On Getting Feedback (and What to Sacrifice to the Workshop Gods)

In certain parkland along the shore of Lake Champlain, you may see a sign:

Notice: This is NOT a designated swimming area.
If you insist on swimming here, you swim at your own risk.

As writers, we swim perpetually in undesignated areas. Not only do we accept the risks inherent in swimming in unknown waters, we welcome attempts at anything that’s admittedly over our heads. Our natural trepidation upon entering the abyss of a blank page pen-first—the tension between anonymity and immortality in Keats’s contention that our names are writ in water—stimulates our creative adrenaline to write beyond anything we’ve read. As lone writers, we insist on immersing ourselves in an element that’s strange and formidable, yet one we must navigate for our art to flourish.

Listening woman

Ears and heart open

By contrast, writing workshops are designated swimming areas where we can write, share and talk about our writing. We each bring our own soundings and wildly varying comfort levels into those depths. Some of us are waders, some floaters. Some can’t enter a body of water without splashing about vigorously. Some play by the shore, others swim out and dive deep. Some won’t venture over their heads without water wings. Some come to focus on nuances of various strokes, others on pacing and breathing, the surface dive and flip turn. We all learn liquid differently. Seeking other voices to buoy us, we bring our unique artistic talents, perspectives, expectations, perceptions and misperceptions. We all crave positive feedback and a safe space to grow while helping others grow.

Partridge Boswell, Poet, BWW board member

Partridge Boswell, Poet, BWW board member

But even at the town pool, risk abounds. Lifeguards are not infallible. The clearest placards warning swimmers not to dive in the shallow end are sometimes disregarded. There will always be those who miss the signs or simply ignore them, who dive in the shallow end or hazard the deep end without a clue how to swim. And there’s nothing to prevent even the most able-bodied swimmer from taking a mouthful of water instead of air.

We come to workshop not to hear ourselves singing (our own “Marco” in the pool), but to listen to empathetic resonances (the “Polos” of fellow writers, which may at times sound dramatically different from what we think we hear issuing from our own mouths). We’re treading water and willing to risk the autonomy of our paddling about because we want not merely to swim better but to be fully absorbed in writing that matters: to live and breathe language as fish live and breathe in water or birds in air.  Such is the powerful attraction of art—so powerful we are willing to risk personal intimacies of creation with each piece we submit to workshop, because an audience—especially a trained one—can give us a valuable degree of separation from our own work that enables us to edit further, and so inhabit our medium more fully.

You’ve just signed up to have your poem, story or essay workshopped. A discerning, mutually-invested group of writers will soon be reading your work. Will it be your “best ever” piece you drafted this morning? Or a dusty manuscript you abandoned years ago but always believed was destined for publication? The excitement of such a prospect—the engagement of a real live audience with your work—can be dizzying to a solitary writer unaccustomed to receiving such palpable, focused attention.

  • Writers translate and re-make the world. With such awesome creative freedom comes accountability, a duty of awareness. Accordingly, it behooves us to take care in deciding what we choose to offer up in sacrifice to the workshop gods. Poised at the edge of the workshop pond, you’ll want to consider a few threshold criteria when choosing a piece of writing. To maximize learning and minimize risk, let it be a piece that…
  • you believe in, one you strongly believe warrants a wider audience
    is substantially complete, in other words something you’ve subjected to multiple revisions; a piece which you have perfected to the best of your own abilities in this particular writing time and space—if not your “best work” something you feel is “destined to be your best work”— and yet…which in some way inscrutable to you betrays or fails to fulfill its own purpose
  • knows itself; that’s grammatically and technically self-aware and free of typos—and yet “unfinished” (bearing in mind that even published work is often considered “unfinished” by many writers who view final drafts as mere resting places—flotsam in the long-distance swim of a writer’s development)
  • you want to improve (not simply defend) that is open to and insists upon further change
  • you’re willing to surrender unconditionally to the flow of workshop feedback

Consider your context. When we write, we write with an audience in mind, whether an actual or abstract ideal reader. Someone who will read your words sensitively and patiently, who is eager to praise the strengths of your writing and candid enough to ask tough questions that may expose your piece’s weaknesses. Someone who’s invested because they would hope for the same mutual investment when you weigh in on their own writing. The word and ensuing story did not begin with you. You are entering a flow of ongoing conversation. Your submission may cannonball and sink to the bottom, fight against or glide with the current—you can’t predict how readers will respond. Regardless, be mindful that whatever you choose to share can and will affect those who read it. As a rule, the quality of a piece is reflected in the quality of feedback. Writing that is substantially revised and aware of its context is more likely to garner mutual respect and useful comments from attentive readers.

Workshops are shortcuts to further separation and distance from our work to gain editorial objectivity. If the piece you select to workshop isn’t eager to cross that next editorial Rubicon, then keep it in your drawer. By the same token, if the piece you have in mind is floating fine on its own and feels impermeable, try reading it at an open mic or introducing it to Submittable. Workshopping a piece you consider “finished” is a one-way dead end street, a closed conversation. Though a “finished” or “publishable” piece may reward readers, you’ll derive no feedback or else the responses you do receive will be wasted since you’re already resistant to change and the possible benefit of other perspectives.

