The Agony of Defeatism

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Part of leading a discussion in a creative writing workshop involves encouraging students to give rigorous feedback and criticism to their classmates, while also fostering an atmosphere of respect and friendship.  Hank Devereaux Jr.—the narrator of Richard Russo’s academic satire Straight Man—observed that, in the creative writing classroom, “tough, rigorous criticism is predicated on good, not ill, will.” As teachers, it’s part of our job to create an environment where student writers feel comfortable receiving—and giving—detailed feedback and constructive criticism.  The workshop, after all, isn’t going to work if the only thing the student author hears is “great job” or “I really liked the words you used to convey your ideas.”

Creating an environment of friendly and well-intentioned critique is difficult in any creative writing classroom, but it’s particularly difficult in a creative nonfiction classroom.  As writers, we’re frequently defensive when it comes to our work, but as creative nonfiction writers, we sometimes wind up feeling defensive about our experiences and ideas as well.  Once, as a student in a workshop, I had to listen as a classmate explained that she didn’t like the piece I had written because the “narrator” was so whiney and self-absorbed.  And while I like to think that I have thick skin … come on.  That hurt.

I try to be particularly conscious of the student author’s feelings and protectiveness of her work even as I ask my students to talk specifically about what isn’t working in a piece.  Still, even with my attempts at sensitivity, some students are stressed out and even hurt by the entire workshop experience.  Who can blame them? They’ve just revealed themselves—exposed their realest, innermost selves—without the safety net of a fictional narrator or poetic speaker, and now they’re getting criticized for their efforts.  That can be disheartening, even infuriating.

A couple weeks ago, my book—this manuscript I’ve been working on, in various forms, for over five years now—was rejected by a publisher.  Again.  As most working writers know, rejection is just part of the process.  You read the nicely-phrased note, sigh to yourself, then get back on your laptop and find the next contest or university press to send the thing to.  You nod to yourself, silently wish the editors who rejected you good luck with their future endeavors, and then get back to work.

At least, that’s how I think it’s supposed to happen.  The truth is, that’s not how it works for me.  Instead, I give out this little gasp.  Then I pace around the room a little bit.  Then I announce—either to my wife or, if she’s not home, one of the cats—“I don’t know why I continue to operate under the delusion that I’m a writer.”  My wife, for her part, knows to let me say this out loud, to get it out of my system.  And the cats seem to know the same thing—they seldom interrupt my pity parties.

Keep in mind, I’m a fairly successful writer (“For the type of loser who doesn’t even have a book,” Mopey Me adds with a frown).  I’ve published over two dozen essays, reviews, and interviews in some of the best magazines and journals in my field.  I say this not to brag, but to point out that I have no reason to feel like a loser when something I write—from the shortest essay to the book manuscript itself—is not accepted for publication.  But I do.

Inevitably, I get over it.  I take a couple of days, but then return to the manuscript in order to decide, “Was it them, or is it me?”  Sometimes, I make changes.  Sometimes—like this most recent time—I conclude, “You know, I think this is ready as it is.”  And I send the thing back out again.  Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.  The point is, I essay.

But the larger point is that I understand personally the frustration and disappointment when a piece of writing is received less enthusiastically than its author might like.  My students’ sadness (or anger) at a workshop discussion may not be exactly the same as my own response to a rejection, but it’s darn close, I think.  That’s important to keep in mind—too often I get frustrated by my students’ frustration.  “I’m trying to help you!” I think to myself.  But it’s useful to remember that they’ve poured as much as themselves into their assignments as I have into my book.

Lately, I’ve taken to telling my students what I’m working on, and when the work gets rejected—or accepted.  I want them to understand that the occasional disappointment is inevitably part of this process, but that if they persevere, they might know the joy that comes with realizing they have succeeded in reaching—and moving—their audience.

Any other tips on how to deal with student frustrations in the writing workshop?  For that matter, any advice for me on how to deal with my own bouts of self-loathing that inevitably accompany rejection?

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 8/28/12]]

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.