what stays with us

Good morning! I can’t believe that tour starts in just 4 days.  I spent some time yesterday finishing up the chapbook for this year’s tour. It’s going to be entitled, “what they didn’t teach us.”

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Several recent interactions with writers have me thinking about the way I want to talk with folks at the beginning of a workshop. In the workshops, we write together for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes in response to a prompt. Then folks read aloud what they’ve written, if they want to, and the rest of the group gives them feedback about what they liked about the piece, what was strong, what stays with us.

Everyone comes to the workshop feeling inadequate, or most of us do. We feel like we want to write, but our writing isn’t very good. Many people worry about this, that everyone else is a better writer and/or can say more or better or more interesting things about people’s writing. But every piece of feedback is useful for a writer. You might feel like it’s not very helpful to tell the writer, I loved that piece. Or, I really felt moved, I feel sad and happy listening to that, I liked that line about the dog. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a piece in the workshop and felt like a particular section was meaningful to me but kind of bad writing and then folks in the workshop say something about that section in particular that struck them, and I get to see that section through different eyes.

Someone in my first workshop talked about how useful it was to have many different people’s eyes/thoughts on a piece of writing, they felt like they got a comprehensive view of their writing through other people’s points of view.

Here’s what I want to say to a new writer/workshop participant: your writing is powerful and affecting, and your feedback is thoughtful and generous. this is true for every writer I’ve had in my workshops, and every writer I’ve been with in other AWA workshops I wasn’t facilitating. It’s an amazing thing that we’re given space to do for each other, within the structure of this method. We get to generate something, a new piece of writing, that is fresh and has its heart still beating, and we put it back in our mouths and share it with this group of people, some or all of whom may be strangers, and then these people open their wings and hold this gorgeous, tender thing that we have just released into the world. I know that sounds corny, and it’s true. The writer’s bravery and desire is a strength, and we each get to give one another the gift of a hearing: This is what I heard you share.

There’s sometimes, I think, more pressure to give the right kind of feedback after someone reads their writing than there is to have the writing be ‘right.’ Feedback can hearken back to the classroom, when the teacher read 13 ways of looking at a blackbird or The Red Wheelbarrow and asked, Ok class, now what did the poet mean in that poem? And you were frozen. I remember, I was frozen; I wanted to have the right answer. It wasn’t enough to say, I liked that image of the rain-wet wheelbarrow, the color and shine of it stays with me and kind of lights me up inside, and then there’s the white chickens next to that red, and I am really there. It wasn’t enough for the boy next to me, who was always looking down my English teacher’s shirt, to say while looking down at his hands, That one section, the last one, where he said it was evening all afternoon. I don’t know what that means, but I really like it.

Those were our honest thoughts about these poems we were meeting, but the teacher didn’t want those thoughts. Those wouldn’t help us on the test she was going to hand out later that week. She wanted meaning, metaphor, line breaks, line scansion, feet & slant rhyme. We could have gotten to those things through how we talked about what we liked, I think: There’s this rhythm about those lines, I want to say them again and again, and then the teacher could have pointed out what that rhythm was, rather than demanding that we name and categorize that rhythm before we even speak our appreciation.

We want to have the right answer, of course we do. And so what I talk about in the workshop is that what we like is the right answer.

This is what I want you to know. You don’t have to know the right thing to say. There is no right answer; or, rather, your feedback about what you liked, what sticks with you after the piece is read aloud, that will be right. But don’t let it sounds like I’m dismissing this concern, this desire. Even as facilitator, I still sometimes want to have the right answer; that’s how ingrained this stuff is! I’ll wish I noticed something someone else noticed — but it doesn’t matter that I didn’t say it, didn’t comment on it, because that someone else did, which means that the person got the feedback, and I can say, me, too.

I want you to be easy with yourself when you’re listening to someone’s writing, and when you’re responding to it. There’s no pressure to be correct, to see the hidden stuff. What you like is right, it’s right on.  And I’m so grateful for what you see.

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Thank you for your words today, for  your gentleness with yourself and with the folks you’ll meet in your day. See you here tomorrow.

One response to “what stays with us

  1. This was wonderful to read just now. When I’m in my creative writing class I often want to protect some of these brand new, terrified writer’s who are wanting criticism, or not wanting it. I want to tell them to slow down and let kindness be the first thing that greets their brand new words, so tender and fragile.

    I miss you in those moments and the way that you work, the spaces you make, all the ways your remind us that it’s okay to write and see and feel just what we do. :) <3