Tag Archives: Writing Groups

Listening Hard: The Puzzle of the Writing Workshop

~ Guest post by Wendy Scheir ~

The greatest analyst in the world can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being.

– In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm

NYU Film School, circa 1987.

We blink in the dim light of the auditorium, dazed and subdued by the atrocious rough-cut just screened by a fellow student. We are sleep-deprived, beset by a feeling of unreality induced by months working on each other’s insular, chaotic film sets, chain smoking, downing Oreos for dinner, hunching over editing tables. Now we’re showing rough-cuts, itching to get done and out onto the festival circuit—eagerly awaiting our sparkling lives to begin.


The student, Steve (I’ll call him Steve), the one responsible for this mess of a movie, stands up front, face grim and ghostly, peering out at us, his critics.

We’re fidgeting, trying to think up what to say. Someone coughs. Someone fails to stifle a snicker. Finally, a voice rises from front row center.

“Don’t cut a frame.”

The voice belongs to our leader, head of the graduate film school. His words are incisive, his pacing deliberate, his tone soaked in a cocktail of boredom, sarcasm, and the purest disregard. Dick—his name is Dick (really)—says no more.

Steve looks like he’s been punched in the gut. I mean he visibly recoils. His lips quiver. These words, this feeling, will sometimes float to mind even years later, after he has groped his way to a fulfilling career in some distant field.


It’s thirty years later, now, and we’re in a thoughtful, sophisticated writing workshop where critiques come in forms more muted, with less intention to do harm. But they can cut as deep.


What to do with these comments?

Let me pause a moment to say that workshops can be wonderful. They can support, nurture, inspire. They can help a writer find her voice. They can furnish insight into the craft of writing and bring kindred souls together.

But even the most generous and intelligent of commentaries may be unconsciously laced with the residue of hidden anxieties, skewed by distraction, pride, envy, disappointment, confusion, self-doubt, even by fear. Very often comments packaged in one form actually mask something else entirely.


Critiques and Critics come in many guises. Here’s a sampling of a few I’ve encountered:

The Befuddled Psychologist

is fascinated but wants to know more. “I wanted to know more about the grandmother!” she cries. Plunge in, she urges, probe deeper. Uncover the motivation, give back story, furnish flashbacks from a traumatic childhood. Above all: Explain! Explain! Explain!

The Stereotypist

believes there’s only one way a person would possibly act. “A mother would never let a swimming teacher push her child into the deep end,” contends this critic. A fireman would never turn and run from a fire. A farmer would never get attached to his cattle. It would just never happen. Continue reading



Filed under Craft

The Back(hoe) Story

kobelcoYou will write a story.

The character will have some really physical job—banging nails or pouring concrete.

Driving a backhoe. For weeks, all you will see are backhoes.

You will ask your writing mates to read the story. They are seasoned writers and editors, familiar with your work, and you trust them to give you great input.

Meanwhile, you will sell the story to a lit magazine. When your friends show up with pages of notes, you will say, “Thanks, but I already sold that story. Would you like a beer?”

backhoeBeer, because the character in the story you just sold drinks beer after he punches out. And because you owe your friends several beers for screwing them over, even if not on purpose.

They will drink all of your beer and also have their sweet revenge.

Because no short story is perfect (unless Dagoberto Gilb wrote it).

Your friends will drink your beer and eat the kiss-up pizza you got for them, while they tactfully point out all the things that are still wrong with your story that’s going to get published.

You will go to bed but not sleep a wink over that tired phrase you used in the third paragraph. You’ll get up and write a long e-mail to the magazine editor asking if you can change a line or two, and how about that part where instead of going to the library the character goes to see the Dakota who runs the junkyard? What if tension isn’t building quickly enough in the front of the story, so can you cut some lines to get to the dramatics quicker? And the epiphany is implied but not obvious. Is that okay or should you add a line at the end to clarify?

You will not send the e-mail for fear that the editor will agree to the point of changing her mind about publishing the story.

You will instead e-mail your friends and apologize profusely for not waiting to receive their advice before sending off your story. Your flawed little story.

Your friends will forgive you, because they are classy and wonderful and truly your friends.

You will feel alternately joyful and embarrassed that your flawed little story will soon be in print.

You will vow to never, ever make that mistake again or to treat your friends so poorly.

And you will keep writing, because that is all you know to do, and now all you see are girls with suitcases.



Filed under Notes from the coffee shop