Write of Passage no. 3: This column has been workshopped

Shanon Sinn. Photo by Sarah Packwood.
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I write both fiction and nonfiction. One of my current projects is a memoir about my tour in Afghanistan and return to Canada with cancer. I made it home okay, but the side effects of chemo while dealing with trauma almost killed me. The inspiration isn’t there with this project like it is with my other writing, and the material is difficult, but it’s something I feel I have to write.

I’ve learned a lot about this memoir by submitting my most vulnerable material to classes for workshopping. I’ve shared what motivated me to serve overseas, women accused of adultery being stoned to death in soccer arenas, or young girls having acid thrown in their faces for learning to read. I’ve submitted writing explaining what our tasks really were over there—actions considered “community policing” anywhere else in the world. I’ve expressed how hard it was to lose a friend, what it’s like to see death or to encounter evil most Canadians can’t even imagine, and how nice the locals were to us.

“I thought all soldiers were psychos,” one student said to me. I’ve had hate speech scrawled across my submissions. Others have stated publicly that I’m incorrect, as they had read this or that online. I had one piece—which I now know to be experimental non-fiction—raved about by those who’ve experienced mental illness and criticized as being too manic by those who haven’t. “It needs more scenes,” they said.

Nothing is as hard as workshopping. You will receive criticism and it will be difficult to discern between what is good advice and what is bad. But it’s all valuable.

If you can’t receive constructive feedback (especially when it’s the same advice over and over again) you will fail. If you can’t discern when you have something unique and worth protecting, you risk losing some of your best work. Read as many articles, books, and stories as you can, and you’ll learn to tell the difference.

The students who will be most helpful are the ones who are familiar with the genre or subject you are writing. You’ll figure out who they are over time. Those who are least helpful are the ones who can’t see what you’re trying to accomplish. For me, they’re usually readers of more “serious” literature or work that’s dialogue heavy. I’ll take Fredrick Forsyth over Jane Austin any day—or creative non-fiction over something that reads like an essay. If someone doesn’t read action or horror, they might not know why sentences are intentionally long to create tension or short to indicate an abrupt shift in tempo, like a spinning kick or a slamming door.  Their feedback might be frustrating, but it’ll remind you that you’re equally disadvantaged reading other people’s styles, too.

Some writers try to impress the room with their Hemingway-esque persona. They sometimes fool professors and students, but they’ll receive weak feedback because they act like they know everything already. Don’t be that person. Others are trying their best, and it takes different amounts of time for people to find and develop their skills, so remember to be diplomatic and kind.

The students and professors in your classes are your future support system, your employment network, and the best opportunity you’ll ever have to dissect your stories. There aren’t many opportunities like this for writers, even in other universities, so make sure to submit your best work. Carefully examining other people’s writing will also make you a stronger writer.

This month, I want you to go to <writingsohard.com.>. Scroll past the 13 beautiful faces to the bottom, where you’ll find the article “Intro and Rationale” by Sachiko Murakami. After you read this, go back to the main page, choose a few people, and read about their struggles. I’ve never seen such a perfect sample of writers representing all ages and backgrounds. All five branches of VIU’s Creative Writing program are represented here, too. Murakami hasn’t posted a new story in a while, but this is still one of my favourite blogs. In the world of writing, these are your veterans. Some are bitter, and some are inspired. But all of them have wisdom.

Until next time.