Tuesday, April 11, 2006

workshop burnout

I've been taking writing workshops now for almost five years. I'm thinking there's definitely a saturation point where the random feedback coming in starts to tarnish the intentions of the work of writing going out. It doesn't help any that my current workshop tends to be debilitatingly negative (thanks in part to the workshop leader, who manages to turn compliments into negative comments). When I write, I have always imagined the voices of my potential readers giving me feedback.... usually it keeps me in check, but lately it seems to be stopping production. When you have a workshop that's so difficult to please, how can you turn out anything worthwhile to read? It's come to the point where nothing can please them, no matter how hard you try.

All this said, I'm not stupid enough to go into a workshop with the intention of pleasing their interests. I don't write for my workshop, I write for myself in hopes that the workshop can give me beneficial and constructive feedback to improve. This current workshop is just a bad apple.... but in the end, they're not all that bad. I like the people just fine, but somehow the energy was set at the wrong level early on and I don't think we make for the best class. Every workshop is different, and chemistry between the members matters a lot. My attitude about it all now comes from a combination of resoundedly negative feedback (on everybody's work, not just mine) and the fact that I've just been in workshops for too long.

I can get past the workshop-feedback-editor-in-my-mind for my own writing.... but somehow, those editors are arguing with themselves when I'm reading published fiction.... and good published fiction at that. Case in point: I recently picked up a collection of Donald Barthelme's short stories (Sixty Stories, after which I look forward to reading Forty Stories). They're weird and strange and intricate and experimental and beautiful. An example of some of his stories (and some of my favorites): "The Zombies" about the community of good zombies and bad zombies; "I Bought a Little City" about buying the city of Galveston, TX and shaping it into the shape of the Mona Lisa visible from the air; "The Great Hug" about a man with symbolic balloons and the one woman who can pop them. I'm not a fan of all of the stories, though.... some seem needlessly experimental and too despondent for my liking.... but there are a handful that are masterworks of fiction, and perfect examples that prove to me that one can never run out of things to do with fiction, even when sometimes it seems like it's all been done before. My favorite so far: "The Balloon", haunting and gorgeous; a story about a guy that inflates a giant balloon over New York City, covering some eighty square blocks. The narrator talks about how people in the city take day trips walking over the balloon, or meet on the street at certain places where it dips to the ground or touches against the buildings. People attach paper lanterns on the underside and have block parties. The end is a revelation, so bittersweet and touching.... why did the guy inflate the balloon? Because his lover left him, and it was nothing more than a symbol.

So, the point I'm getting at: if Barthelme's stories were taken into a workshop, they'd be ripped into confetti. There's no way that stories like this wouldn't be eviscertaed on the spot in a snarling workshop. His style is sometimes slapdash and fragmented. His narrators wander and sometimes misdirect. Even I come across some things that I think could have been written more clearly or differently, but in the end his stories are viewed as successes and loved by many. So, if stories like his won't pass the muster of workshop, what makes good fiction then? Is that even the point of the workshop? The goal is not to be validated by your peers, but certainly that helps.... and I think sometimes the want to be recognized rather than assisted eclipses the whole purpose.

So, when I'm reading fiction, I no longer have a grasp on what's good or bad. Everybody has different taste.... so when in workshop they pontificate their tastes onto your work and therefore provide negative feedback....? What are you left with? Does your taste even matter? What about when someone turns something into workshop that (to me) is so clearly poorly written and scattered, yet they get a gentle read from the class? People gush and glow, and I'm left wondering "WTF?" Meanwhile the work that I find very strong gets ripped apart with jagged teeth. Maybe this should be of consolation for my own writing, but somehow it isn't.

So.... the story I'm writing next is weird. Inspired in part by Barthelme.... but I know it's going on the chopping block. For some reason I've been writing weirder stuff as of late, straying from the traditional realism I used to write in all the time. I'm looking forward, in a way, to the summer.... to clear my mind of workshop so that next year I can jump right back in with a refreshed attitude. Don't get me wrong: I like workshops and am looking forward to next year's, but I need the break. In the mean time, I'm gonna keep reading published fiction, and try to rid those workshop voices out of my head for that, too.


lettuce said...

Writing - and being interested in writing - you would probably enjoy my friend Betty's blog (and some of her links/friends too).

btw, I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas too.

Long_Division said...

Amen. Use this summer to tune out those workshoppy voices and focus on your intentions.

Long_Division said...

I know I already told you this, but your reading was so good! It was funny and smart and really entertaining. GOOD WORK!!!

is that so wrong? said...

Thanks LD! Getting nervous is weird, particularly when standing before an audience. You go from perfectly fine to afflicted with Parkinson's lickety-split. I'd be nowhere without my support group (i.e. you) in the audience.