I cannot exclude myself from those who sometimes walk away from a workshop, thinking, “They just didn’t get it. They just didn’t notice what I was doing. Maybe they read it right before class….” All those details, the sound of the words placed just so, the images I worked on wholeheartedly seemingly dismissed. And when I first started going through workshops, I would resist critiques all of the time, ones that I felt totally missed the ball. But I would learn soon enough that I had completely missed the point of workshop.
Most writers go through this defensive stage when their work is on the table, but it’s better to push through the growing pains then to cease to grow at all. And the truth is I didn’t have to take everything others insisted to heart (or to keyboard); however, I did benefit ten times over from paying particular attention to the most common comments and those unexpectedly left out. That is, if some of my peers noted details needing some oomph or characters needing better dialogue, I knew I needed to do some tightening. But if on the whole they’d recommended structural change, questioned character motivation or even the piece’s point of view, I needed to pull out the big guns. I would dread the times I might be left waiting for what I considered a prize moment of writing to be drooled over only for no one to even mention it, and I would be left instead with the realization that the odds everyone simultaneously just forgot to mention it weren’t in my favor, and another line or even paragraph (dare it be an entire plot point) would have to be cut or twisted unrecognizably. That is not a fun situation to be in, but it is a necessary one. There have been times where I’d been dying to interject between comments, point my peers in the ‘right’ direction. But, the truth is, a successful piece speaks for itself.
Personally, I have one piece that has gone through a series of different kinds of reviews, ending up in both fiction and poetry workshops. In the first fiction workshop, there were aspects of the story that my fellow classmates seemed to really enjoy; the distance interested them, the voice complemented the distance, the tension built as I diverted the reader’s attention away from the action. But it didn’t go anywhere on a larger scale; the story didn’t speak to its readers. And so it fell short at a fundamental level. By the end of my time in my program, this story split in two, each very different stories in my thesis, and one of them was formed out of a mere detail of the former story: one girl standing outside her house, one house in a whole neighborhood, as she waited for the day to be done. Had I not explored larger territory through the criticism about the meaning of my story, I never would have discovered this character and her story of disconnect and belonging.
Admittedly, revision is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process. Time to “kill your darlings,” throw away your most treasured and scrupulously poured-over lines. If I’d refused to do these things with my own work and instead continued to fight this process of change, I wouldn’t have allowed my work to grow in response to its readers, which, once I gave in to these demands, led to better (arguably more natural) pieces. Be ruffled by the workshop, by others’ opinions (in this instance). Reading may be a subjective experience, and writing most commonly so. But the universals are what give creative works relevance. We discover truths, display them in interesting ways; we don’t create them. We create the circumstances. And a workshop is meant to encourage thinking and questioning and trying to get to that piece’s essence through finding the right circumstance and with the help of others searching for the same thing.
Kelly De Stefano is an Instructor of English at FAU and an alumna of its MFA program in Fiction. When she's not busy figuring out how to be a grown-up, she can often be found daydreaming (which she likes to think of as a form of prewriting). She is currently working on some short fiction she hopes some wonderful press is just dying to publish.