Thursday, August 23, 2007

Writers' Workshop

At work I do this thing called ‘Writers’ Workshop’. It’s always a bit of a challenge because I can never remember where to put the apostrophe in ‘writer’s’ and now that I’ve done a little bit of writing myself I realise that the whole process is completely contrived and backwards. Do I brainstorm? No, I sit around for hours with empty time waiting for inspiration to hit me in the gut. And planning? No, no, no, you write first and then you get all lost and tangled up and then you go back and plan. And the first draft malarkey? And calling something finished after two drafts? Don’t make me laugh, is it ever finished? But really the bit I like the most is the editing, although I’ve been wondering whether I am a bit harsh sometimes. OK I don’t wonder I am. I suggest that whole swathes are cut; I send them back to rewrite a paragraph about a million times and when they can’t see where the story is going awry I get them to read it out loud. So I suppose it’s very different, we spend a lot of time together, these budding writers and I, I would never hurt these kids’ feelings and I know when to stop and when to push.

So it’s a bit different here in Paris as an adult writer because there are very few writing groups, and if you work there are even less that do not take place during working hours. There are a couple but they are full of transients, people passing through Paris who have heard about the group and pop along for the ride. So I suppose one of the things I’m wondering about is whether the only authentic bit of the Writers’ Workshop is the editing bit? And does editing have to be done by someone that you respect and know?

In my case I still find the group very useful. When I arrive with a piece I already have a certain idea of how I am looking for the piece to be improved. Then reading the piece aloud instantly brings out flaws (and I have taken to doing that at home when I do my first read through). There’s also a certain amount of ego caressing when you can see that your work is pleasing to someone other than yourself. The criticism is mostly useful, but at the end of the day I come home and rework a piece and either follow the advice or ignore it. I also enjoy critiquing other people’s work, and there are some real cracking pieces.

But then there are the other things like ‘poetry nights’ in trendy bars. I had a friend visiting and another friend who was coerced into going and I suppose we kind of slipped into teacher mode because some of the poetry was truly dreadful. I think the thing that irritated me the most was that the minority (the irritation is actually completely disproportionate to the quantity) who were bad were people who I had previously come across in the writing group. They had turned up with some interesting, if slightly poor pieces at the group and were not very open to criticism, yet here they were completely happy to pop open their journals in front of an audience, but I suppose that all makes sense really.

The flip side was that there were other people from the writing group who read stuff that had been critiqued and their pieces were much improved, that was kind of cool. And then there was this cool chick with a guitar that had flashing lights that told you when the strings were in tune (I could never tune my guitar properly). There she sat in this sweaty basement and for a second I had images of Phoebe from Friends and a sly smirk spread across my face until she began to sing and I kind of slipped off into folk heaven.

I’m still all confused about this whole critiquing and poetry night thing. I suppose in the end it comes down to me being a bit harsh. Having high standards? Being a teacher? Ah, who knows?

Do check out Erica's link up there. I keep listening to it and thinking WOW. Even Tibo likes its. Well I think he does, he got up and left the room the other day when I started singing!


Minx said...

Critiquing and editing should always be done with the right intentions. Unfortunately many people turn into some kind of dictator when looking at other's work.
Reading aloud is a rule of thumb for me but another pair of trusted eyes are essential when you get to that millionth draft!
I have been editing for a number of bloggers, maybe it is time to air my own thoughts about this - I shall link.....

Jon M said...

The lady above knows what she's talking about! :-) It's good to get work critiqued but it's a bit like being put down, needs to be done humanely! :-)

Jon M said...

I've just listened to the lady sing, very haunting! Tuning is easy get an electronic tuner for £10 from music shop! That's what I do when I go playing diddly diddly music!

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Critiquing has to be a careful process - it's so easy to focus on all that may be wrong and forget that which is good and forget to encourage and nurture. I always say at the beginning of my crits, "this is done with the best of intentions - take what works for you and junk the rest - it is after all only my opinion.
What I love about critiquing is that it helps me improve my own writing. The things that I see in other writing makes me look at my own work more critically.
And Minx is right, reading aloud makes a staggering difference.

Verilion said...

Thanks for the great advice you guys: be kind, encourage, nurture, help them to improve, guide etc. I think in the end though the writer her/himself needs to be ready to go through that process, otherwise you as the editor/crit buddy can be all of the above and it will come to diddley squat.
Still these last two years have been a great learning experience for me and I look forward to learning more. Thanks for the help.

Oh and Jon I need more than an electronic tuner, my guitar didn't survive the moves. Actually it didn't survive my first two years teaching. I got it fixed, but then it just gave up the ghost a few years later. I have this really beautiful blue guitar that I bought in Mexico and the neck is warped! Can that ever be fixed, most people have told me to just buy a new one.

Taffiny said...

Critiquing, is the reason I don't go to writing groups, or poetry readings. Sheer terror. Plus strangers may want to help, share insights, or may want to rip and tear. I know, there are a great many things I need to learn, but I am afraid of being bullied, or of just feeling inept, unable.

In art school, sometimes critiques were very meaningful, very helpful. Thank goodness there wasn't any ripping and tearing; there were some "I don't get its", but that is just fine with me. I can understand not understaning something, and the need to make one's work clearer. If writing groups are like that, it would be worth it. I guess it would depend on the group. (We did have one teacher who was known for giving feedback that wasn't at all useful).

About the poet bar night- It also does depend on the goal. I do have ambitions for my writing, but my poetry is bad, and it is fine with me that it is so. I don't try and improve it at all, it is free to be bad. (And wander about unbalanced on spindly legs and bump into things.) Maybe these poets (or wannabe poets) are happy being bad poets. And just want to share part of themselves, uncut, unrefined, still dusty and awkward. (Or maybe they think they are fabulous. Then is it cruel or kind to disillusion them?)

I agree, I find reading parts out-loud to be very helpful.

hmm, I'll have to just focus on finishing the thing for now, later I can worry over finding people I respect and trust to read over it. I'm thinking...first finish writing draft, then check for flow, and clarity, then move on to grammar.

Verilion said...

Hi Taffiny, the writing group I go to isn't nasty and I don't think we've ever ripped anything to shreds. There's maybe an 'evil' voice in my head that wants to say things sometimes, but I either keep my mouth shut or find something more positive to say.
As for the poetry that's kind of how I feel about mine too, that it's a kind of a release/game/unconcious thing and to begin with I didn't want to do anything with it. I take it along to the writing group now to try and improve it, but I don't feel confident enough yet and I suppose that's what it boils down to in the end.


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