In November of 2011, armed with a notebook and stress-induced diarrhea, I entered my inaugural writing workshop at the local Writers’ Center: Introduction to the Personal Essay. It had been 27 years since I last sat with others in a room and discussed writing, and back then it had been for required freshman-year credits.
“Definitely sign up for a writing workshop,” my girlfriend had said when I brought up the idea. “It’s the perfect way to find out if it’s something you want to pursue.” Her words came from a place of support, and because her support was unconditional, I both relished and questioned it. Aside from some masterful emails and an open-letter-to-my-daughter diary I kept the year she was born, my writing life had been confined to my head. I thought about it, the desire was there along with some ideas, but where to start? I started by writing.
But unlike the diary I’d kept to one day give to my adult daughter, I wanted to produce something for others to read, strangers, and I knew that writing in a vacuum would get me nowhere. I needed to find out if I had something to say and a voice to say it in. I needed to engage with the writing process of others and learn from them. I needed feedback and help. What I also needed, sitting in the personal essay workshop with a dozen fellow essayists and receiving my first batch of drafts to review, was to feel like I belonged. I needed to see insecurity and self-doubt, a struggle to express and, hopefully, some bad writing. “If they’re pursuing writing then I can,” I needed to think. Encouragement, however backhanded.
What I also needed … was to feel like I belonged.
>From what I recall, the workshop participants included a journalist, a grad student, a writing graduate, a science writer, an editor and an assortment of hobbyists. A diverse group in background and age. But like the outward diversity inherent at 12-step meetings, our differences were superficial. I told myself that what we shared mattered most: we were all writers who looked to grow. We were bonded by our embrace of vulnerability in the prose version of I’ll-show you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours.
The first class consisted of a meet-and-greet, a discussion of the personal essay genre and an outline of how our group critiques would be structured. “First,” the leader said, commanding the head of the conference room table, “we go over what we think is working in the essay.” I envisioned a moment of long, awkward silence at the start of my essay’s eventual review. “Once that’s finished,” she continued, “we discuss what we feel isn’t quite working, areas where we have suggestions or questions for the author.” She sounded reassuring. She further explained that the author was to remain quiet during this process but would have the opportunity to address the feedback at the end. I gathered the printouts from the brave few who volunteered to be reviewed first and headed home to immerse myself, curious to read them and anxious to judge where I fit in.
From that first submission I read a lyrical road-trip essay and a colorful remembrance of a water gun battle from a woman’s childhood. I digested an eight-page, half-inch margined, single-spaced breakdown on the wrongs perpetrated by an ex-girlfriend. I flowed through a beautifully written yet confusing dreamlike story that included canned vegetables. I also read, again and again, a touching and tightly written essay about a scrabble game played between a mother and her coming-of-age son. I underlined phrases and sentences on these drafts. I filled the margins with notes and back pages with summary comments. I read each essay with the desire and obligation to give them their money’s worth, to critique the drafts as best I could while beating down the urge to fawn praise or censor what I wrote in hopes of softening the critiques I would receive. I wasn’t going to kiss ass. These people were paying for my honest feedback and, when my turn came to submit, I wanted the same.
A few weeks later, during the class review of my first essay, I scribbled notes. Reading them later, however, I found that a shakily written “verbs” and other incomplete scrawling prompted little about the discussion. My mind had been a mess. I do remember hearing some encouraging remarks, yet the process felt like standing naked on a table and having my ass scrutinized by a group of personal trainers. “Stay quiet,” I do remember thinking. “Don’t explain. Don’t make excuses.”
What did register—what I most wanted—were the participants’ comments on the marked-up printouts. I read and reread them all, starting at the traffic lights on the way home. One woman had covered a comment with white out and written over it, and I held the page to my living room window, trying to see what she’d originally put down. Some of the reviewed copies had only a few underlined words or phrases, along with a sentence or two, if at all, on the last page. “Slackers,” I thought, and I flirted with limiting my comments on their submissions in retaliation. Of course I didn’t. That would have cheated me as well. For what proved nearly as valuable as the feedback I received on my writing was the process of critiquing other people’s in-progress essays. This was an unexpected bonus.
From that first writers’ workshop, I got what I needed and more. It’s why I registered for another workshop yesterday and volunteered, albeit hesitantly, to submit the first week. Will I still load up on Imodium? Do I still feel vulnerable and insecure and anxious to judge myself within the group? You bet. I’m sure I always will. But my introduction to the world of writing workshops confirmed that, in these ways and others, I’m not entirely alone. I belong.