7 Minute Read

Wonder, joy, and absolute terror: equal shares of these followed me into my first creative writing workshop. And these feelings were amplified tenfold when I found out that I would have to read my own work out loud in class.

In retrospect, I think a lot of that nervous energy was actually a very good thing, as it was a clear sign of how invested I was in my own work. I cared about what I was writing. I cared about the writing itself. And I so wanted it to be well received. 

These, I think, are generally good feelings to have. Where things can go amiss, however, is when we start to internalize them to such an extent that they change what we write.

Before we explore this problem together, let me start by saying that workshops can be truly wonderful places. More often than not, you’ll find yourself surrounded by supportive classmates, all of whom only want to help you improve as writer. To that end, they’re going to point out things that are working well in your writing, and they’re also going to call attention to some things that need to be revised or reconsidered. Perhaps there’s an image that still feels too cryptic to be appreciated. Perhaps some the language is tired or cliched. Or maybe the pacing of a scene is just a little off. Those are all good things to have pointed out to you. And, once they’ve been pointed out to you, you’re much better able to spot them for yourself and filter them out, which makes your early drafts that much stronger.

What can happen in the process, though, is that a lot of other good stuff can get filtered, too. Strange stuff. Weird stuff. Odd stuff. Stuff that’s bizarre or ill-fitting. Unusual stuff that occurred to you in the moment. Illogical stuff that doesn’t immediately make sense. Or just stuff you never thought that you’d write.

I want to stress how important it is to turn off that internal filter and to let everything onto the page. I mention the importance of doing so here because one of the real dangers of a workshop environment is that we can begin to internalize other people’s perspectives, and when we do so, we start to hold things out of our writing, all of which actually need to be there in order for the story to be realized.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that other peoples’ voices get in our heads and censor us. In fact, I would say that’s very rarely the case, as it’s been my experience that workshop participants often respond well to the unexpected, the weird, and the weirdly wonderful. The real problem lies in our own creative process, and in how we can begin to alter it in order to satisfy the expectations of others.

Many years ago, I sent a poem off to the Gaspereau Review, a literary magazine out of Nova Scotia that had a brief, but important run publishing writing from the Maritimes and beyond. The editor, Andrew Steeves, was kind enough to take the time to explain to me that one of my poems had promise, but that it would be better without the opening lines, which struck him as a scaffolding that hadn’t yet been taken down. The analogy stuck with me, as the image of scaffolding mounted alongside a building made perfect sense: there are structures that support us as we work on a project, but when that project is complete, this supporting infrastructure needs to be dismantled. Otherwise, the end result will continue to be obscured by it.

The same holds true for creative writing. All of us need something to climb in order to get where we want to go. And we need to be willing to give ourselves that apparatus, however shaky and imperfect it may be, because it’s what makes our work possible.

All this to say that the danger of the workshop environment is that we can end up in a place where we’re trying to write the last draft first. Instead, my advice is to embrace the stage of the project where everything looks messy, and where there’s a lot of sentences and paragraphs on the page that are really nothing more than footholds. They matter, not because they’re going to end up in the final draft, but because they enable you to move towards it.

Getting Started

For this exercise, you’re going to write non-stop for ten minutes. There’s no trick here, except that I want you to write as though no one will ever read what you put on the page. No classmates, no editor at a literary magazine, no professor, no one. This is just you, telling yourself a story. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t edit yourself. And whatever you do, don’t cross words out. They may end up being the most interesting thing you write today.

One Last Thing

If you’re in one of those moods where you feel like everything needs to be perfect from the start, then get away from your screen and try filling an entire page with a pencil or a pen. Once you’ve done so, let the writing sit for a little while, before coming back to it later. If you’re patient enough, I think you’ll find that there’s almost always something worth salvaging.

And if you’re one of those writers who tries to be technically perfect in a first draft, I want you to complete this short exercise in pre-visualization first: imagine you just walked into an antique shop. The shelves are lined with delicate items, some of which are worth far more than what you pay each month in rent. Now, I want you to pull out a baseball bat, and swing it around until all the shelves are empty.

Cathartic, isn’t it?

Now, do the same with your perfectly crafted words. Let’s smash that rhyming sonnet to bits, and let’s see what’s inside it, desperately trying to get out.

Looking Back

While things may prove different for you, it’s been my experience that there are only a few lines in a first draft, or even a single image, sometimes, that has any real promise. But even these would never have appeared if we hadn’t first given ourselves permission to write all the other words on the page.

The big takeaway is this: for the first draft, give yourself permission to write however–and whatever–you need to write. Eventually, other people’s voices will help shape what you’re working on, and they will help enormously, but only if you manage to resist the temptation not to sand down the rough spots first.

Instead, be generous with your imperfections, and trust that if you are, others will see the good in them.




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Cold Opens Copyright © 2022 by Dave Hickey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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