“Taking What You Need, Giving What You Can: The Writer as Student and Teacher” is an essay by David Huddle from Writers On Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.
This is mainly an essay about the value and practice of writing workshops. Huddle starts by taking survey of his own experiences with no fewer than eleven writing teachers. This made me count the number of writing teachers I’ve had and I could only remember the poetry teachers: eight as of now. I can’t really remember the fiction ones: but probably around 3.
Huddle says, “I was able to take what I needed from every teacher and every class, and I was able to disregard what I didn’t need or what might have harmed me. I’m not sure what to name this quality—survival aptitude, perhaps…”
He says this seems to be the skill you’re born with or not. I would agree. I’ve seen many writers unable to parse through the intimidating onslaught of information in workshop discussions for usable advise. I’ve also seen writers who have their eye on the ball and can work like a surgeon to take what they need from a heap of opinions. A tough skin helps but some very sensitive writers can also get there. It just takes a few days for the sting to wear off.
Huddle says from his years of experience he can say that intelligence, language aptitude, literary instinct and other “writerly resources” cannot predict who will succeed in writing and who will not.
He goes into a few paragraphs about how high school and undergraduate teachers made writing seem too elite to him. But he feels “writing is a natural act” as is reading and criticism. Like all workshop teachers I have known, Huddle is all about reading, reading and more reading. He says, “automatically, [writers] consume the writing technology of what they read.” I feel this is true. It sinks into you, all the craft and the architecture. The rhythm. You don’t even have to explicate it. But that’s fun too. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for someone else to be doing that.
He feels workshop critiques come in two varieties, those who make pronouncements and those who feel they are not in a position to make pronouncements. My first teacher and primary mentor, Howard Schwartz, was really good at breaking through this fear. He would call on us individually. We had to make pronouncements or at least ask questions. I was terrified by it but hung in there because only a flood would’ve kept me out of that class I was learning so much.
Then Huddle talks about the writing process. And strangely his comments map a conversation I saw last week in an amazing documentary about artist Elizabeth King. She struggled with the same issues described here:
“..when I first began writing, I always had a plan and I stuck to it as strictly as possible, trying to ignore the distracting ideas that came to me in the composing process. I tell [my students] that I still begin with a plan, but that nowadays I try to accept most of the ideas that come to me in the composing process…such ideas are, in my opinion, true inspiration…..much more reliable and useful than the other kind."
Then he talks about how to receive criticism, a “valuable skill very much worth developing. He defends the process of a writer remaining silent during workshops: “I remind authors that they are not required to accept any of the criticism they are offered, and I suggest that they not be hasty in deciding whether or not to use a piece of criticism or a suggestion. A suggestion that seems insulting during and immediately after workshop discussion may next week be the key to a brilliant revision.”
He then goes through the experiences of each of his eleven workshop teachers and what he learned from each one, even the terrible one. And this was insightful:
“What a workshop is not is a committee that repairs faulty manuscripts. Most of the time manuscripts can be improved in response to workshop discussion. But the process is not a mechanical one in which critics tell the author what is wrong with a story and how to fix it, and the author goes home and does what the workshop told him to do. The dynamic of a workshop is oblique, indirect, subtle, and occasionally perverse.”
Souls who can’t deal with this kind of grayness often get frustrated with writing workshops, writers who want things cut and dried, black and white. It’s wrong or right? Disagreements make them uneasy.
“I believe workshops can be immensely useful but that they are only rarely useful in obvious and logical ways.”
Tom Lux used to tell us something similar, that workshops won’t get you published but they’ll give you your readers and writerly friends for life. Although I didn't appreciate the message at the time, (Sarah Lawrence was an awfully expensive meetup in that case) I did meet my current two best friends at Sarah Lawrence.
He ends with a checklist about good writing:
- The most important relationship is between you and your writing.
- Writing is its own reward
- Write for the work, not the approval of others.
- “Serve your stories relentlessly” by making them as good as possible, revising, doing research.
- “Write stories you want to live with” (I’m not sure what that point means).
- “Write often enough that you would miss it if you don’t do it.”
- Keep growing.
Which is all to say not to take writing workshops too seriously. It’s an aid but not the most important work, not as important as practicing, reading and experimenting on your own.