By Janie Kronk
Columbia II Writers Workshop
It was the first time walking into a library ever made me feel afraid. The feeling was incongruous with the stillness, the patterned order of the shelves, the delicious book-smell. Still, my heart pounded. It wasn’t nerves exactly. There was another fear at work as I walked into the room where the writers’ group met and asked, “Can I just observe?”
See, I was not a writer, and I was certain I would be found out.
Although I wrote frequently, the bulk of this writing consisted of opening paragraphs of abandoned stories. Each time I started a piece, I quickly became disgusted with my flat characters, childish tone, eventless plots. I’d look at the paragraph, think, “Can’t I write better?” and lay it aside. I was afraid of the mess I would make if I continued.
I’d forgotten my writing professor, who always gave as his first assignment: “Write a crappy story.” i.e., Get over yourself and just write, or you’ll never get better. I also ignored such advice as, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—mistakes are how we learn.” Or, if important to learn quickly, “Make mistakes faster.”
The advice was sound, but thinking of joining a writers’ group and revealing my literary shortcomings gave me the willies. My concern was a grown up version of, “But what if the other kids are mean to me?” I expected frowns at my presence, and jeers at my audacity in wasting their time. In one of my nightmarish speculations, someone actually threw a tomato.
Fortunately, none of this occurred. At the meeting, I relaxed upon finding a group of talented, welcoming individuals. They didn’t seem to mind my coming. No one threw anything.
The next time I went, I would have to read. I assumed there were only so many times I could show up without any writing before my intentions were questioned. Spy from another workshop? Literary voyeur? Not wanting to appear suspicious, I compiled a pastiche of story-beginnings found on my hard drive. I hoped their juxtaposition would evoke some meaning, like images in a surrealist film.
This tactic proved unsuccessful. “It seems like a couple different stories,” someone said. “It’s interesting, but I’m wondering—where is it going?”
It took several more pastiches with similar feedback before it clicked: these weren’t problems with the pieces, but with my writing in general. I analyzed other things I had written. In all instances, my compositional structure was inexplicable, my plot lines often absent. Aha! How had I not seen the obvious? While I’d known the pieces were riddled with mistakes, the mistakes had been like shadows to me, impossible to pinpoint and wrestle with. With the groups’ feedback, I could suddenly see the bodies these shadows indicated. I had a goal.
Sharing work is intimidating, but also fulfilling when there are people interested in listening, and helping. It’s also necessary at times, getting us past current mistakes and on to the next—and the next, and the next. The good news about the process is twofold: we get better, and no tomatoes get thrown.