Sorry for the long hiatus. I have excuses, but that’s all they are, and after a while all excuses sound the same.
At the beginning of the month, I spent the better part of a week at Viable Paradise, a one-week writers’ workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d originally attended in 2004, at VP 8, and this time I was back for my second year as staff. It’s a fun, if intense, experience, and it’s always strange to see the workshop from the other side. One of the best parts of being staff is meeting all these new writers, some just starting out, some with a few stories under their belt, all trying for the same goal: to write something really good.
Of course, because it’s a workshop, all of these fresh-faced shiny new writers are there to meet the same fate: a crushing, soul-wrenching critique not unlike the mighty stompy foot of a stompy guy.
Okay, so that’s a bit of an overstatement; crits vary, and reactions vary with them. But one thing I remember well, not just from my time at VP8 but from discussions with other alumni (and Clarion alumni as well) is the feeling of paralysis after a workshop. It doesn’t happen to everyone. Nor should it; since all writers are different, there’s a wide range of reaction to an intensive workshop. But there’s a certain range of responses that many people have, and for me it was one of the hardest parts of a workshop — and it didn’t even take place until I was off the island and away.
When I emerged from Viable Paradise, I had a brain that was fizzing like Diet Coke with Mentos dropped in. (Slightly less messy, but you get the idea.) Lots of new ideas, new skills, new resources for work and revision and chasing down that elusive great idea. And that wasn’t even touching the work I’d had critiqued! (For the reaction to that, see here.) I had a whole new toolbox with which to assemble a story!
And I sat down to write and…nope. All of a sudden, every time I started to write something out, I could see not only the stylistic flaws — which I had trained myself to overlook, knowing that I’d fix them next time through — but the plot issues, the pacing problems, the characters who swung wildly between flat and cliche. Hell, I’d spent so much time concerned with how a story should begin that I couldn’t for the life of me begin one — every beginning seemed too slow, or too didactic, or not nearly the right place to start! I’d spent so much time learning that for my process, the most important thing was getting that first draft down, and now I couldn’t even start that first draft.
I had a bad case of Workshop Paralysis. And I suspect I’m not the only one to have gone through it. There’s even a learning model that explains some of it: moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence (with conscious competence just barely and perpetually out of reach). Now that I knew all the errors I was prone to, I could not for the life of me unsee them. Every story I started had them, and had them to a crippling degree.
There are many ways of getting through this. Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting the data settle in one’s head. Sometimes there are other factors in your life affecting your creativity. Sometimes you need to work around the problems — write something silly, or useless, or just to remind yourself what you can do. I’ve got a notebook full of vignettes that will never go anywhere, but are the result of “lunch break and either I write something stupid or I combust…or I check the internet again, but what’s the point?” moments.
For me, some of the solution was time. Some of it was remembering my strengths and how I wanted to use them — plot, and the intricacies of it, and thus the need to be more rigorous in how I revealed a story. And some of it was sheer mind-trickery. I still have trouble beginning a story, and so if I’m just trying to get that first draft on paper, often I’ll either write a few lines for the beginning and then jump ahead, or I’ll just not write the beginning until I’m well into the rest. By then I have a better idea of where the story’s going, after all.
But that sudden task of having all these new methods of critique, that moment of realizing that your work is a lot more difficult than you’d thought…that can be paralyzing, and worse still if you turn those delicate tools for critique into blunt instruments for beating yourself up.
Writers, did you have this workshop paralysis as well? How did you get over it? (Did you?)
Next time: technobabble can be your friend!