The question of what to submit is complicated by our unlimited aesthetic freedom’s impulse to portray not only what is real, but unforgettable. Aspiring to be read, our writing attempts to heighten and/or deepen communication, employing language that’s provocative, stimulating, even visceral. Never mind “the real purpose of poetry,” according to Auden, “is disenchantment.” There’s the disenchantment required for artistic transformation; and there’s the disenchantment for disenchantment’s sake—the digital device we pick up because we can’t put it down, because—just as our more insidious thoughts sooner or later inevitably rise and breach the surface—what governs and colors our creativity is glued to the palm of our consciousness. Whether in the name of art or more private agendas, sometimes the extreme risks we take muddy our writing’s more vital intention to communicate. For our poems or prose to be convincing, from time to time we may compel our characters and personae to say or do some truly dubious, graphic, gratuitous and nasty things. At the same time, unlike our ideal reader, our actual audience isn’t uniform or predictable. One reader may find such risky or visceral language disturbing and offensive while another praises its parodic eloquence.

If you are in doubt whether or not a certain passage or piece is suitable for workshop consideration, you may want to invoke The Knox Test (which applies to prose as well as poetry, and community writing workshops as well as academic settings):

The first thing I want students to learn is empathy. Poetry is communication, which requires at least two people. Poetry that is first and foremost for yourself and your feelings, without regard to who’s listening or their feelings as they read your poem, is a one-way street.

Poets feel strong feelings, but how we communicate those feelings determines whether people will listen to us. Readers’ feelings and reactions to words are automatic, especially feelings that stem from trauma and cruelty, like slurs against races, religions, ability levels, gender and sexual orientation.

This poem was written for our Intro to Poetry Writing class, so we know who’s going to read it. And we want to read it! We want to listen! That’s why we’re here! Students take this class because they want readers. They want eyes and minds looking at their work and feeling along with them.

Without readers, we’re just typing. I’ve written many poems that I would NEVER workshop because, if I workshop a poem, it means I want to hear how my words make people feel.

If I don’t want to know, it’s not a workshop poem. Workshops give you access to people’s reactions.

We can say, “I’m not writing it for you, I’m writing it for myself.”

Why take a class?

We can say, “My reader for this poem is not the class.”

Why bring it to us? Give the poem to its intended readers.

We can say, “I don’t care how you feel.”

Poetry is the most feelingest substance in the entire universe. It requires the highest level of vulnerability from both its readers and writers. If you don’t care about other people’s feelings, you’re in the wrong game.

—Jennifer L. Knox, poet/teacher

As writers, our artistic freedom is limitless. We have the power to elicit deep emotion with but a few pen or key strokes. As writers writing within a community of writers, we share agency as well as vulnerability. Attention is a finite resource. As a writer asking other writers to actively interact and respond to your work, even in a small workshop you are commanding potentially thousands of human-minutes of undivided attention, from people who have no idea whatsoever of what you will be submitting. They give you that attention purely on faith and generosity. Writers seeking feedback need not censor themselves, but simply consider whether they are repaying that attention with a gift in return, or causing their listeners unnecessary discomfort.

The personal and political will always be trading places, jockeying for the same position at the head of the queue as we write. In workshop, as we consider craft and technique, fellow writers reading and critiquing your piece consent to set their own personalities and politics aside to engage in a mutually respectful act of empathy that offers new perspectives. They know how it feels to be in your shoes, daunted by choices of diction and syntax, thrilled at the crux of connection, inversion and imaginative leap. Beyond the ken of readers passively absorbing information or a story merely for its entertainment value, workshop participants are actively experiencing the text of submitted work in a constant state of inquiry, seeking the same rewards a reader seeks while observing nuances of intention and technique, all the while asking: How do these crafted words inform my own ability to translate the world?

Upon entering a workshop’s “designated swimming area,” we are nevertheless still swimming at our own risk. If lingering doubts about the appropriateness of a certain piece persist and you still “insist on swimming here” by submitting that piece to be workshopped, you may want, out of respect for your readers, to preface your submission with a trigger warning—a splash advisory readying them for the wave you’re about to send their way. The antithesis of censorship, trigger warnings are not invitations to omit or disregard a piece of writing. At the core of the trigger warning lies the intention to be empathetic. Trigger warnings tell your readers that you are aware of the reality that they may have had various experiences with violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, combat trauma, or may have clinically diagnosed conditions that may be barriers to full engagement in the material. The objective of issuing trigger warnings in our workshop setting is to ensure that dialogue addressing sensitive matters and the momentum of your writing move forward. Ideally, by exploring and discussing a writer’s treatment of provocative or unpleasant issues, participants may improve their understanding of human nature, the human condition, the nature and consequence of ideas, and the obligations individuals have to society relative to creative self-expression.

Partridge Boswell
BWW Board Member & Poet
July, 2018