Last night I took a big step into the realm of listening hard.
I signed up for a writing workshop, something I have attempted in the past and have failed miserably. Failure meaning, getting upset, taking critique personally, crying, feeling unworthy, getting depressed and eventually giving up. But I always give it a go every few years.
Unlike other workshop formats, in The Writer’s Studio we are asked to write original work based on a weekly reading from a published author. This allows us to challenge ourselves and experiment with different tools. But the most interesting part of the class, for me at least, is that another student reads your piece aloud and then everyone critiques it based on how well the assignment was met. The author is not allowed to speak during this time. In other words I have to listen. Take it all in and listen, quietly. With my mouth shut.
I was worried and a bit anxious before class started. But I was also excited to share my story. I wrote my piece as a male narrator, something I had never done before. I was having trouble getting out of my head as I wrote, so I had to trick myself a bit. It worked and for me the exercise of creating a character that was not myself felt like a huge accomplishment. Well, that and listening quietly.
Everyone was very gracious, at some points there was even some laughter, which was good because I was trying to make the piece a bit sarcastic. Some of the feedback helped me see that the character sounded way more angry than I had intended. All of the talk about my piece kept me thinking of ways I could improve it and as I was taking notes, new ideas were popping into my head.
And this is the point that I learned something new. Feedback is important, without it we cannot hone our craft. We will never grow as budding artists.
Of course, I have heard about the virtue of critique before, but I never truly understood its use until last night. I need an audience so my work can have a life. If what I intended did not come through than the story was not effective. It obviously needs some more work. And this is all part of the process. Nobody nails it right out of the gate. Even Mark Twain would read his work out-loud to his family, just to gauge their reactions. He was a populist and if his work did not resonate with regular people, he was not on track.
Last night I connected the idea that I had created fear of feedback just as another block to progress. I do have a lot of work ahead. Instead of feeling daunted, I am invigorated by the challenge. It brings out my healthy competitive spirit.
I did feel some intense insecurities last night. As other pieces were read aloud, I started to judge my own work as inferior. Truthfully, there was some amazing writing last night, mine was not at the top. I can see where I need to put more effort in building more imagery, mood, tone and poetry.
I was starting to listen to the “You’re not good enough voice,” when I caught myself. I remembered that I have read countless times that many authors never feel satisfied with their work and are always self-critical. I thought of one of Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules to Writing;
Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
It may sound depressing, but its just a sadness. At least you are not blocking yourself from trying. I was simply feeling that my work could be improved. If I apply the same lesson I JUST learned from feedback of others, to self-criticism, I should merely take note and apply the appropriate edits. So, I may need to work on some skills. I just started revisiting my passion to write. And like so many artistic endeavors, it take practice and hard work. Art can be deceptively simple to see, read, hear, eat or touch. That simplicity is always borne out of dedication and commitment.
I learned and felt a lot last night. I am going to remain proud that I showed up to class with a completed piece. I have 9 more weeks to go, to try on new techniques, push myself and most of all have fun. The group of authors in the room were warm and inviting. I really have nothing to fear. Success for me will be to stick with it and not be defeated by old habits.