I had a great time the first week of October workshopping poetry and creative non-fiction with other writers at the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference hosted by Connie May Fowler. The best things I heard there, in no particular order:
- Sascha Feinstein (poetry and creative non-fiction workshop leader) described people he’d met who were so completely committed to their art they believed that their artworks were their children. His response: “No, your children are your children.” His poetry and creative non-fiction were great to listen to. I was in his workshop, and it was run very well. We all helped one another.
- Laura van den Berg read half of a short story, which was cruel — it was such a good story that we all wanted the rest of it.
- Loved the poetry of Parneshia Jones and was encouraged by her presentation as editor of Northwestern University Press: it’s good to hear that there are people in the industry trying to treat their authors ethically.
- Connie May Fowler‘s reading selection from her forthcoming autobiography was lyrical and beautiful. What I think I loved the most was when she told the group that she didn’t take being a writer for granted — that it was a privilege to be able to write and to publish.
- And one unnamed participant’s description of how she started writing will stick with me for the rest of my life, for better or for worse. When she was working in finance she would have one male client call and ask her to “talk dirty” to him on the phone. She couldn’t because she was in an office with an open door policy. But she did start writing stories for him. And from what I understand, the male caller is a frequent figure on cable news. Now everyone at the workshop will be scanning cable news channels for the guy.
Now I’ve been teaching poetry since 2008 at the graduate and undergraduate level, and I first published poetry around the early 1990s and then the early 2000s. Once I started graduate school I didn’t have time for writing and publishing poetry, but I also ran a writer’s group in the Orlando area in the mid 1990s for a few years. So I’ve been giving and receiving feedback on poetry for a good twenty years now, and this latest round of receiving feedback has prompted some ideas on the feedback process itself. Some of this thinking works itself out into a taxonomy of feedback of sorts, or a list of different kinds of feedback given.
- But first, feedback is great. I started writing poems again around November of last year, and I knew they needed editing, but I didn’t feel like I had the distance from them that I needed to edit them. After the workshop, I think I know how to edit my poems now.
- So the first type of feedback is feedback that confirms what you already know. If there were two weak lines in a poem, I knew they were there, and my colleagues at the workshop focused on those. If there was a slide toward sentimental language, I was aware of that, and they pointed it out, though we may disagree about where it works and where it doesn’t. This kind of feedback tells me two things: first, trust my judgment about the weak spots in my poems, and second, that the people giving feedback are good readers.
- But at the same time, I wasn’t aware of some verbal ticks I’d acquired, like the habit of repeating some phrases from one line to the next. That may not be bad in every instance, but I need to watch how often it occurs. What I’ve been able to do for the first time since November is write sonnets — I never felt until then that I could write even a passable one, though I’ve written in other formal verse forms and in free verse — but I see now where I was succumbing to form at times rather than making it work for the poem. So the second kind of feedback is feedback about your blind spots. This is perhaps the best kind of feedback a writer can get.
- Feedback that is, essentially, “I don’t get it.” I don’t know what to do with this feedback. Some of the best works of literature I’ve ever read I didn’t understand fully the first time I read them. I’d even extend this claim to song lyrics. What’s going on here is a negotiation, maybe even a dance of sorts, between the reader and the writer in which the writer makes the work intriguing enough to get the reader to want to do the work necessary to understand it. What makes a work worth the effort is very much a subjective judgment on the part of the reader. Does it give pleasure? Does it address themes important to the reader? But at the same time, there has to be content for the reader to grasp before he or she will want to look more. It’s a difficult negotiation, and we should keep in mind that not all literature is written for the purpose of discursive understanding. Some is written for emotional and, especially in the case of poetry, aural effects. Sometimes the purpose of a work of literature is to communicate a mood or feeling rather than an idea, so readers seeking only ideas will remain frustrated.
- You have to have thick skin. Sascha Feinstein started our workshops with these instructions: sit and listen to everyone’s feedback without responding, and then you get to respond in the last fifteen minutes of your part of the session. I think that’s good advice. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to just shut up and listen to feedback about your own work without feeling the need to defend it. It’s part of realizing that your writing isn’t your baby, something I learned the hard way while freelance writing for three years after graduating from college –before I started my grad program. Almost everything is subject to revision.
- Now overall — in terms of all of my past experience giving and receiving feedback over the last twenty years — I’ve found that there are two types of personal responses writers will give to one another. Some writers see the talent of other writers as an asset to them. Other writers see the talent or education of their colleagues as a threat or a liability to them, as if the extension of recognition to someone else takes away from them, or at least might. If you’re in a workshopping situation, just ignore the latter types and try to be one of the former types. Everyone who attempts to create anything can succumb to professional jealousy. You will at times. Some people may do what they do so well you will be tempted to quit. So to avoid professional jealousy, or at least being too easily threatened, you need to develop a sense of what you can do and what you can uniquely contribute. While you can’t do what other writers can do, others may not be able to do what you can do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two writers say to one another in the same workshop session, “I wish I could write something like that.”
Anyway — the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference was a great experience for me. I’d encourage anyone who wants to develop as a writer to try it at least once. It’s worth it just for the time spent in St. Augustine, but it’s a great workshop too. The months of October to February are probably the best time to visit Florida.
Photograph © 2014 James Rovira: Vilano Beach Marshes, October 2014.