The first time I ever had a piece of my writing workshopped, I was in college. I was careful not to go first, preferring (UNDERSTATEMENT!) to see how the process unfolded before laying my own neck across the table. This preference was expressed as scrupulous analysis of and ethical participation in the way it went for others. Almost all the others. Like, 8 of them.
Simple! The process was simple. Make twelve copies of your work, to distribute at the end of class the week before your workshop. Pass a relaxed week, not-thinking about anyone reading your work and forming an opinion which they planned to express publicly, then casually saunter into the workshop room and, as the group thoughtfully and respectfully discuss your writing, take careful notes and don’t hide under the table. Because I watched several people survive this process intact, I felt no more anxious than a person who doesn’t like going to the dentist might feel on the day of getting some complicated crown work done.
I remember one workshop especially well because the student whose story we were going to be reading worked at Kinko’s, and consequently had access to all manner of technology that the rest of us, with our start-up disks and our Mac 512Ks, did not have. We were a daisy-wheel, dot-matrix, tear-off-edges crowd who didn’t think a thing about it until she appeared with these miraculously printed pages, the type so richly black and book-like, and we all crowded around like Martians from an especially undiscovered suburb of a remote Martian village, staring at and gingerly touching her papers, which had come out of (she said, nonchalantly) something called (pew pew pew) a LASER PRINTER. She could also write really well, but it didn’t matter. It could have been her grocery list.
As it happened, my own workshop did not go the way of the other students’ workshops, even the other daisy-wheelers. My fellow students never got to express their thoughtful and respectful opinions, because the instructor, who normally did a lot of nodding and gentle structuring of the flow of discussion while mostly staying out of it, delivered a monologue about the story I had submitted, a rant that seemed to last seven weeks and put me at high risk of not only sliding under the table but seeping through the floorboards. My activities while he spoke devolved quickly from note-taking to an inner monologue primarily focused on not crying until I was in the hall, but once relieved of his burdensome thoughts he had a little belch of conscience and asked me to stay a moment after class. “You know,” he said, “your story really isn’t that bad. I just have a pet peeve that you kind of triggered, and I had a bad day.” If memory serves correctly (and trauma does mess with that), the trigger in my story was in fact a grocery list.
After he explained this, of course I instantly felt ten tons better and developed, on the spot, a really healthy new relationship to feedback. It was great!
Today is publication day for Extra Helping. In lieu of twelve stapled copies passed around a table, a tidy book of laser-printed (I’m totally guessing on this last point) pages, handsomely enhanced by Anna Brones’ beautiful papercuts, is winging its way out into the world.
You could argue, sensibly, that writing a book is a protracted exercise in workshopping both the writing and the muscles associated with receiving commentary and criticism. You would not be wrong. First readers and agents and editors and copy-editors and first readers who generously become second and third readers—a lot of people have read the thing by the time it becomes a book. I had such good support and guidance and cooperation making this book come to life. The utter inverse of moping around a dorm room alone, deciding to include a grocery list (wth? Rookie.) in my story.
One of the best parts of the process has been hearing from so many people about the kinds of care they like to receive and give. The stories are so personal and they fill me with very tender and dear feelings, the very stuff that connection and recovery, on every scale, are made of.
I could have worked on the book forever, tweaking and adjusting. But I’m so amazed by the million little graces that had to align to bring it forth that (for now, at least) I’m just quite content to know it has come to be.
Rather than give in to the urge to hide under the table, I am standing by with presents. Until the end of the year, comments here and on Instagram will enter you to win copies of the book, and copies of the books of many people I love and adore, whose helping hands are all over this.
There is a tab up above for the book, and If you are the sort who is interested in not being under a table, there is a list of all the events that will be happening in various places where you can get a snack and a snazzy pen, and another with information about where to buy the book if you don’t feel like waiting for the outcome of the lottery, and YET ANOTHER TAB (such a bounty of tabs) with resources that encourage the kind of connection the book is all about.
I look forward to hearing from you! I really do.