In early June, I attended Lit Fest, presented by Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I’ve participated in several craft workshops as part of the Lit Fest offerings in past summers, but this was the first year I decided to apply for an advanced placement course. While I’ve learned from all of my critique groups and workshops—with RMFW, Lighthouse, Alchemy Author Services and others—working with the same small group of writers for a weeklong intensive was an entirely different experience.
Instructor Steve Almond, author of several New York Times bestselling books of non-fiction and a forthcoming novel, prepared for the course by reading and critiquing all of our work, asking each of us students to do the same. As is often the case, I learned as much from editing the writing of others as I did from receiving feedback on my own pages. The intimacy of a smaller group and the dedication required to not only apply for and be accepted into an advanced workshop but also to arrive with thoughtful criticism immediately established an atmosphere of professionalism and trust.
We began each session by highlighting prose that, as Steve put it, “struck the happy gong.” By opening with positive comments, highlighting the author’s strengths, we were able to create a safe, respectful environment in which to explore areas the writer might seek to elevate in his or her piece. Several times, I caught myself before slipping into the kind of backhanded compliment that deafens a writer to both my intended praise and my criticism: “I like what you did here, but . . .” Separating my critiques from my commendations takes more discipline, more self-awareness as a reader and an editor. Often, when I combine them, my feedback grows prescriptive, and I am suddenly offering more personal opinion than clear-eyed analysis. My most recent workshop with Steve taught me to edit my own editing, with an aim at raising a writer’s work to his or her highest potential, rather than attempting to color it with my own bias or style.
Another valuable lesson I took away from my week with Steve and the other gifted writers in that group is the importance of informational equity in writing. I had submitted the tense, fast-paced opening of my latest work-in-progress, and quickly learned that by jumping into scene I had alienated and confused a majority of my readers. This same point came up in another craft workshop I attended that week, taught by Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers. She began her course by explaining how interiority—the inner musings of our characters—is what sets literature apart from other storytelling mediums, like film. A theater and journalism student by education, with a career in directing and playwrighting, I am guilty of undervaluing the power of interiority as a writing tool. I am more comfortable writing dialogue, or the kind of exposition that sets the exterior scene. But as both Steve and Rebecca pointed out, “Show, don’t tell,” doesn’t mean the narrative voice should never tell the reader what the point-of-view character is thinking or feeling. If the character knows something that is vital to the reader’s understanding of the story, the writer must share that information by whatever means necessary or risk losing the reader entirely. In my own attempts to manufacture mystery and thrills, I had missed the real function of secrets and plot twists in storytelling: not to disorient the reader, but to make the reader wonder how the characters will thrive or perish in the midst of all the drama.
I invite you to experiment with “telling” a bit more in your own writing, if only in the early drafts. You can always go back and rework the moments, weaving in more “showing” physicality (though several instructors warned against the tired old language of racing hearts, ragged breathing and trembling hands). By digging deeper into a character’s consciousness, you may discover memories and motivations you didn’t even know were there. This will only create a more nuanced and poignant experience for your readers. My new mantra asserts: If we don’t know what the character knows, how can we be expected to feel what she feels? After all, great writing in any genre, the stories that become classics, make us think and feel.
I will be forever grateful for the generosity and wisdom I received from that group of writers. Only by trusting each other and devoting sincere effort to our critiques were we able to accept and integrate meaningful feedback into our stories. I encourage you to try a similar approach to workshopping, the next time the opportunity arises.