Thursday, June 23, 2005

Writing Groups

This Sunday is the 13 Ways monthly meeting, and as it’s been meeting for over 15(!) years, it makes me think about poetry workshops. While our group unfailingly produces an delicious array of food, I admit I have mixed feelings about the workshop process itself. In Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, he has Hemingway give this advice to young writers: “Don’t talk about your writing. If you talk about your writing you will touch something you shouldn’t touch and it will fall apart and you will have nothing.”

That’s what the argument against workshops (and against blogs?!) boils down to. Wolff also says that a couple of years in a workshop can be valuable (in an MFA program, for example), but continuing longer than that is destructive. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think it can be destructive to show work to others too soon. When someone says, “I wrote this last night—what do you think?” often the real message seems to be, “I wrote this last night—am I going insane?”

Going insane can be a drawback in real life, but I’m not sure it’s a problem in poetry. The problem with poems is more often that they’re not insane enough, and workshops may encourage premature sanity. It’s always a problem when you find yourself writing with an audience in mind other than yourself, or maybe some imagined other. If you imagine some real Jane or Jack looking over your shoulder when you write, it’s hard not to edit something so it’s more to Jane’s liking, or maybe add a line just because you know Jack will hate it, and that can’t be good.

At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to workshops. For one thing, they make you face the fact that you haven’t written a word for six weeks! Also, I always do get helpful editorial comments like “Leave out that stanza—no one wants to hear about your pet monkey.” Even though some people probably would like nothing more than to hear about my pet monkey, it’s probably good advice.

5 comments:

louise said...

Robert, I, for one, would like to hear about your Pet Monkey anytime.

I am very impressed that you guys have been meeting that long. I am in a group that has been meeting, oh, maybe 5 years now, and it used to be quite structured but these days it's more of a social thing, drink wine and talk about boys. I appreciate the comraderie though, and I'm sure 13ways has lots of that too.

Diane K. Martin said...

Hi Louise. I'll jump in here. For the record, nobody tells Robert they don't want to hear about his pet monkey. Robert's work is so carefully wrought that sometimes it's hard to think of anything critical to say! I vaguely remember telling him once that I didn't know of any blue geraniums and suggesting hydrangea or lobelia....

When Scott Reid and I started the group (only recently called 13ways, much to my dismay) in the late 80s, we had both completed M.A.s and needed someplace to talk poetry in the world, some place that could fill the void that academia had filled, for better or worse. It's doubtful we would have that need today, with all the possibilities provided by the Internet.

So why does the group continue? For me, it is that nudge that makes me write or at least finish a poem, so I have something to contribute other than my pasta salad. And yeah, it's a social thing, though with us, at some point, we put down our forks and gossip and seriously get to the poems. It's a good place to brag about publication or otherwise express one's frustration.

Strangely, the last thing I go to it for is criticism. I'm pretty pigheaded, as others in the group will attest to, and I know, or think I know, what I want. But, conversely, I do like to say my bit about others' poems. I don't expect them to treat my comments as anything but my subjective thoughts, but composing those thoughts and putting them out there is very clarifying for me and helpful when I sit down to write.

Robert said...

Maybe we should have a contest to come up with the best new name for 13 Ways. (First prize can be my pet monkey.)

Louise, by the way, I love your answer to the Blogger question on your profile. Now that is inspired insanity!

It's not exactly true that we've been meeting for 15 years. Somebody (or something) has been meeting for 15 years, but people have come and gone ...

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, I have been meeting for 15 years--more--except for that hiatus of a year or so. How time flies when....

David Koehn said...

Hard to say if workshops early in the lifecycle of a poem are good or bad because the writer may be looking for expected and unexpected responses.

A new piece may be met with all the conventional rap expected but the writer may be sifting through the stock responses for that which is unexpected. Depends so much on the writer--much less on the group.

Hass once said that if 1 out 3 readers has any idea what he is doing then he considers that a success. His readers include some of the best... Based on those ratios if 2 of 6 people even have a loose idea of what is really going on in a poem the writer might look to the Hass ratio and feel good about the responses.

Advanced workshopping is tricky but advanced writers (whatever the hell they are) probably sift through agenda's and stock response and other noise to get what they need.