How Writing Workshops can be Harmful
This week I had an intake call with a new class participant. It was the kind of call I know too well.
She sounded nervous, like her voice was stepping out over a diving board. Wavering. Our conversation circled around for a bit while we got to know each other. And then she said it:
“I’m really worried that my writing is shit.”
And we both exhaled. There it was, the central fear, the heavy truth.
Probing a bit deeper, she told me that she used to love writing, but then, while reading a short story out loud to a class, someone snickered. Right in that moment, the message entered — not good. Not serious. Don’t bother. And here she was, two decades later, out on a diving board she should never have had to walk.
You have no idea how often I hear this.
Luckily (and unluckily) I know that diving board well. I’ve been shut down, shamed, silenced in my voice. Just writing that right now I feel the waiver rising up in my throat. I think we’ve all experienced this to different degrees depending on our personal histories and levels of cultural privilege. It’s a pain that connects us, if we let it.
I’ve built everything at Firefly around my understanding of that pain. A central piece is how we lead groups in giving one another feedback.
This is one of the most important and most misunderstood parts of Firefly.
Sharing work is terrifying. And it should be — it’s dangerous. That snicker is one of thousands of shaming, silencing moment I’ve heard about and billions more I haven’t.
BUT, sharing work can be thrilling, joyful, confidence-boosting and cathartic. It can be one of the best feelings I know. So what’s the difference, and how to we make sure we’re doing it right?
If you haven’t experienced it yet, in Firefly workshops when you read brand new unedited work, we’ll just talk about what we loved. When you finish reading, your facilitator will take a breath, smile, turn to the rest of the group and say — what was your favourite part? What is this writer doing beautifully? Where is the power in this piece for you?
Then we all pile it on — God, that description of that temple was stunning, I felt myself breathing more deeply just listening. The way you described the air at JFK was perfect — that’s exactly what airport air is like! That detail about the texture of his knuckles melted me. When you wrote about your Aunt’s busted station wagon, I felt so sad for her, but you also made it sooo funny. You have a way with rhythm, you have a way with first lines, you’re so much more poetic than you think.
Naturally, people are often skeptical at first. How can I grow if I don’t know where the shit is? What about the “constructive” stuff? Tell me what the rules are!
I understand those questions as a direct outcropping of vulnerability. When we’re wriggling and exposed and insecure, of course we want to reach for rules and boundaries. They give structure to our chaos. A teacher who says, “You have got to stop using that metaphor about the river” will validate our fear and give us a way forward. And it may be the right way forward. But what if it isn’t? What if that metaphor about the river is the key to your whole plot, the place where you need to lean in to unlock the story’s natural ending?
If you do one-on-one work with us, we can get to know you, understand where your work is going, and probe deeper. “Tell me more about this river thing. I’m not sure if it’s working yet but it feels important. Let’s explore it.”
But when you’re in a class, with a group of people you’re just getting to know, with a piece of writing you just created, there’s no point in questioning the river. We’ll focus on what’s amazing, you’ll naturally build from there, and the rest will simply fall away. It happens every time.
But what about the rules, right? Don’t we teach the rules?
At Firefly, rules are tools. When they’re relevant, we offer them as ideas you can try on, see if they fit and throw at the wall if they don’t. In most of our classes, especially The Big One and our suuuuper exciting “Keep Your Pen Moving Part Two” class starting this fall (so much more about that soon) we will get into stuff like dialogue, plot theory and story arc, but we will never ever tell you what you need to do, instead we’ll offer you options. “Here’s a really cook way to look at dialogue…” “Here’s an interesting approach to plot sequencing…” What’s true for you? What makes your writing glow brighter?
Let’s remember, rules are set by the people with the most power. Stories are told by everyone.
And whatever anyone tells you, writing isn’t one craft, it’s many.
We don’t use this approach because it’s pleasurable (though it really is), we use it because it’s the most exciting, ethical and effective way to help writers connect to their joy, write more stuff, trust themselves, and improve their skills. We do this because it works.
I’ve finally written a Firefly feedback manifesto. For too long long we’ve talked about wanting all this to be somewhere central for people to read. You can read it here. Or you can just take in these five central principles.
Writing can improve, but there’s no single direction by which all writing improves.
A writing voice is a breathtakingly tender and vulnerable thing, especially when we’re just getting used to using it.
When writing is ready for more analytic feedback, the writer will know and can ask for it.
The idea of “rules” for creativity is oppressive, damaging and magnifies power imbalances.
The best feedback is the feedback that makes you want to keep writing.
That’s what you will get here — ears that are tuned to your path, ideas that connect you to your genius, a space to step out and be braver than you knew how to be.
(It’s about writing and it’s about so much more than writing.)
Here’s to brave diving boards, and finding new ways to hear our own power.
Wishing you an inspiring June. Longest days of the year, baby!