Workshop is an intriguing dynamic: there’s not one voice of authority, and the writer has a dozen voices and feedback forms to sift through. Oftentimes the workshop leader will say, “You can’t listen to everyone,” adding some other qualifier like “Pick and choose what you need for your writing,” or “Measure the feedback of the work with your intention as a writer.” But in the end, you must know your own audience, and choose the feedback that is most valuable to you. Consequently, the process is dependent on the maturity of the writer: highly challenging to learning writers. Some of the feedback gets lost in that shuffle and negotiation by a writer who is not more self aware.
The obviously helpful feedback propels you to the next revision of your piece. It can propel you beyond the next revision, too. The most helpful feedback is timely and pertinent. Most people I know keep that feedback, it’s too valuable to throw away.
But what to do with the not-so-helpful feedback? I have friends who literally throw away the unhelpful written feedback. They feel it’s too destructive to their process, or that it’s worthless to keep. Others do not even READ the feedback from particular workshop participants. I didn’t have the heart to throw all my feedback away, plus I am a MAJOR PACKRAT. So I filed them away. Because I’m a MAJOR PACKRAT I always think, “Hey, this might come in handy someday.”
Halfway through my MFA, I discovered through experience that good feedback is mostly a matter of timing (this also applies to “real life”). I may not be ready to hear it then, because I don’t SEE the culprit in my writing…but I know I will see what they’re talking about downstream. Hell, I am usually not even offended by the unhelpful feedback–my reaction is more like, “Huh. What are they talking about? I am not sure what they mean,” and yes, often I do get defensive, “But I DID do that!” Months later, I’ll reread the feedback and feel enlightened. Ah. I had only done it partially, or was not as clear as I thought, or etc., etc. Or I have enough knowledge to understand the feedback in other ways–maybe they phrased the feedback comment wrong, and they meant it another way. This, I discovered in the particular instance when an instructor told me something about “First person present tense is not the best perspective. And you never want to start a piece on a plane.”
Pretty obvious and good advice to me now. But at the time, I was writing a piece in first person present tense, opening on a plane. It was my novel. I wasn’t ready to hear it–to hear it was to demean my entire, very young, project. I had to push further on with the work. Later, as I went to revise, I encountered lots of plot and pacing problems in the work. Ah. The first person present tense wasn’t working. And boy oh boy, the opening pages were BORING. Ah, better get them off of that plane (the plane scene has since been cut entirely).
Another example is when a workshop instructor told me a story was a total piece of shit (not really his words, but an accurate paraphrasing of his feedback). I cried for a week. He offered no advice for me on how to improve it. In hindsight, I see the story was a total failure–it was not something to salvage. His feedback on that story, though devastating, steered me to a better place.
I’ve got papers stuffed throughout my house–old workshop feedback and manuscripts EVERYWHERE, much to my neatfreak husband’s chagrin. WHEN are you going to FINISH with school, so that we don’t have papers everywhere? The other night, in a fit of restlessness, I finally sifted through the papers and organized them. I threw away extra manuscript copies, kept the one-page written feedback for each manuscript. Stuff I had written my first semester in my MFA program, three years ago, as well as the first written drafts of my novel. It was like walking down writing-memory-lane. I winced, I laughed, I held my breath, I smiled.
I was amazed at the feedback. How overwhelmingly generous some of them were, how many of them were helpful, how much I had missed in my first reading of the written feedback! Years later, my emotions set aside, I could coolly dissect my writing with an empathetic eye for the readers. Ah, THAT’s what they meant. Oooh, that stung the first time around, but I totally understand what they’re saying, and agree. There was critique on novel chapters I’ve sinced cut completely from the novel–I could see the problems and the gentle ways in which the readers implied, “Maybe you don’t need this section.” I couldn’t bear the thought then, and set the feedback aside–I remember thinking, “I can’t read this now, I have to write a lot more of this novel before I can act on this.”
Timing is key. In the end, everyone’s feedback is useful.