If you go to a workshop with the expectation that people will lavish praise on your writing, there is a nonzero chance that you will be destroyed

you suck

A bunch of my friends are going to writing workshops this summer, so I thought I’d share the most hard-won piece of advice that I possess: don’t go there looking for people to tell you that your writing is great.

What makes this advice so hard-won is that I’ve gone into so many critique situations looking for that kind of validation and I’ve rarely gotten it and the not-getting-of-it has melted me into a boneless jelly of self-hatred. And now I don’t look for it, and I am much happier and much more willing to take criticism.

Now, I know I am going to get a ton of comments where people are like, “Oh, of course it’s stupid for people to look for validation at workshops,” but c’mon, let’s be real. You do it. Or at least you’ve done it. You don’t admit to doing it, because that is gauche. But you know if, deep down in the back of your brain, you’re really hoping that the instructor will tell you that you are amazing. Honestly, it’s really hard to not hope for that…at least in the beginning.

The reason it is so dangerous to look for validation is not because you never get it…it’s because you sometimes do get it. Let’s face it: in every MFA program, Clarion class, and workshop, there is a star. And when you are that star, the validation that you get from your teachers and classmates is so intoxicating that it can become addictive. The impersonal world of submission and rejection offers no pleasure which is as exquisite as when your workshop leader—frequently a well-published and critically acclaimed author—tells you, in detail, why your story is excellent.

That has almost never happened to me. But the few times it has, I’ve gone home shaking. The excitement frequently rendered me unable to sleep. That joy was capable of nourishing me for days.

I think I am lucky to have not been given too many tastes of this joy. Because when you take too many hits of that crack-pipe, you start to need it. And chasing after validation starts to affect your behavior. You feel the need to run all of your work through some kind of critiquing process. And if the critiquers don’t like it, then you start to hate it too. And you start waiting for people to validate you: you wait for an authority figure to tell you that you’re ready to publish, or ready to write a novel, or ready to send a story out.

Recently, a writing colleague told me about a person who’d been working on a short story for ages and ages and felt like they had finally finished it, and then they’d put it up for critique and received a really wonderful and positive critique from a well-known SF writer.

Which, okay, is wonderful…until you stop to think…if they’d finished the story, why did they put it up for critique? And the answer is that they were looking for someone to tell them that it was finished.

But what if it hadn’t gone that way? Many very well-regarded novels have received a few negative reviews, after all. What if this story had received a lukewarm or a negative critique? The answer is that the author probably would’ve spiraled down into another round of revisions and rewrites.

That’s insane. At some point, a writer should be able to take control of their lives and their work and say, “No. This is finished. This deserves to be published. I believe in it, even if no one else does.”

Because the alternative is to put your self-worth into the hands of anyone who might possibly offer you a kind word.

And that’s a terrifying place to be. I should know; I used to be there. Sometimes I’d get negative critiques that would haunt me for days. Several summers ago, I got one that I literally could not stop thinking about. When I woke up, the first thing I’d think, even before “I’m hungry” or “I need to pee,” would be “Shit…I got that critique.”

I was so devastated by this critique that it called my whole future into question. I could not go to an MFA program if I was going to continue to react to criticism in this way. I couldn’t ever enter a workshop situation again if I didn’t sort this out.

So I did. I was driving on the 880 (I have a lot of epiphanies on the 880) when I realized that the reason the critique had affected me was because so much of my self-worth is tied up in being a good writer. And if someone had had such a negative reaction to a story that I’d liked so much, then it meant I might not be a good writer, and if I wasn’t a good writer, then I wasn’t really anything.

Right there on the highway, while I was crossing the Dumbarton Bridge, I did some mental reshuffling. I told myself that I was not, first and foremost, a writer. I was just a guy who wrote stories. And if the stories were bad, it was no big deal, because that was not who I was. And it worked. Ever since then, I’ve gone into critique situations with zero expectation of validation and no matter what gets said, I tend to walk out of them with very little angst sitting on my shoulder.

Yes, this is a really hokey and shopworn epiphany, but it’s also an epiphany that people can go their entire lives without having. There are really famous writers who die inside when someone says something negative about their writing. Don’t be one of them!

8 thoughts on “If you go to a workshop with the expectation that people will lavish praise on your writing, there is a nonzero chance that you will be destroyed

  1. Becca Stareyes (@beccastareyes)

    Reminds me a bit of my grad school career. I was Good at Physics and Math in my undergrad school, and generally regarded as pretty smart. I could count the number of ‘hard’ classes I had on the fingers of one hand. So, I got into a good graduate school in astronomy… and was surrounded by equally smart students and given much harder work. The letdown was not gentle, and I discovered exactly how much of my self-image was built out of being The Smart One in the Room — never mind that being near the bottom of a science PhD program at a well-regarded school still means I’d be The Smart One any time I wasn’t at school. Or that I could still keep up with my classmates.

    Well, at least it prepared me for the job market, where you can be good, but there are ten other good people also looking at that job.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, graduate school is the absolute worst for this. It puts a ton of smart people in a position where they really kind of need to catch their professor’s eye and where there are real, concrete, lifelong benefits to gaining their respect. It’s almost impossible to not look for validation in that situation.

  2. mattllavin

    This is a terrific post, really enjoyed it. I try to remember that there are many many many published works that I wouldn’t respond favorably to, so it really is important not to get too high or too low about critique – because there will always be plenty of people that don’t connect with a given work, even those works that achieve some kind of objective goodness. And then the flip side of that is that there will be people that are disproportionately positive about the work, even if it’s objectively in need of work.
    It seems like the best thing is to learn how to be accurate in self-appraisal, otherwise good and bad feedback could leave you spinning.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      It’s definitely good to keep in mind, sometimes, that good critique doesn’t really mean much other than that one person saw something in it. I’ve received plenty of good responses on work that never sold.

      I am hesitant to recommend accurate self-appraisal, because some people will always use that as an excuse to be super hard on themselves and never send anything out. I think the thing to do is to try to maintain a high opinion of ourselves while avoiding a sense of entitlement. I think I am great, but it is okay if you dislike my work, because I don’t need you to like it in order for me to keep liking myself.

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