Writing Workshops and the Power of Kindness

February 23, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Judith Colp Rubin

Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.

The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.

To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.

As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.

I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.

Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.

At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.

It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
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Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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§ 17 Responses to Writing Workshops and the Power of Kindness

  • sarahfreligh says:

    Prompts classes that generate new writing are great, and I agree to an extent with the notion of “positive feedback only.” After all, you don’t punish the baby for failing to get into Harvard. For me, however, the best classes — whether workshops or generative — focus on what’s alredy working as well as what’s the possible for the piece. The best workshops shouldn’t focus on what a piece isn’t, but what it can be.

    • Well said. I am still smarting from unkind comments made in my first MFA critique, not because they were critical (I was genuinely okay with that) but because the comments offered no suggestion or hope for improvement. What we all most want is hearing someone we respect say, “I can see how this piece can improve.”

      • sarahfreligh says:

        Agree. I should add, too, that the benefit of workshops is not receiving comments, but reading work in progress, attempting to understand the writer’s vision for the piece and helping them get there. Those skills carry over to our own revision and seeing clearly what a piece needs/wants.

      • Thank you so much for saying this! So few of my peers understood this in my MFA program, and it is both the hardest and most fruitful skill that comes from critique groups—when you can understand another’s goals, flaws, and strength, you are in a better position to understand your own.

  • ninagaby says:

    What a nightmare, takes me back to high school as well, but also to a residency years ago. At the end, as people were switching over, a new person arrived, a stunning woman who’d written a number of books and ran salons for writers just to be together. She asked if she could join me (at my reject table) for lunch and we talked for an hour about the experience. She invited me to her salon, as if I might have something to contribute, but they were too far away and I had a full time job and a teenager. But her kind positivity redeemed the whole experience. Thanks for this reminder about kindness.

  • lisa_kusel says:

    Great piece. I had a similar experience at a prestigious writers workshop many years ago. Good for you for moving beyond the pettiness and taking back your passion. (Oh, and I became a writer BECAUSE of the praise I received from my 6th-grade teacher…sometimes all it takes is one kind word to set us aflame.)

  • It’s a shame what consequences some workshops can bring. When a hometown friend offered me a spot in her Amherst Writers & Artists group and only positive comments could be offered (what’s strong here, what’s memorable?), I felt better than I had ever felt during my MFA experience, where classmates were petty and just downright mean. I am glad you were able to put that retreat experience behind you and rally on.

  • J Walters says:

    This is such a well done look at something so common. I now belong to a small writer’s group that also practices the positivity you discovered with Kathy Fish. As a former reporter, at first I missed the power of the blunt editing and commenting that’s part of writing in a newsroom. But it didn’t take long to realize how much creativity can be unleashed this other way. Thanks for a great piece.

  • Thank you. My college critique group wounded me deeply, dismissing me as a copycat. It took a long time for me to pick up the pen again. We are such tender souls! Art needs to be nurtured and supported. A good editor is a life saver.

  • Mary Kendall says:

    I could feel your pain in that workshop…it probably cost quite a lot to go there only to leave feeling deflated. Workshopping is a strange experience. We put ourselves out there so we can learn and improve as writers. Those two writers might be good writers, but they sure are very bad teachers. The other issue of “positive feedback only” can go to the other extreme. Someplace in the middle is what most of us sign up for. Yes, we like a bit of praise or reassurance that our piece is good, but we also value suggestions on how it can be better. We share work in progress so we can learn. Thanks for sharing and that goes for the folks commenting—some good thoughts there.

  • Sandra says:

    I’m so glad you found your way to fifty more workshops. Wonderful piece.

  • norah12 says:

    My first retreat was somewhat similar. A memoir/creative non-fiction workshop in an exotic and difficult to get to location. I was the first person up on that Monday morning. The instructor let the participants comment first before she weighed in. The first comment was horrifying. Why would I ever be interested in this person’s story? There’s nothing of interest to me. The instructor came to my rescue protecting me like a cub: She referenced something from the story & asked, you don’t find that interesting? Another point. Another point. And another always ending with the question “you don’t find that interesting”? She was my hero!

  • colprubin says:

    Thanks to everyone who commented on my piece. You all make such great points and I enjoyed reading your stories. The final message is to ignore those saying “you’re not good enough,” that sometimes come from inside your head and sometimes outside. You can do it.

  • Your post made me relive my days of being a journalist, the struggles I had, the harsh critiques- all of which motivated to improve on my writing.

  • Margaret says:

    Lovely piece and I also enjoyed reading the comments. I agree that we don’t need other people to reinforce the negative voices in our heads. We do that quite well all by ourselves.
    I remember my grandmother lifting my hands and declaring that I piano playing fingers. It was enough to convince me that I could play. As it turned out, I didn’t practise enough to ever play well, but I always believed it was possible.

  • 14lupita says:

    Lovely piece of writing. I loved every part of it.

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