My Story Got Workshopped. Now What?
Dear Friday Five-O,
I just got home from workshop, and I have twelve copies of my story, and they’re all saying different things! I brought my story to workshop because I was confused—is this supposed to help?
Yes. It is. It does. You just have to learn to listen (and ignore) in the right way.
A Story about a Story
I went to a workshop with a story I loved, absolutely adored, and my instructor, who I admired a great deal, told me I had “nothing of value invested in the story.” What about my time? I thought. Maybe you should go invest in some glasses, I would have thought if my thoughts had better comedic timing.
Worse, he added, “It’s just not your thing.” How do you know what my ‘thing’ is? I thought. But of course I worried. Maybe it isn’t my thing. Maybe he knows what my thing is and I don’t. Things, I decided, are tricky things.
I put the story away and—after giving strong consideration to just tossing my fellow workshop members’ notes into a garbage can—kept the sheaf of marked-up stories in an empty box that had once held a12-pack of beer. This I shoved to the back of my closet. Occasionally, I’d drag it out, thinking perhaps I’d hidden some beer. I was distraught to find no secret beer, but even more distraught to know that this giant mound of failure awaited me.
Eventually, when I was either feeling very confident or very depressed (the latter is WAY more likely) I pulled out the box and flipped through the comments. Those traitors, I thought, I thought they were the one: the workshop in which I could settle down, grow old together. As I skimmed through them, I came across a note from another member of the class who’d written very simply, “I thought this was heartbreaking.” That was all I needed. I was thrilled to have broken a literary heart.
I sat down to work on the story for the first time in about two years, picking the staples out of the stack of papers and then putting them in new piles, one for each page. I looked at each copy of each page and figured out where people agreed and disagreed on changes. The agreement I took at face value—it wasn’t working. Those edits were no-brainers. The disagreements I took seriously as well—and here I’m paraphrasing Margot Livesey—if one person said a scene was too slow and someone else said it was too fast, it didn’t mean it was the right speed. It meant it wasn’t working. But in those instances I took special note of the suggestions of the people who’d liked the story, those who thought it was heartbreaking and worth saving.
I rewrote and rewrote, and eventually I forgot where the ideas came from: some came from me, some from the lovers, some from the haters.
The Place Where I Break It Down and People Are Scared
While in my MFA program, I would say on average the class of 12 broke down like this:
- 2 people who knew what I was doing and I trusted implicitly.
- 4 people who said things at times that struck a chord with me.
- 3 people who said things that rarely, but occasionally, struck a chord.
- 1 person who clearly didn’t read the story at all.
- 2 people who under almost no circumstances would I ever listen to. I would not have asked these people for directions to the bathroom.
I think this is totally normal. It’s not a dig on those people. We just didn’t match up. That’s fine.
Some of my students sometimes tell me in confidence that they feel badly ignoring the advice of some members of the class. I tell them they have to bury the fear of ignoring advice—even mine—deep down, with their repressed rage and swallowed gum. I’m sure someone looked at the Mona Lisa and said, “Some nice details, but seriously, what’s with the smile? Is she smiling or not? COMMIT.” But someone else said, “Nardy, this is really working. I think it’s your best yet. Love the smile. I’d maybe consider throwing some landscape in the background to give her some more depth and a greater sense of light.” I was there. It’s true.
The point is, Oscar, it’s worth hearing every voice. But obviously some people have a better understanding of what you’re going for—heartbreak, in my case—and you should give some extra weight to what they say. Those are the people you seek out for writing groups or ask if they want to trade work.
The Big Lesson
But here’s the funny thing, Oscar: the person who wrote the “heartbreaking” assessment on my story—the one statement that rescued it from its fermentation in an old beer box—was one of the people I never expected to give me any worthwhile advice. Something about this made it mean even more. Why did I listen? It struck the right note in me. And this is what you have to learn to hear during workshop. It’s there, but because of lack of confidence or disorientation caused by workshop whiplash, sometimes it’s harder to tell. When someone says something and you find it reshaping the story, find yourself internally or externally nodding your head, find it firming up the soft spots in your narrative, listen to that. That’s what you take away.
Because eventually, Oscar, it’s just you, and the page, and whatever makes for the best story. That’s got to be your thing.
James Scott's debut novel, The Kept, will be published by Harper in 2014. He earned his MFA from Emerson College and his BA from Middlebury College. His fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Post Road, One Story, American Short Fiction, and Memorious among others, anthologized by flatmancrooked, and nominated for the Best New American Voices Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He has received awards from Yaddo, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the St. Botolph's Club, the Tin House Writers' Conference, the New York State Summer Writers' Institute, VCCA, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. James has worked for various production companies and publications, Bob Vila productions, and the Boston Red Sox. A former fiction editor of Redivider and issue editor for One Story, he currently writes for the magazine Under the Radar. Learn more at www.jamesscottwriter.com.See other articles by James Scott