The Making of a Good Writing Workshop Citizen: A Crash Course in Humanity, Bullet-Point Style
Michelle Hoover, Instructor for Grub's Novel Incubator program, is a verified expert in the field of writerly etiquette. Here, she offers her best advice on workshop citizenship and shows us exactly how she keeps the Incubator classroom a supportive space for writers.
It seems like a recipe for torture. Gather a roomful of introverts (or near-so), force them to lay their imaginations on the page, make copies, silence the writer in a box (invisible), and launch a discussion—knowing very well that the basest compulsion of those involved is not to offer the most useful of comments on the work at hand but at least to say something (anything) that sounds intelligent.
Of course, that’s what a bad workshop feels like. And godspeed to the instructor who attempts to alter the dynamic once the cement has set. I used to think a room of adults would have the common sense to be kind to each other, to support their colleagues in this isolating and awkward pursuit called “writing,” and to forgive those nervous missteps in speech and action that sometimes crop up at the table. I was wrong. The thing is, fear and self-doubt tend to run rampant among writers. It’s only human. But these can turn dangerous, warping into the need to belittle, to gossip, and to create dividing lines between those with “talent” and those with something considered less. It only takes one bad nut to spoil the lot. It’s the instructor’s job to keep these things from happening. But it’s also the responsibility of every writer to bring their best selves to the room, at least if they wish to get their best work out of it.
As an instructor, I start with patient zero: me. No matter what might be happening in my own life, I know I can’t expect the proper tone of respect, humility, and dedication from others unless I myself project it—in every word, action, and thought, in every moment. Of course, I make my mistakes. In fact, I’ve made lots of them. In the past few years, I’ve also started each new class of Novel Incubator students with a little crash course in humanity, bullet-point style. A student once commented: “What kind of awful students have you had?” Ha! I know most of my students have been schooled in common decency since birth. But I’ve heard from plenty who offered a quiet “thank you” after class, because they’ve experienced the opposite. I might not be able to change that bad nut. But I can at least remind others that certain behavior isn’t acceptable, that these people in the room are your comrades-in-arms—because writers deal with enough rejection and doubt on their own, thank you very much. And no matter how much influence that bad nut tries to wield, they might not be so successful if no one gives them the chance.
So here’s my crash course:
- Pay attention to those moments when you are responding to others’ work on a more emotional or personal level than might be helpful to the group.
- Give others the room and encouragement to speak up.
- Keep your own volubility in check. Most viewpoints are not only interesting but also helpful to the discussion, even if they contradict. However, if you find me signaling you to move on or wrap it up, keep in mind that I’m dealing with other time pressures as well as things I may know personally about the student and their manuscript that you do not.
- Avoid thinking that you hold the key to revising another student’s work. If only the student listens to you long enough, they will agree. You do not, and they should not.
- Drop your assumptions and defenses: Open yourself up enough to truly hear what someone is saying.
- If you are bothered or confused by another student’s comments, ask the student to explain further to ensure that you’ve heard them correctly.
- Remember: listening to another person’s ideas doesn’t mean that you agree with them or even find them useful. However, not listening might shut you out from some possible revelations of your own.
Don’t Block Out Your Critics
Even constructive criticism can be exhausting and difficult to hear. Though the workshop experience may not always leave you aglow, it’s an important way to build your filters against the more difficult criticism you may receive down the line and to begin to decipher who your best readers are and are not. You may not always like the person who is constantly pushing you and reminding you of your writing weaknesses, but I’ve often found these voices vital to my development, years after the fact when I’m finally able to understand what they were saying all along.
You are not superior or inferior to any other writer, no matter how many accolades or publications these writers might have under their belt or how few. We are all in the same mess, working toward the same goal. Be good to those who share the journey with you. They may have their faults, but they are writers too.
- Be forgiving of missteps, but try to be responsible for your own.
- Avoid speaking negatively about others outside of class. This is neither helpful to you, to others, or to the class as a whole. Please discourage this practice in others, and try to keep a positive outlook.
- Help me encourage good intentions toward others at all times.
This culture of ours doesn’t give writing and writers much clout. We’re the odd balls. And we’re all still together in that little odd box, no matter what. Outside the four walls of the workshop, I’d argue for a similar kind of writerly citizenship. If you never get that book of yours out or even if you do, it’s rather nice to think of yourself as not alone but instead one of the crowd.
If you have any points from personal experience you’d like to add to my too list-like list, I’d love to hear them.
[Editor's Note: If you're working on a novel draft and would like to be considered for the Incubator, click here to apply now! The deadline is Monday, February 15th, and partial - full scholarships are available.]
Michelle Hoover is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University and teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. She is a 2014 NEA Fellow and has been a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and a winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Her debut, The Quickening, was a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award "Must Read." Her second novel, Bottomland, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in March 2016. She is a native of Iowa and lives in Boston. For more, go to www.michelle-hoover.com.See other articles by Michelle Hoover