Snippets Issue 11 : Speak Your Mind Issue

Why I Gave Up On Writing Workshops

The truth about writing workshops by Jeff Cottrill...

Why I Gave Up On Writing Workshops

By Jeff Cottrill

When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I started out writing short stories and comic monologues, while reading all the literature I could get my hands on for inspiration. I disciplined myself to write every day, even when short of ideas, if only to stay in the habit. And I had an encouraging creative-writing teacher in high school who had a good sense of humour and liked my work. As a student at York University (in north Toronto) in the mid-'90s, I enrolled in the writing program, naively hoping to learn what I needed to be as good as I wanted to be.

I once thought that the purpose of a writing workshop was to provide wanna-be writers with constructive criticism and exercises that would help them refine their style, find their voice, and gain the courage to experiment and take risks. York's program would prove me wrong. My course instructors seemed to stop at nothing to prevent students from achieving these goals, in fact.

I fit in poorly enough in the introductory course, in which helpful feedback was rare and the instructor discouraged writing humour or satire. (Mark Twain and George Orwell would have received bad grades in her class.) But the fiction-writing workshop in the following year wasn't a learning environment: it was a celebration of bitterness and negativity.

The instructor, an award-winning novelist and also a Hemingway nut, was a minimalist who didn't seem to understand that minimalism doesn't suit everybody's style. He probably meant well, but his bias towards those who condensed their fiction down to the bare, skeletal essentials was clear from the start. He was more interested in molding students into a style that suited him than in letting them be their natural selves. He also gleefully trashed a lot of writers that I admire (Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Woody Allen, etc.) and wouldn't take other perspectives seriously. And a few students in the class whom he liked (i.e. the minimalists) formed a sort of clique that sucked up to him and offered nothing but literal-minded, non-constructive criticism to the others. Their goal was not to help others improve their work but to bully them into feeling stupid and worthless. And the instructor let them do it. He encouraged them by not discouraging them.

One of these minimalists (who, curiously, is now an internationally acclaimed film director) took great pleasure in insulting the writers she didn't like. She not only told people to their faces that their work was bad (never adding any specific insight as to how to make it good), she even wrote mean-spirited letters to others (with returned copies of their stories) detailing why they didn't belong in the workshop and should quit writing. What amazed me was that her attacks always seemed so personal: if she hated your writing, she hated you.

As you've guessed, I was on the receiving end of many vicious barbs and rants. They went out of their way to convince me I wasn't cut out to be a writer and never would be. And I guess I was young and stupid enough to believe them. So I dropped out of the program -- and after a failed attempt to write a novel, I quit writing for several years. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one. Writing (and even reading) wasn't enjoyable to me anymore.

Even now, when I try to write anything longer than a five-minute open-mic piece, I usually get blocked. Instead of letting my imagination and love of language go crazy, I feel as if I have to get everything perfect the first time, or else I have no business calling myself a writer.

I understand that it's considered childish and cowardly to blame other people for your failures in life. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling that if it weren't for York's gang of minimalist bullies, I could have been a published novelist by now. Maybe a lousy one, and likely an unsuccessful one, but that's not the point. I might have produced something a few people would have enjoyed, and gained some genuine literary credibility. Now I'm in my mid-30s, my life is caught up in other projects and it sometimes feels too late.

I can imagine your response: "Oh, you're just whining because you're a bad writer and can't take criticism! You're just jealous! Grow up and accept that it didn't work out!" But this has nothing to do with whether I am a good or bad writer. Everybody has the right to try something creative, and with a good writing class, even a "bad" writer should come out with a positive attitude, trying harder to be better.

So, if you love writing and want to improve at it, how can you avoid becoming a loser like me?

Don't waste your money on formal workshops or classes. I'd recommend instead that you get together once a month, or once a week, with a group of writer friends/acquaintances who think the same way you do as far as writing theory goes. They must be people who'll understand what you're trying to achieve, yet are honest enough to give you specific feedback on work that isn't quite "there".

That's what I did when I joined a (now defunct) writers' group in Toronto called Parallel Chaos, and I gained some confidence back. Even when the others were harshly critical, it was in a spirit of helpfulness. It made me want to do better.

And what if you have to give somebody feedback on weak writing? I know it's tempting, but don't say it "sucks". Don't tell him he's a bad writer, even if he is. That's not constructive criticism. If you just want to trash people's art, get a job as a critic. It's lots of fun, and when artists reach a professional level, they ought to be ready to handle nasty reviews anyway.

But in a workshop context, you must approach the writing saying not "This is bad because..." but rather "This might work better if you did this..." Imagine that you've written it. If you had, how would you revise it? Give practical suggestions that you feel will work, without being patronizing. And ask the writer what he's trying to do. It never hurts to look at it from the writer's point of view and understand where he wants to go. I know, it's harder than spouting "you suck", but you might be surprised where it leads.

Let's be honest: young artists are sensitive and insecure. They may become less so as they grow and their work matures, but the latter won't happen if you make them feel ashamed of daring to create. The world could use more encouragement, especially in a field as tough and subjective as creative writing.

You can find out what Jeff's up to or listen to some of his spoken word pieces on his myspace.


That really inspired me Happy

I had the same issues with teachers in college. You can't teach creativity but you can get people on the right track. I studied Art, Music and English, the only way to get around negative teachers is to learn how to tick the boxes to get the grades! Exam board worshippers! One teacher was especially biased towards things in the subject and to certain people in the class.

