The most stressful moment in a workshop for me is the moment immediately after the poem has been read out loud. A silence falls over the room as my classmates make notes & decide what they’re going to say. Meanwhile, I stare at my draft, trying to appear calm. Inside, I’m screaming “Oh, hell. Just spit it out! You hated the third stanza! Admit it!” If I had it my way, I would have a strong margarita on hand for this moment, but since I don’t, I try my best to breathe. Three deep breaths. And if that doesn’t work, I try to look busy by scribbling notes on my draft. The point is to chill out & prevent myself from tearing down my own work before my classmates even get a word in.
When people are focusing on your title or a semicolon that should’ve been a comma, it’s easy to want to step in yourself and tell them to move on. If you feel they’ve misread something in your poem, it’s tempting to want to let them know what you intended. That’s not the point of workshop. You won’t be able to sit next to every person who reads your book & explain the poems so use the workshop to take in the feedback, all of the feedback. If you spend the entire workshop thinking about what you’re going to say in rebuttal, you’re going to miss some valuable criticism & thoughts.
Consider this: Are you in the workshop because you want a bunch of cheerleaders or because you want to make your poems better? I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t look for encouragement, but know that the best workshops will present you with a variety of views. The idea is to have several options about where to take your poem next. Those options are limited if everyone is patting you on the back.
For each poem (or story) you present in workshop, have at least three specific things you want to work on. (I don’t know how I feel about the third stanza; Is it me or are some of my line breaks awkward?; How do I make the opening grab you?) This kind of check list is a good idea for two reasons. One: It forces you to take an objective look at the poem you would like to believe is absolutely flawless. (It’s not flawless so sit down and take another look.) Two: In case the workshop discussion gets off target or doesn’t satisfy your needs, you have some questions ready for everyone when the time comes. It’s an exercise in self-discipline & a back-up plan.
GIVE WHAT YOU GET
Assuming that everyone in your workshop is giving 100% (I see no reason why they wouldn’t) show your appreciation by giving other people’s poems the attention they deserve. Poet Mary Biddinger says she believes in literary karma & so do I. Also, let’s be real. If you’re the person who makes two useless notes on other people’s drafts, but expect everyone to break their backs to help your work – everyone hates you & eventually they will stop putting effort into their comments. It’s about appreciation.