In my previous post, I explained why I have come to value writing workshops for their ability to make imagined audiences real. I’d like to elaborate on this idea because it relates to how I conceive of accountability as a writer. It has taken me years to own any, because I didn’t see it as the accompaniment to getting your word out. Hearing is the other side of being heard. I can see in hindsight, I even protected myself with selective listening, imagining the conversation to which I would contribute happening somewhere in the future.
I did not read or submit often to literary journals early on. I had my reasons, and may have succeeded in developing a distinctive voice, but you may be sure pride was involved in not opening myself up to comparison or rejection. I assumed rejection, which satisfied that biography-addled part of me that thought a lack of recognition was a necessary aspect of great art. To write for the sake of writing, for myself, even if it never left my desktop, signified my willingness to earn literature. It meant my passion was real. Or manipulated by the wiles of ego.
Periodically, I doubted my logic, knowing that writing is communication. But it wasn’t until I secured a tenure-track job that I began to submit with any fervor. Naturally, I learned actual rejection and that it was not measure enough of quality. But it was occasionally a measure of something, and it gave me pause. The audience was, or might be, Joan Houlihan, Tom Daley, Steve Langan, Ellen Doré Watson, rather than some fantasy future reader. When I became a magazine editor myself. I admitted I had been putting an onus on the reader to rise to an occasion I had to create.
Wanting to hear more of what they had to say, I took a poetry manuscript to my first post-graduate workshop at the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conferences at the Roundhouse in Colrain, Massachusetts. I have no star story (yet) of my book being discovered serendipitously by an editor, plucked from obscurity and sent to an auction between Grove/Atlantic and Harper Collins. It has been a process of gaining insight, transforming and growing, understanding my process and goals, shaping my work into something that addresses a number of particulars—someone’s, with justifiable needs.
Participation in writing circles can bring encouragement, support, or direction, but it is also brings confrontation. One faces the audience not of hopes and dreams but of gristle and knobs. The buttons get pushed, the didactic waxing dull. Some poetic licenses are revoked. With a generous workshop leader or courageous bullshit-caller, indulgent emotional masking is revealed for the gauzy veil it is.
One needs to be willing to call oneself out and be called out by the same relationships that shape character. Ram Daas says to his followers: “You think you’re so enlightened, go spend two weeks with your parents.” You think you’re a great writer: go to a writing workshop. Risk learning what needs to be added to the conversation that is going on now.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.