The UnderGrad Writer: On Vulnerability and The Workshop

snoopy-stormy-nightThe Writers’ Workshop is one of the most important lessons in writing. Workshops are designed to offer writers an array of critiques in order to improve a specific piece. Most college programs, to some extent, incorporate a workshop aspect.

As I mentioned in my first blog post, when I initially walked into a class called Prose Writing, I thought I had accidentally interrupted a business meeting. Seeing the tables in a circle, I stood stunned, wondering if I’d misread the room number. Nope.

This was Prose Writing.

My professor walked in, and I admired her from the start. She was elegant and tall, and had a power in her demeanor which I respected immediately.

After giving a little background about herself, she explained how we would discuss certain prose writing forms and then everyone would write a piece in those forms. We would send our pieces to everyone in the class a few days ahead of our workshop day for them to read and critique for improvement.

As a first time creative writer, this was equally thrilling and horrifying.

As the emails of drafts from my peers rolled into my inbox, I’m ashamed to admit that my main concern was sizing up the competition. I wanted to be the top of my class, and I wanted to win the approval of my new favorite professor. Except, as I soon realized, everyone’s writing style was so different that it was hard to know where I stood.

I emailed my draft to the class, and when I walked into class on “my day,” I was very excited. Confident about my piece, I expected to get just a handful of comments about minute editing details.

Then the Workshop began.

One after the other, everyone had opinions on what I could change, and which paragraphs I should cut completely, and where I could add more detail. The most discouraging comment was that some of what I wrote was insensitive, which in hindsight wasn’t that far-fetched.

I didn’t leave the workshop feeling totally crushed, but I did have to continually remind myself that these people were trying to help me improve my writing skills, and that this was the whole point of being in this class—of being in college in general.

A part of me doubted that the workshop setup was effective at all. I wondered why we couldn’t just meet with our professor separately to get her advice. After all, she was the only truly qualified editor among us, right?

Later, one of our assignments was to read a piece by Kurt Vonnegut, titled, “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son.” My professor, as we were packing up at the end of class, quickly noted, “Kurt Vonnegut was actually a professor at the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Program, where I got my Ph.D.”

It was a quick, small comment that I doubt everyone heard, but it made me curious.

I did some research and soon discovered what most writers already know. The University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Program is known as the best in the country. Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and many other famous writers went through this program, and many Pulitzer Prize winning authors owe their success to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The impressive part wasn’t that Kurt Vonnegut taught the Writers Workshop, or that all of these successful authors participated in this workshop, but it was that my professor knew what she was doing.

I could trust her.

And not only could I trust her, but I could trust my peers, because she trusted us.

The problem wasn’t with the Workshop. It was with my own insecurity.

I quickly learned that the only person whom I need to impress is myself, and that the opinions of my peers were very important. They were my readers. They were the ones invested in my stories.

As I saw my writing improve, I knew it was because of the help I was getting in each class. I looked forward to Workshop classes, and believed firmly in its mission.

While I still tend to fear vulnerability and sharing my work with others, I know now that readers’ advice is invaluable, and that any of my success is due to my openness to be critiqued.