I just got back from a weeklong writing workshop in Squaw Valley. There I converged with roughly 150 other writers to read, learn, share, and critique.
So I decided to start at the beginning, on our first day of workshopping, where my group of non-fiction writers sat looking expectantly at memoirist and short story master Robin Romm.
Guess what she had us do first? Set boundaries.
Now, this being a group of creative types, she didn’t say, “here are the ground rules.” Instead she asked us to go around and say what makes a good workshop and what makes a bad one (in case you aren’t familiar with creative writing workshops, they are when a group of writers gets together for a set amount of time to critique a manuscript-in-progress with the aim of helping the author improve it. Or, for a funnier definition, click here.)
We had no shortage of answers:
- Don’t make suggestions for revision that serve simply to erase the writer’s voice and insert yours.
- Allow people to complete their thoughts.
- Be kind.
- Don’t dominate the conversation.
- Do acknowledge what you resonated with you and why.
- Don’t judge the work (it’s not necessarily helpful for a writer to hear if you liked it or not. But it is helpful to hear what parts of the story were deeply engaging.)
- Don’t simply say you don’t like something. Go further and examine what you didn’t like and offer revise suggestions.
- Don’t hijack the conversation to talk about your work.
There were more, but rather than list them, I want to write about what I LOVED about this process.
Put simply, Robin empowered our group to say up front—before we even had names to go with faces—what we hoped for, how we would treat one another, and why that was important. The result was that for the rest of the week, my beloved group (Group #9, in case you’re wondering) kicked some serious non-fiction ass.
Most of us were working on memoirs, which are inherently personal. Memoir drafts also have a tendency to follow false starts or loose threads, and constructive feedback can help the writer find her way back on track and strengthen a piece.
Everyone in Group 9 sought feedback to deepen our stories. We wanted to know what worked, yes, but we also wanted to know how to take our work from good to great. And because everyone in the group had bought into our informal rules of conduct at the beginning, all of the criticism was delivered with sincere respect.
No one tried to make another writer feel bad about herself or her work.
Apparently, this not always the norm in workshops.
When I returned home I marveled on the synergy of our group.
And then it occurred to me: setting boundaries was the best place to start because it put the onus on all of us to be our best all week.
I want to bring more of that into my daily life. Exactly how, I’m not sure. But I walked away with the thought that if I and the people I interact with on a daily basis (which would be Jeff, the boys, and my friends and clients) had these kindly-set ground rules in place, there would be an innate trust that could deepen our interactions.
Yes, I realize I sound like I’ve been spending a week in California with a lot of hippies.
But think about it: without being aggressive or confrontational, setting ground rules (i.e.: this is what I think makes a great playdate; or: when I sign a new client, this is how I usually work—does that work for you?; or: What are the things that make a household run smoothly and makes the adults fulfilled and how can we provide that for each other?) is ALL ABOUT GOOD COMMUNICATION.
And with good communication comes peace and understanding.
And time to write.
And the freedom to be and let be.
(Damn, should I move to California?)