Does It Work?

One of the questions that frequently arises in a writing workshop is “Does it work?”

When applied to writing, the question (“Does it work?”) is a general one; and the writer is often left wondering: does the story stop working because of a point of view shift on the third page or because of a point of view shift and a botched ending and a lack of clarity concerning what the story was about?  And if it doesn’t work for all the reasons discussed by the group, what then? How can the writing be improved?

It takes quite a mechanic to analyze all the ways a story (or poem) can go wrong. Besides who is to say for sure that the piece has gone wrong in all those ways? The stories and novels of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would never have made it out of our workshops. Faulkner’s sentences would have been trimmed, and Woolf’s point-of-view shifts corrected.

Would their writing have been better for such suggestions? Andre Dubus, in his collection of essays Meditations from a Movable Chair, includes a letter he wrote to his own workshop group. In “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop,” he says, “ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ would not have survived us without a stubborn author.” He goes on to say that what is important is “that Hemingway wrote it and we can read it, and if he made mistakes, if he left things unclear, well, that’s better than scurrying home to revise and revise and revise and make it clear to everyone.”

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a workshop where things got completely out of hand. An inexperienced writer had offered his piece to a group, led by Lamott, at a large, prestigious conference. His story was experimental, used bad dialect, and wasn’t very good. The other students mentioned things they liked, things they thought worked. Lamott offered a few suggestions for changing certain passages. The author raised some questions. It was all very polite.

Then one woman who had remained silent all along raised her hand: “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I the only person who doesn’t think it worked at all? Did anyone actually think there was one believable character, one meaningful image. . . .” And she continued. Everyone’s nightmare workshop. Lamott goes on to explain that what the woman had said was true on a certain level—the story wasn’t very good—yet the commentator was a better, more experienced writer than the author of the story being discussed. Of course the critic was being honest, and what she said had taken a certain amount of courage, but had she really helped the writer?

Some teachers, students, or group members will always feel that they must be honest. The story stinks and, by golly, the writer needs to know this. Some writers seem to want this brand of honesty—or at least they say they do, and they say they’re better for it. Don’t writers need to know when their writing doesn’t work? Isn’t that what we’re asking for? Yes and no.

Yes, we do want honest feedback; no, we don’t want mild sadism. Workshops, writing classes, and writing groups are often composed of writers at many different levels, with many different goals, as well as different styles and voices. We aren’t all trying to be published in The New Yorker.

So why not ask the writer what she or he wants from you, the reader, the person giving feedback. Maybe the writer isn’t ready for the heavy hand. Maybe this is an early draft, and the writer wants to give the piece some air. He or she could pose a couple of questions—like “I’m not happy with the ending. What do you think?” or “Any ideas for a better way to start the piece?” Maybe the writer is near the end of the revision process and wants close editing of a certain part. The main thing is to ask what the writer wants or needs and then direct feedback to addressing that question. Then move on.

The workshop or group could encourage the writer to continue writing more stories or poems or whatever rather than trying to mold one piece into greatness. I’ll never forget a welder, a Vietnam vet, who took a writing class at the community college where I taught. He showed up in our college writing group one afternoon. Would we take a look at a poem he had written? He took out his billfold and drew out a piece of paper that had been folded and refolded hundreds of times. The edges were frayed; the paper had been creased so many times that it almost floated into the room in fourths. Then he read us a poem full of clichés and generalities. It was the only poem he had ever written. He looked up. “What do you think? Is it good enough for the college magazine? Be honest.”

It was the poem of his life, a poem that said everything about lost love that had ever been said or ever would be said. We could have told him that the poem was hopeless. It was full of abstractions without a single clear image. Instead we said, “Write more. In one, tell us exactly how she looked; in another, about the day you met; in another, about the way her mouth felt on yours.” Better to have written twenty poems about a lost love than one.

Instead of spending all of the group time workshopping each other’s writing, the group could focus on a certain element of craft. Spend time talking about point of view in several stories, then throw in one or two from Chekhov or Alice Munro. Then do some exercises on point of view. Or spend time rewriting a section of a story from a different point of view. In other words, don’t just talk about writing all the time. Write when you’re together. Rather than talking about the last stanza of a poem for twenty minutes, stop and have everyone write the last stanza of their own poem and then read it to each other. The same with the last paragraph of a story. This would give the writer some psychic support as he or she struggles with the ending.