I've ignored the bad and taken away with me what I did actually learn which has helped me. If anyone else experiences this you just have to seperate your creativity into school/college work and what you do for you and fun and get whatever you can out of it.
I had an experience like that in an after-school creative writing/literary magazine program in 8th grade. The teacher most certainly had her "pets" - they were the same students who were her "pets" in the honors english class I shared with them. It took all of 7th and half of 8th grades before I finally had the guts to submit a poem - one purposely written in the voice of a stereotypical spoiled child. It was meant to be a comic look at bullying, to show how immature the bullies often seemed. I was bullied the year before and this felt like a catharsis of sorts. They took it as a serious attempt and tore it to shreds. All submissions were anonymous - to everyone but the teacher, that is - and I'll never forget the condescension in one student's voice when she said, and I'm paraphrasing, naturally: "Who wrote that? It sounds like a third grader! My God, I can't be anyone in here. It's garbage. Why did they even bother to submit it?" (I had my private revenge in mentally correcting her grammar - "they" should have been "he or she".) I expected the teacher - I can't remember her name, I must have blocked it out - to advise something to the effect of, "You shouldn't say such things, what if the person who wrote that was here?" or "How would you feel if someone said that to you?"
She said nothing. She only scoffed and looked in my direction. If I had known then what I'd known now, I'd have responded and defended myself, my writing, my dignity. I have run the situation over in my head again and again. Sometimes they apologize, but most times I don't give them the chance to. Instead I make moralist sort of speech - a sermon, even! - quit and walk out with my head held high. Each time, I'm triumphant.
I have to face facts, though. I said nothing. I lowered my eyes, slouched in the desk and, like the teacher, I said nothing.
I never attended another meeting. I stopped raising my hand in that teacher's class for fear she would ridicule me or fail to prevent another student from doing so. I didn't rejoin the creative writing club until half-way through high school, when I was sure that the supervising teacher would not tolerate or engage in such callous behavior as her predecessor.
Now, I'm a teacher. Despite being hurt - I wouldn't go so far as to say 'traumatized' - that first teacher taught me a valuable lesson that I put to use whenever I'm standing in the front of the classroom. She taught me about the kind of teacher I do not want to be.
It takes a lot of courage to pick up a pen and express yourself. Even more so if you know that what you have carefully constructed is going to be critically scrutinised and torn to pieces. I really do believe that the threat of such harsh feedback suffocates any hope of warmth or honesty in your writing.

Your piece really resonates with me. I have recently given up radio announcing after five and a half years. While on my last station, I lived in constant threat of a repeat of my Programming Manager's lingering criticisms: that I had not earned my right to talk about music in an authoritative way, that nobody cared about how I felt about my music, that I couldn't speak properly. It ultimately killed my passion that was once so precious to me. Now I just have to rebuild my confidence and do something else.
I find it very disheartening that a teacher would do such a thing. To do that to students, it's like taking advantage of them. I hope more than anything that you can get back into writing.
I love writing and literature. I've always thought myself to be very lucky when it comes to it too. I never practiced writing outside of school works, and yet for a high-school student I write fairly good. All I ever did was read when I was young.
I want to be a novelist more than anything. As a side I plan on being a post-secondary Literature/Creative Writing professor. I hope I never make the mistake of giving non-constructive criticism to any of my students.
I took a creative writing class in college. I was surprised that there no guidelines. The class was sink-or-swim. No talk about character, plot, theme, conflict, etc. just write something and then get crictism. I did learn what my weaknesses are. I have improved so it wasn't a total waste. Some people in the class said I should keep writing. With no real guidance I stopped writing for a while.

I'm sure there are some good workshops out there. But where I don't know. Most people say the best way to become a good writer is the read good/great writers. Next, write as much as possible. YA writer Maureen Johnson said on her blog that she thinks people should major in something else besides creativity writing. I agree. Some writer have other jobs and that experience in another fiels could make writing richer.

I also can relate to the harshness of teachers and classmates. Sadly I've dealt with this more than I wish to remember. When I was in college I wanted to work in the creative side of business. I took a mass communications class. My project partner ignored me and did the wrong project. My lab teacher blamed both of us for not communicating. The class room teacher said none in that field would want me. The grad school said they would even talk to students if they aren't enrolled there. Then financial aid cut me off. I tried looking for leads on my own and failed. But I'm still here and am still trying to make something of myself.

I'm going to try NaNaWriMo this year and hope you do the same. I really enjoyed your article and could relate to it.
"Now I'm in my mid-30s, my life is caught up in other projects and it sometimes feels too late."
It's never too late to write! It is never too late to nail down that perfect observation or commentary of who we are. Only you can put to paper what is relevant to your place and time. We won't know you, what is important to you or gain insight without your input. Just from the historical stand point writing has value. For example: sure in 2008 there were wars going on, but what did it mean to you? Or maybe you were able to communicate someone else's experience.

I've never been to a workshop (and maybe won't!). It's too bad this happened to you. Soul killing is what that is. I hope you keep writing. Good or bad you are adding yet another view on the human experience! Keep writing and keep loving the written word.
And a note to stephie N. there is room enough for fairies and such! You keep writing about what you care about. There are tons and tons of people who actively read sci-fi, fantasy and manga. And that's cool you have a support system (mum and buddies).
Write on! (right on!)
I've always been wary of classes that taught creativity because everyone's definition is so different. I never take crictism well either, and plan to take everything with a grain of salt. However, if I was in your situation, I could see it being played out as me becoming physcotic or a complete emotional mess. Hope your writing goes well from now on.
I was in a writing class when i was in 4th grade and hated it. They didnt criticize it, we were 10! But no consturctive critisizm either. And we had to write about things like our vacation or our puppies, crud like that, when alll i wanted to write about was my manga-obbsessed mind filled with fairies, witches, and other mythilogical creatures. Now i only talk about my early writings with people who care enought about me (buddies and mom) not to make me cry like the sensitive artist i am, so by the time i turn 12 (September 17! 2 days!) I'll be a tiny bit more mature about my writing (probably not ;) )

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