Sunday, December 14, 2008

Workshop Reflections

Because I am extremely sick today and because I think it might be interesting, I’ve decided to post as my blog for this week a portion of the assigned final commentary for my workshop class this semester. We each had to write a 5-8 page self commentary on the pieces we turned in this semester, our process of writing them, what we struggled with, our revision tactics, etc. One piece that I turned in to workshop this semester in particular I think of as a telling sign of how much I’ve gained through the program:

The second story I submitted for workshop this semester was one I had written a few years ago, and submitted to workshop during my first semester at UAF . . . to disastrous results. In response to this story people actually hinted in their feedback that nobody who would write something like this could possibly be a good writer – and I thought about giving up as a writer altogether.

Needless to say, I set this story aside after that workshop and I didn’t decide to come back to it until just this summer. I’ve always really liked the idea behind this story, and I thought that, since through my experiences in the program here at UAF I’ve grown a lot as a writer, perhaps I could rewrite the story entirely from page one and make it workable. I did just that over the summer, and felt like it came together much more smoothly than the earlier draft that had gotten ripped to shreds during my first UAF workshop class. I changed just about everything about the story (the narration, the characters, the tone . . .) except the core idea of the story.

The workshop feedback on this story this time around was much more encouraging while at the same time being very useful. I had the impression that people generally thought the story had potential (which is certainly a shift from that earlier workshop experience) and I got a lot of extremely useful suggestions on points to expand, points that need to be clarified or maybe left out, and ways that I can increase the tension and stakes for the main character. I’ve been working on revising this piece further for the past few weeks now and I plan to continue revising it over the break. It’s coming together well and my hopes are that by the end of the break I’ll be able to start submitting it to journals.

I learned a lot through the revision process of this story in particular because I was forced to really look at it not just from the perspective of “what happens in this story?” but from an angle of closely analyzing craft: how does the narration function; how can sympathy be created for a genuinely despicable main character; how can I include exposition that’s necessary without letting it take over the present scene? And because early drafts of the story were problematic because of an unintended metafictional element; I was forced to be more aware of craft from a perspective of things I did not want this piece to be.

I feel that this piece is a good gauge for how much I’ve improved as a writer during my experience at UAF. The first draft of it I actually wrote for an undergraduate workshop; then I revised that and took in a new version to my first graduate level workshop. Before I came to the program, as this piece can verify, I didn't think about craft on a conscious level; I just wrote what sounded good to me. But now, two years into the program, I was able to completely rewrite the entire story with more of an awareness of craft and technique and I think, even though I’m still revising it, it’s a much better piece now.


Justus said...

I find it interesting how the two of us see things differently. I get the feeling that you take critiques more seriously than I do. When I've gotten some really negative feedback, I considered whether there were implications I need to consider about my writing and how I might improve, but I also appreciate that people are often just assholes. I don't exempt myself from that either; I feel bad sometimes about comments I've made on workshop pieces. But when it comes down to it, I feel like perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in grad school was how truly subjective any evaluation of writing is. I don't think there's any way to objectively say that something is better than something else or that one person is a better writer. Our old debate on the merits of Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen demonstrates the point pretty well.

Ashley Cowger said...

I don't know if I agree that people are just assholes but you're definitely right that people behave like assholes sometimes, and writing is totally subjective, and sometimes people have a million other things to do and they don't really read workshop submissions very closely . . . But I still feel like it's useful to get feedback on things that are tripping people up. The actual SUGGESTIONS I get in workshops I pretty much never take, but it helps to open my eyes to things that aren't quite working and then I can figure out for myself what I want to do about it. That's one reason why I really like my current workshop class, Gerri (the instructor) reminds us often that 90% of the feedback we get in class we'll probably just ignore - but workshops are still useful for that 10% of useful feedback.

Justus said...

I'd say I pretty much agree with that.