Be careful about writing comments on the piece of writing. Teachers of writing spend years learning how to give comments–what’s too much, what’s just right, what will be helpful. Many writers in workshops repeat the red-pencil punishment of their own experiences with English teachers. These writers will make harsh red-ink comments on the story; they will slash through entire pages of writing. Maybe their comments have value, but it is the exceptional writer who can see many of these red marks and still have faith in the core value of the story, poem, or essay. Many of the marks might be simple editing suggestions, so be sure that the writer wants the fine-tuning that comes at the end of the revision process. There is nothing wrong with editing. Yet while attention to the word-level of a piece of writing can improve it, often this is still surface work and doesn’t get to deeper levels of structure, voice, theme, or characterization.

Coming together as a group can be a strong motivating force. We set a deadline; we bring in our work. We talk to others about the problems of writing. At times we love and cherish the company. We value the help of fellow writers who will ask questions and give us the courage to return to our writing and work on a piece until it sings with truth.

Yet we need also to free ourselves from a method of criticism that often can become harsh or tell us more than we can assimilate, one that frequently gives the leader’s word the greatest power, that may encourage a red-pencil, judgmental approach sending us back to some primal state from which we can never graduate.

Our goal is help each other become the best writer possible–to keep each other writing with the faith to revise and to value our own way of saying things. In his letter to his workshop, Dubus writes, “What is art if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something with the little we have, the little we see?”  And then to call what we have made beautiful with mysterious imperfections.

7 thoughts on “Does It Work?

  1. Absolutely on target. I’ve also heard the following comment that is just as troublesome:

    “Don’t change a word of it!”

    That kind of over-the-top “help” can be another “kiss of death.”

  2. Thanks, Cleo. It would be interesting to hear how you go about revising your work. What was your revision process for your story from the anthology, “My Cousin Olivia”? What kind of feedback is helpful for you? Has this changed over the years?

  3. In the writer groups I have belonged to, I have always welcomed feedback, and I have always enjoyed discussing with the other writers why I wrote what I did and what my goal was. And I can say I always received helpful suggestions, while playing ping-pong with the suggestions, challenging each other as to the salient features and potential positive results. Of course, my method of handling criticism is good for me and helpful, but I’ve developed a thick skin over these many years, and I am always willing to revise based on the comments of other writers in the groups, if I thought a positive was lurking in the potential change. But I have noticed not all writers can handle constructive criticism. Once that is pick up on by the others, the comments are less poignant with much less depth of criticism. I think debate is the answer between writers in groups whose members are willing to improve their writing, not to defend their work to the death and feel hurt or peeved that the feedback wasn’t to their liking.

    • I appreciate your comment, Carmen. Some of us have tougher skins than others, that’s for sure. It’s certainly good to be able to have the clarity of vision to pick out the useful feedback from the not-so-useful. Maybe that’s the secret. One point I was trying to make is that sometimes the criticism isn’t what the writer needs at that point. So why not find out what the writer in the group is looking for before spending too much valuable time heaping on the comments or doing close line-editing?

      • I agree on the “take it easy” approach. Whenever I made a comment about what was read to our group by a participating author, I always asked him or her if he or she was open to constructive criticism. If not, or I sensed they didn’t want to admit being thin-skinned, I always backed off or made a suggestion as diplomatically as possible. I never wanted to hurt a writer’s feelings. And I continue that approach with my editing of my clients in making suggestions to improve their work. And when anyone in the group made a comment about my work, and I felt it was “on target,” I always let them know it was constructive and that I would “crowbar” it into my script when I got back to working on it. Of course there are people with agendas. At a writing seminar I was hosting, I got heckled by a person in the audience. So, writers have to be flexible, especially when something unexpected happens, like the heckler’s attitude, which I fluffed off with a comment and went on with my lecture and got a favorable acceptance from the other people in the audience.

        • Thanks for your comments, Carmen. It’s hard to imagine why someone at a writing seminar would be a heckler. Too bad.
          I still remember you fine story in ‘When Last on the Mountain.’

          • I don’t think the guy was a serious writer, or a writer at all. He was trying to “hit” on the young woman sitting next to him and she let the people know, who were running the seminar, about it afterwards. The guy was “marked” after that and I’m sure was barred from further meetings. At least the rest of the audience thought my presentation was worth their attending the event.

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