Last month I had the good fortune — and the great fun! — of hosting my fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe with her sage writing advice about working in the NOW. Today, another VCFA classmate, Tziporah Cohen, agreed to share the wisdom she picked up with her MFA over the last two years.
Darling Assassins is the name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class of January 2015. Recently I asked them: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Vermont? These posts are their answers, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
And here is our Tzippy!
WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT WRITING ANYWAY? ONE WRITER’S QUEST FOR CRITIQUING CONFIDENCE
by Tziporah Cohen
One of the ironies of writing is that the better you get at it, the worse you think your writing is. In the beginning, there is a lovely sense that everything you put down on a page is, well, lovely. Only later comes the unpleasant realization that your work only seems good because you don’t yet have the skills to assess it. And how are you supposed to build those self-assessing skills? You can put the answer at the top of my list of lessons learned at VCFA.
In my other life, the non-writer one, I’m a psychiatrist and a mother of three. I feel pretty competent in both those arenas. And heck, while I’m patting myself on the back, the last couple of years have seen me managing a psychiatry practice, family, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the same time. No easy feat, believe me.
But put me into a workshop, also known as a critique circle, and watch my feelings of competence disappear like a hot dog bun thrown into a flock of pigeons. Workshops are a critical component of the program where I completed my MFA degree. Six to twelve students and one to two faculty meet for twelve hours over several days. Students range from those beginning their first semester to those just about to graduate. Their works in progress are a smorgasbord: picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, fiction and non-fiction, verse and prose.
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not the being critiqued that has my palms sweaty remembering those early workshops. I’m lucky in that I generally don’t experience much anxiety when my work is reviewed. Perhaps it comes from being an older student, coming at this writing thing from the safety of an established non-writing career, or from having seen enough of life to know that a disappointing critique is just that, not a tragic event. Or perhaps it comes from knowing that the work will be better in the end with the input of others.
But critiquing someone else’s work? That makes me very uncomfortable. What if I send someone down the wrong path? What do I, unpublished newbie, know about writing, anyway?
I spent a lot of time listening in that first workshop, as others debated the writers’ choices of point of view and tense, discussed word choice and voice, and analyzed story arc and desire line, all about of which I knew practically nothing. It’s not an option to say nothing during twelve hours of workshop, though. So I started out, tentative, introducing each of my comments with an “I don’t know, but…” or “It could just be me, but…”
Before my MFA, I either liked a book I read or I didn’t. I didn’t know why. Sixty hours of workshop over two years taught me the why behind that snap judgment. And the real lesson? Workshop taught me that learning to identify the jewels and flaws in someone else’s work is important not just because of how it helps them, but because it is how we learn to identify the jewels and flaws in our own work.
When we leave the security of our writing programs and classes we travel from the safe sanctuary of the workshop circle to the much more challenging wilderness of self-assessment. Yes, we have critique partners, but they don’t want to see every page of every early draft. (They do have their own writing to do.) We need to have confidence in our own ability to see what works and what doesn’t on our own pages. And in submitting our own work to the critical eye we have honed critiquing others, we improve our own writing skills.
I still face every manuscript I critique with some dread, and preface my thoughts with a too-long apologetic paragraph about how unqualified I feel to comment in the first place. But I remind myself that I have as much to offer my writing friends as they have to offer me. And that the process will turn everyone involved into a better writer.
Thank you, Tzippy! I totally know the feeling!
Tziporah Cohen graduated in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a psychiatrist who works in the fields of oncology and palliative care. Hailing from New York and Boston, she currently resides in Toronto with her husband and three children.