology student at UBC and a sales associate at an overpriced children’s boutique. She is trying to write a novel about teenage angst and a collection of poems about petty crime. She dumps her head at: http://colleenknows.blogspot.com.