Sunday, October 18, 2009

Do the Write Thing

Yes that is a play on words and not a mistake, in case you are wondering.


A few days ago I went rummaging through my hardcopies of assignments from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop searching for a piece I'd deleted from my Word files. Each day that week, we read our assignments aloud for feedback from the group. Then we'd turn our work in to the workshop leader Chris Tighlman and Fellow Tony D'Souza , and they'd return them the next day with written comments.

The interesting thing is, while our group were hardly snipers, I clearly remember just about every negative comment from that week. Yet, going back through my assignments I realized I did not remember, nor had I bothered to take a second look at, the largely positive written comments I'd received from Chris and Tony.

Focusing on the negative is a personality trait shared––while I won't flatter myself by saying most "good writers"–-at least by all those who aspire to good writing. In this instance I assumed they were making nice with a pretty mediocre talent out of necessity––no one wants to pay a couple thousand dollars to feel like a failure––by forcing themselves to find something positive in even the worst pieces. But re-reading those comments after more than a year, I realized what a mistake I had made. I clearly remembered comments about needing to bring more depth to my writing. I had forgotten, and at the time barely registered, two separate comments on one assignment. "Your details are always so rich" and "lovely details."

The piece was about a young girl who lies to her Mom about staying over at a friend's house, then changes from her school uniform into clubbing clothes in the train station bathroom. The details describe, among other things, the stained sinks, trying not to touch her panty hose to the slimy floor, and the gym bag stench that clung to her mini-skirt. While I cringed at the superficiality of the piece, I  also realized that ignoring positive comments can be as bad as ignoring negative ones. Because in fixing one thing you don't want to break another.

While I don't mean this post as an ad for CROSSxCHECKING, it is odd I should fall prey to this when the whole point behind my critiquing service is emphasizing writing strengths as well as weaknesses. I truly believe that building on strengths is as fundamental to good writing as fixing what we do wrong. At the same time I think about publications I worked for in the early days of online publishing, when the quality of submissions often wasn't as good, and we were required to comment on rejections. Often I struggled to find anything positive, and I suppose I now assume any compliment on my writing is given in the same vein.

Yet, when I consider it, even when I had to dig, the positive element I came up with was truly positive. It wasn't a lie. Even if the best I could point to was accurate grammar and spelling, heaven knows I've rejected many otherwise good submissions because the writer ignored both.

Since coming across that assignment I've made a point to go back through my portfolio and make sure all my work includes the "lovely details" Chris alluded to, and from now on I'm making it a point to pay more attention to positive comments. I hope you will as well.

1 comment:

Kimberly Davis said...

In my own workshops, I always try to emphasize the positive--because if a writer knows what's working in a piece, he or she can always "do more of that." If a workshop is entirely critical, it's hard for a writer to know what to do. So, great post. And the Kenyon Review workshop sounds fabulous.

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