[process] On workshopping and critique: Nobody’s born knowin’ nothin’

I just finished a series of critiques for the Writer’s Digest University online workshop I have been a part of. That’s been interesting for me. It’s been a while since I’ve critiqued new writers.

There’s something I tell [info]the_child when she’s worried about a social or academic situation. A very common complaint from her is that she doesn’t know what to do, or how to do it. I often say, “Nobody’s born knowing anything.”

We all have to learn.

Now it is true that some of us have different profiles of raw talent than others. This points back to the “hand of cards” theory [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. That can confer some natural advantages to certain aspiring writers. But without the effort of acquiring, refining and directing one’s skills, not to mention learning the infrastructure of writing — manuscript formatting, the importance of the narrative present, punctuation, etc. — those potential natural advantages are almost meaningless. Hard work trumps skill. Hard work plus skill trumps both.

So it was interesting to me, in this season of award nominations, to look at manuscripts and reflect back on a time in my life when I had trouble managing the verb tense on the page. Or keeping a point-of-view properly controlled. I can remember when the engine of story seemed an impossible beast with far too many parts and pieces. Not unlike how it was driving a car at sixteen. Brake and clutch and accelerator and steering and turn signals and wipers and peripheral awareness and looking ahead and and and…

I’m not talking about relatively subtle elements of writing like managing character speech registers in dialog or wrestling with the nuances of the past perfect tense. I’m talking about the basics of making a story comprehensible. Things I do today, almost a quarter century after I began my serious efforts at being an author, with an unthinking and automatic ease were once so very difficult to comprehend, let alone execute. And remember, it took me eleven years from first sitting down to serious professional critique before I sold a story.

Apparently I am a slow learner.

So it’s valuable for me to workshop with brand new writers from time to time. Not only does that help me pay forward for all the help I can never pay back, but it also reminds me how far I’ve come. Like many people, I tend to automatically assume anything I can do with facility isn’t hard for others. Yet this was all hard for me.

It’s still hard, too, just in ways that are far more interesting to me. That’s what keeps this business fun. You never get good at writing, you just get better. And nobody’s born knowin’ nothin’.

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