The Curse of the Workshop: Fighting the Inner Critic
If I count my first undergraduate creative writing workshops and go all the way to the present, where I run a monthly workshop group with friends, I’ve been poking and prodding at peers’ poetry for nearly 30 years. Some of that has been as an equal participant, and others as a teacher guiding newer poets in this or that direction. All that time sitting around a table trying to offer constructive observations has to do something to a person.
In fact, I know exactly what it’s done. It’s made it increasingly hard to read poetry, any poetry, without trying to fix it. I’m not sure, but I believe often that’s a problem, and it’s probably negatively affected my appreciation of poetry. I call it the curse of the workshop. I’ve heard another writer refer to this problem as something like the curse of knowing too much, and I have experience with this in my other line of work.
For the past 18 years my day job has been to write about electronics, and much of that writing is in the form of product reviews. Reviewing televisions had been a specialty of mine for several years, and I’d nitpick over details of the TV’s performance. I spent hours analyzing video test patterns, tweaking settings, looking for errant pixels. Once a fellow TV reviewer confided that he was no longer able to watch TV without watching what the TV was doing. This TV crushes whites. This TV’s processor adds too much edge enhancement. This TV blurs lateral motion.
Audiophiles, and I know many of those eccentrics, who train themselves to appreciate the fine details produced by high-end speakers and $10,000 turntables, can’t enjoy a song on a car radio because they can’t separate the act of passively enjoying something from actively analyzing it.
I fear the same problem can creep into poetry readers who have spent years practicing their workshop strategies. In a workshop, the goal, generally, is to help other people turn their poems into the best poems they can—sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a built-in attitude that once a fresh poem has been passed around the table, it’s the participant’s job to try to fix it. We immediately launch into judgement mode, picking out distracting lines, unclear images, limp stanza breaks.
Of course, that’s what we’re supposed to do—it’s what all the people sitting around the table are there for, but it can also be counter-productive to enjoying the poem. In a workshop with friends recently, we were discussing a poem, and everyone, including myself, zero’d in on a couple of passages that stood out from the rest—the diction seemed a little incongruous to the subject, and so we did what seasoned workshoppers do, we started changing it. What we didn’t do was stop to appreciate what the writer was doing. After a few readings I allowed myself to release my grip on the workshop model, and instead read the poem for the poem.
And there’s the problem with workshop mode, with audiophile mode, with the curse of the expert mode—we read the poem through our current lens, bordered by our own definitions and rules, rather than read the poem on its own merits for the pleasure it produces.
A few weeks ago I was watching the Westminster Dog Show (or something similar—I really don’t remember) as each dog was pranced around the course. Judges, poked, stretched and measured the animals, comparing them to their memorized list of perfect attributes for that breed. These were beautiful dogs, well-groomed, well-trained, pampered, worth thousands of dollars, and yet never did anyone just reach out and hug the dogs. I wanted someone to love the droopy ears, the frantic wag, the smell of having just rolled in the yard. But the judges, the owners, the audience had drilled that appreciation out of themselves by knowing too much.
As a reader of poetry, I try to let myself become the dog lover, not the contest judge. I want to be the person driving around with the sunroof open and the radio blasting, not the audio critic taking notes. It’s this way that we get past the work and back into the poetry and remember what brought us to this wonder in the first place.