Sunday, May 17, 2009

Overwhelmed by Workshop Suggestions

I got an interesting rejection this week. It was for a story I had submitted to workshop a few semesters ago. This story had been a totally different sort of writing from what I usually do and so, when I had it workshopped, I was really sort of insecure about what to do with it, not even sure what I wanted it to be. The truth is, I was probably a little overzealous in my revision to accept every bit of advice that was given to me whether it was really the right choice or not. But at any rate, I revised the story taking WAY more of the class’s suggestions than I normally would and started sending it out when I felt like it was ready.

The editor who rejected the story gave me some extremely useful specifics on why he was rejecting it. He said he thought it was a great idea, but X, Y, and Z were holding it back. Every single thing he pointed out were things I had changed about the story to follow workshop feedback. The interesting thing about it is that I realized, as I thought about his suggestions and compared them with the original workshop suggestions, that in many ways I feel that both sets of feedback were right. But how can that be?

I read somewhere recently that suggestions that are given in a workshop should rarely be taken – they should only be used as a sign for something that might be wrong with the piece at the moment. Once you figure out what’s fueling the suggestion, you should, most of the time, ignore the suggestion itself and come up with something on your own to fix whatever problem lies at the heart of the suggestion.

My problem was that, not feeling very confident about the story to begin with, and especially since it was a totally different sort of writing from what I normally do, most of the suggestions that were given to me during workshop sounded like great ideas. So I decided to take many of them. But once they had actually become part of the piece, they created a whole new set of problems that I hadn’t noticed until this editor pointed them out to me.

This is one of the dangers of workshop. I can’t even remember all the times I’ve been given feedback that sounded great while I sat in the classroom feverishly taking notes, and then when I went to actually make the changes I realized that they would never work – they didn’t fit with what I was trying to do or they created new, much larger problems or . . .

My problem this time was really a complete lack of self confidence in my own abilities to, well, write the story for myself. Workshop is great, don’t get me wrong, but getting feedback can become almost like a crutch sometimes and if you’re not feeling very sure of a particular piece it can do more harm than good to have a large group of people, many of whom are probably not picking up on your intentions as the writer, give you suggestions on how to make it more like something they would have written.

So it’s important to remember that your workshop did not write the piece, you did, and only you can make the final decisions of what to do next. It’s difficult, I think, but extremely important to find the right balance between having the confidence to veto suggestions that are wrong for this particular piece and yet the wisdom to recognize when there are problems with the piece and when feedback should be taken.

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