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A Workshop In Failure

A Workshop In Failure

Writing has been a part of me since I received my first diary at age five. It is an attempt to organize my jumbled life into something I can learn from and eject a thought from the never-ending merry-go-round of obsession. Overflowing emotions are put onto a page instead of spilled on someone so I have control over how much I reveal. When brave enough to show my writing to others, I have received both praise and crippling silence. But regardless of outside opinions, it is something I simply have to do, like others paint, run, or breathe. Unfortunately, the greatest opportunity to hone this part of myself turned out to be a spectacular failure.

My first official writing course in college was more reading than writing, but I adored the abundant creativity and my expectedly eccentric-but-brilliant professor. My senior year, I registered for “Personal Essays” with the same revered professor and was surprised to show up to a classroom crammed with about 50 people—unheard of for my small university. When the professor tumbled in, she gaped at the crowd, bewildered, and announced apologetically, “My, I wasn’t expecting this many people! Well, you’ll all need apply.” Those who got in would write one 10-page personal essay during the semester, which the other members of the class would read and critique. Less than 25 percent of the people in the room would actually be accepted to the class. I surveyed my competition: a few jocks (obviously they’d be out), some Barbie-looking girl who couldn’t possibly string together complete sentences, and the normal writer weirdos. Confidently, I wrote my application to the class and squealed with joy when I got in.

I even had something I wanted to workshop, which was important since you only had one shot for submission. I’d been writing it for two years, longer than I’ve ever spent on a piece. It was called “Hang Ups” and was about my long-term off-and-on relationship. Appropriately, the story ended with a “click,” meant to literally show that I hung up on him and figuratively imply that I finally realized the relationship needed to end. I usually pieced it together while crying, so I thought it was deep.

I showed up to the first class with my fellow accepted writers and was surprised to see Barbie girl and two athletes. There was also a lone, burly guy (who seemed mildly uncomfortable in an estrogen-charged class), a couple of writer-types (one was wearing a jaunty beret), and other students I couldn’t categorize, 12 of us in all. I was confident I would shine.

After class, I asked my professor to look over my hard-fought essay. A week of agonizing silence later, I asked her for feedback and she paused. “It reminds me of Susan Minot…” Great! Susan Minot is one of my favorite authors! “…in that, nothing is really resolved. The journey isn’t clear. I don’t think you’re ready to write about this yet.” Hot, shamed tears leaked out. My confidence had led me to choose one of the earlier spots to be workshopped. What was I going to do now?

To add to the misery, we began to review the pieces from other members of the class and they were staggering. The jocks put me inside their heads, using prose to show how light and clear they felt while running, and how injuries taking away that high plunged them into uncharted darkness. Barbie’s essay required a dictionary. Others wrote about a father slowly dying or a mother’s marital rape. There was no way I could produce something like that—my parents had selfishly given me a happy childhood and were still married, to boot. I wrote frantically, jumping from topic to topic grasping for something that worked, but I knew the essays were muddled even before I received the head tilt from my professor. I pulled my first literal all-nighter before it was due, willing my addled brain to inject gravity and meaning into my story.

The result was atrocious. I selected the topic of my internship with tigers in small-town Texas, which should have been fun and insightful, but I somehow connected that back to my god-awful former relationship, making the whole thing confused. At the end of the class, we each received a bound copy of the essays, and for years I avoiding opening it because that would mean confronting my failure.

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My professor always said that to truly write well you need time to distance yourself and get perspective. At the time, I found this hypocritical, as her best-selling book was written during her ordeal. Now I see the wisdom. I can barely read the essay about my ex—it WAS awful, and I did need to step back from the pain in order to shape it into something meaningful. On the other hand there are parts of my workshopped essay that were great—before I tried to work my love life in. I had focused too much on trying to have a serious product like the other students instead of playing to my strengths and letting the absurdity of my story shine through my voice. The world needs well-written humor and light just as much as navigation through the sorrows.

I’m still learning how to be a better writer every day. Declaring something “done” is always the result of a deadline as opposed to truly feeling what I have written is complete. Despite my inner critic, I try to focus on the positive. I remember the odds of making it into the class in the first place, that my professor must have seen something in me. While my first workshopping experience was a colossal failure as far as what I produced, I learned about judging others, perspective, and trying too hard to fit a mold. I still catch myself feeling disheartened after reading brilliant authors, but now I know that many kinds of writing are good and beneficial to others. Even mine, sometimes.

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Erin R

Copy Editor at Literally, Darling
Erin R. hails from Austin, Texas, and meandered through Houston, San Diego, and Milan before high-tailing back to the greatest state in the nation. Her interests include correct spelling and grammar, her adorable cat Shiloh (see #FloofWednesday), making poignant lists, and consorting with her troublemaker friends at bars on East 6th. She is seriously starting to freak out about growing up, but is looking forward to crankiness and sarcasm being more acceptable. For more writing, check out her website www.erinrussellwrites.com
Erin R
View Comments (2)
  • Erin, you’ve captured my feelings exactly! I also remember being blown away by classmates who managed to enter dark, alternate realities filled with rich imagery and vocabulary that seemed to surpass my own writing. Sometimes I look back on my college comp notebooks and cringe at the elementary nature of my writing. Granted, other times I’m equally as shocked to see eloquent pieces written during brilliant moments of inspiration that seem to have been written more through me than by me. You can’t turn on that spark when it doesn’t want to come, just like you can’t force a piece in a direction it doesn’t want to go. As you said, we need lighthearted stories just as much as we need more serious ones. If every TV channel only broadcast shows set in hospital wards, inner city schools, lonely farmhouses and crime labs it would be leaving a lot about the human experience unsaid. There are writers and books I admire that others tell me they simply can’t get through, whereas my own writing can sometimes speak volumes more to them. I certainly can’t explain it, but I think it’s time we admire others for their style while striving to create our own unique voices as well. After all, Beethoven may have made history with his structured harmonies, but so did Ella Fitzgerald with her scat. :)

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