We write. We revise.
Most writers have heard the harrowing tales of MFA workshop: Tales of professors lighting manuscripts on fire, calling the writing worthy of Danielle Steele, or worse using words like “hate” and “trash”. In my own MFA program I experienced nothing so dramatic, but sometimes it came close. Some writers conferences offer workshop as part of the week or ten days spent meeting agents and editors, lIstening to readings and getting know fellow writers if your same ilk. These workshop are no less susceptible to such abusive critique from both the facilitators and the participants/students. I believe in the philosophy of starting with the positive and ending with the positive. In between, there should be thoughtful critique that is meant to improve the work, not berate it. At the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop I attended in 1998, Sands Hall told the group workshop I was in that we should look at all work as though it has already been accepted for publication. From that point, then our responsibility as critiquers is to suggest how to make the piece a tighter, stronger piece. Not just say what doesn’t work. That doesn’t help anyone. How does that help the writer improve? I had the privilege of teaching at the NY State Writers Institute one summer with Alan Gurganus. He told me that he always looks for what the writer/student is doing RIGHT, then pointing out where he can do more of what the student already knows how to do. The idea behind both of these methods is to make a piece stronger, not rip it apart.
That said, what happens when there is work that repeatedly comes back with a glaring misstep? What if the direction the writer/student took is just too off base to really make it a story. For instance, a common mistake is for an early writer to create scenes that shock the reader. They have no other value than to disgust, scare or manipulate the reader. Maybe the writing has fantastic details or the dialogue is very believable, but what happens is meaningless and just for effect. Maybe it’s so sexually perverted or so gory that it’s hard to read, to even let your eyes land on the page. Let’s hope we don’t encounter too many of these examples, but if we attend enough conferences or interact with enough writer/students over the years, they are bound to make appearances. How do we nip this in the bud other than to finally just come right out and say, “No! Stop it.” In a writers conference situation may it is a learning situation and it just needs to be explained why the shock scene serves no purpose. But in a repeated situation, it should be stopped immediately. This is an example when either the writer understands why the scene of this nature are completely unnecessary, or they need to quit writing for the public. Or, maybe they find a group in their own pornographic, horror genre that deal with this. As a teacher and workshop facilitator, I see it happen more than once, I ask the writer to not show many any more of their work. We have to set boundaries within our writing world, and maintain the sense of safety at all times.