One of the great joys of my life now that I’m back in Long Beach is my real-life contact with my writer friends. These are my true peeps – they have sweated and suffered through bad poems with me, we’ve congratulated each other and hidden secret envy over good poems, but we’ve managed to stick together for eleven years now. (I had to do some mental recalculating. Eleven years?!? Really? How did this happen?)
My core ladies, the spitfire Ms. J and mother-lion Ms. K, and our various friends who have joined our workshops when they could, have sustained me as a writer whenever I have questioned why I bother or why any of us bothers. I’m just so proud and thankful to have them in my life, as fellow writers and sister-friends.
Which is why I’m so happy (or at least CityBoy will tell you, so happy for me, by my standards of constant pessimism and that-shit’s-fucked-up-ism) that we’re workshopping on a real, regular basis.
Maybe we’re not always all bringing our A game. Sometimes crap is what we’re bringing, real C-level crap, but we’re writing and thinking about writing and talking about writing. By which I mean, we’re telling stories and helping each other find ways to tell them better.
Here’s our formula for workshop success:
1. Schedule, schedule, schedule. Before we end each workshop, we agree on when we’re getting together next. And then we all pull out our various smartphones, paper calendars, and backs of hands and write down the time. We’ve been meeting about once a month now since last summer, and it is seriously one of the number one things I look forward to. Seriously.
2. Rotate hosting duties. No one person should have the burden of hosting (and cleaning her apartment and shopping for food and setting up the buffet table) every time. We rotate every month, so a new hostess gets a chance to show off her party planning skills and we get to secretly go through each other’s medicine cabinets (kidding…sort of).
3. Have snacks. I’m not kidding about this. I’m Filipino and my mother raised me to have snacks to offer my guests. Always. Trust me, you don’t want hungry writers coming away from your house to write mean diatribes about you and bad mouth you to friends and random passersby. Not that I know anyone who’s ever done anything like that.
4. Get down to business. I know, we’re all excited to see one another and enjoy snacks and drinks and talk about who’s doing what these days, so we usually spend the first hour or two socializing. But then you gotta get the coffee pot going and get down to bidness.
5. Be present, honest and thoughtful. By this I mean a couple of things: no cellphone checking, no watering down your critique or giving your friend a pass because she’s having a tough day, but also no mean-spiritedness or poem- (or author-) bashing. If you don’t like something or it’s confusing or unclear to you or just plain boring, say so but ground your words in thoughtful critique. Why don’t you like it? Where is it confusing or unclear? Why do you think it’s boring? Eventually each of us ends up on the proverbial chopping block and no one likes a hater.
Okay, I really wanted to have just 5 steps to workshop success, but I feel the need for one final piece of advice: (6.) Take your critique like a man. (I know, my inner feminist is cringing at this phrase but whatever, it’s a time-honored, if sexist, saying. I’m sticking by it.) Listen with open ears to what everyone has to say and then figure out what is going to help you and block out the rest. I think this strikes at the heart of the criticism I hear about workshopped poems, that they’re softened by all those opinions, watered down by consensus. You’re still the writer. You’re the one who dreamed up this crazy shite. Stick to your guns, if they’re good, powerful, helicopter-downing guns (you know what I’m talking about, Bruce Willie fans).
We just finished January’s workshop, so until next month, I’m revising and sending out poems and sitting my ass in the chair.